Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator

conference curator myth

“There is talent everywhere. We just don’t know how to find it.”
–Jonah Lehrer

Today’s Wired article by Jonah Lehrer describes recent research on the NFL scouting combine that concludes that highly paid sports scouts barely do better than chance at picking great players like Jeremy Lin out of the pool of promising candidates.

Sports scouts, with all the information, statistics, tests, and direct observations at their disposal can’t pick the best players! So why should we believe that “conference curators” can pick the best presenters and presentations?

In my twenty years of organizing conferences, I’ve never found a program committee that predicted more than half of the session topics that conference attendees chose when they were given the choice. During that time I’ve seen no evidence that any one person, whether they are given the title of “curator” or not, can put together a conference program that can match what attendees actually need and want.

Sure, taking a thematic, big picture approach to constructing a conference program and then soliciting appropriate presenters may produce better results than issuing a call for speakers and picking sessions from the offerings of those who choose to respond. If you insist on leaving attendees out of the loop, it’s probably the best you can do. (Sadly, I’ve found that polling attendees before the event doesn’t work.) But it doesn’t, in my experience, create a conference program that truly serves attendees.

The smartest person in the room

It’s elitist and untrue to claim that only “curators” can put together a conference experience that attendees will value. “Attendees don’t know what they don’t know,” says Jeff Hurt. Yes, that’s often true if you’re comparing the knowledge of a single attendee with the knowledge of an expert. But, in my experience, attendees collectively know what they don’t know far better than any outside “expert”. As David Weinberger puts it in his latest book Too Big To Know: “The smartest person in the room is the room.”

Finally, who are these conference curators? Is it possible to be a conference curator for any kind of conference, or do you need to be a subject matter expert on the conference topic? What are the credentials a conference curator needs? None of the articles I’ve read answer these questions.

The conference curator is a myth

I think that the need for a conference curator is a myth created by those who desire to maintain the role of experts in the construction of conference programs. Let it go, guys. The people formerly known as the audience can do a much better job.

I’m sticking my neck out again. It’s a great way to learn. Are you a champion of the conference curator? Chop away in the comments below.

Photo attribution Flickr user nikk_la

10 thoughts on “Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator

  1. Generally speaking I don’t think curators (assuming they are experts in the field) detract from overall experience but they do probably hold outsized influence. I think the approach SXSW has taken with having both curators and getting audience input with their Panel Picker (http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/) combines the best of both worlds. Ultimately the curators need to be leaders because as Jeff said and you acknowledge, attendees don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t know what they want in advance. I think this is also a reason why I’m such a big fan of having un-conference modules as they are incredibly timely and relevant.

    1. I agree with you Marvin that curators hold outsized (and undeserved) influence. The problem with having attendees vote for panel topics before the event is that it turns, as Sue points out, into a popularity/stuff-the-vote exercise (we’ve all seen the pleas on social media from those who have submitted sessions at SXSW). Yes, individual attendees may not know what they don’t know, but no one’s ever presented any evidence, as far as I know, that individual curators do a better job. This recent research on the dismal competency of professional sports scouts is relevant in my opinion.

    2.  Sadly, in my opinion, the SXSW pre-conference attendee voting, has become at best a popularity contest and at worse an exercise in ballot stuffing. I have seen numerous conferences where the organizers proclaimed they were crowdsourcing sessions and had people solicit me (“and all your friends”) to vote for their sessions early and often. It’s interesting that, despite all the hoopla and huge crowds (and high prices), it seems that very little of genuine interest came out of the latest SXSW.

  2. I’m trying to figure out why I want to cheer on the idea of a conference curator–for some reason, I do think there’s a need for someone with a broad knowledge of the field who is constantly listening for what people are talking about, what’s hot and what’s not, good ideas that haven’t yet made it to the general audience, to generally sift through all the junk that’s out there to look for the good nuggets that need to be shared. (Oh yeah, maybe because that’s kind of my job as an editor and I’m feeling defensive?)

    But then again, who is the content curator to decide which nuggets are good and which are dreck? I think you do have to be either a content expert or constantly in touch with those who are. And of course a curator who isn’t on top of things, listening, listening, listening constantly, would be worse than useless.

    Can the audience do a better job? Maybe. Crowdsourcing can be fantastic, but it also can leave only the voices of the loudest being heard, and the most popular ideas being covered. Someone has to champion the uncomfortable topics that need to be explored, the out-there speakers who bring a whole new perspective that could end up changing the whole game, or just those topics that, while they may not be exciting, you need to know to do what needs to get done.

    Or maybe I’m just elitist?

    1. Sue, I hear where you’re coming from. All of us would like to have “ideal” curators who would do a fantastic job. Sadly, I’m increasingly coming to believe that the concept of a conference curator is mostly a fantasy that we construct to avoid the reality that, these days we are living in a world of conferences that cover topics too complex and multifaceted for a single person to comprehensively master, and consequently no one person can effectively curate an event any more.

      Crowdsourcing a la SXSW is of little value, in my opinion. My approach to crowdsourcing at the event, fine-tuned over the last twenty years is extraordinarily effective according to participants’ evaluations. It does indeed bring to light uncomfortable topics, out-there ideas that strike a chord, and bread and butter issues that are just hot for a critical mass of attendees. I hope you’ll have an opportunity to experience it some time and judge for yourself.

    2.  Sue, I just noticed that I never replied to your comment. I meant to; I’m not sure what happened. Sorry!

      I think you argue well on both sides in your first two paragraphs, so I’ve nothing to add there; you’ll have to grapple with your sense of disquiet yourself :).

      When it’s done right, crowdsourcing does not “leave only the voices of the loudest being heard, and the most popular ideas being covered”. If we agree with David Weinberger that the smartest person in the room is the room, then the trick is to use process that taps into the room’s smartness rather than the loudest voices in it. Processes commonly used, like traditional brainstorming, or pre-conference voting, don’t work. Processes like affinity grouping and the roundtable/peer session sign-up of Conferences That Work do.

  3. Adrian,
    I appreciate you sticking your neck out, but I also have sympathy with the likes of Sue defending the champions of uncomfortable topics. Living in a country, with which you are more than familiar, being brought to its cultural knees by the ‘demands’ of the crowd, tv votes, and, let’s face it, dumbing down by the lowest common denominator, I find myself a defender of elitism and champions of new perspectives. Take public services broadcasting in the UK: If it weren’t for minor channels by state run broadcasting, public service broadcasting in the UK is otherwise bland, homogenised mush, and certainly no ‘service’. Our best tv drama in the last year was imported from Denmark.
    Unfortunately, in my experience, the crowd is often lazy and will opt for what is easy and unchallenging and end up not learning anything new – yes new and fun ways of doing old things, but not actually learning new stuff.
    On the other hand, and returning to a topic you have covered before, open source software development often shows how the content curators of proprietary software can create bloat and waste (Apple notwithstanding, perhaps). Perhaps there is a problem that conference content curation, like proprietary software development, is often conflated with sales and marketing and a perception, however (in)accurate, of how well something will be received.
    All that said, and taking the Jeremy Lin example a step further, here’s an article about how a country’s entire sport ‘curation’ system fails:
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2012/02/chinas-new-sports-problem

    1. Steven,
      Thank you for your thoughtful and provocative response. I agree with you that determining what people want or need to hear about using traditional approaches, like mass voting, leads to disappointing and unexceptional results. In my experience, however, participant-driven designs like Conferences That Work uncover unexpected topics for which participants have energy.

      Traditional events make it easy for attendees to be passive. Participant-driven and participation-rich conferences are capable, from my observations, of rousing nearly all attendees from the laziness you describe.

      Yes, whenever anyone chooses a program and presenters for a conference there’s a sales and marketing component (“we’ve got to get the big names and cover the hot topics in the industry magazines”) that also feeds the presenter-as-celebrity mentality of broadcast-style events. People still find it hard to believe that, with the right process, the participants themselves can create the event that they want on the fly.

      Finally, I’ve written about software bloat myself (as I think you know, I spent over twenty years as an independent IT consultant) and its relevance to conference design. Here’s the link:

      http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/uncategorized/2010/04/giving-conference-participants-just-what-they-want/

  4. After going to lots of conferences, I love conferences where someone brings me an experience even greater than I could ever do.  I think a great conference curator knows their audience so well and their industry so well that they know how much risk to take on new concepts and content and how much tried and true to bring in.   A conference curator has the challenging job of making ‘something for everybody’, like the designers of a phone without a manual, and when she does it right, it’s pure magic!  Like team building, imagine if a team building event was built solely by participants vs. a consultant with 1,000 events experience, usually it’s a collaboration of the two is when success wins the day.  http://geoteaming.com

    1. Hi John! Yes it’s perfectly possible and not at all unusual to go to a conference and experience something that you couldn’t have created yourself. But that doesn’t mean that there’s a curator, in the way that Jeff Hurt has defined, behind that experience. I think we agree that a conference curator would be a wonderful thing to have. What I’m saying is that I’m not sure that they actually exist with anything close to the effectiveness of David Weinberger’s room of attendees.

      A team building consultant is not the same as a conference curator; she’s more like a process facilitator with a rich bag of tools to draw on. Facilitation skills are becoming much more important at events, and I think that skilled facilitators are perhaps the closest we’ll get to the mythical one-person event curator.

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