RIP Conference Curator

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.
—Albert Einstein

In 2012 I challenged the concept of the conference curator: someone who somehow curates a conference program, like the curator of an art museum. Seth Godin backed me up a year later. Despite my requests, no one ever supplied a single real-life example of a successful conference curator. People thought it would be great if a conference curator actually existed—which brings to mind how Anglosphere parents talk up the tooth fairy to their kids.

I’ve never found any program committee that predicted more than half of the sessions that conference attendees actually chose when given the choice. (And I’ve been running conferences where the participants get to choose what they want to learn since 1992.)

Do you remember that moment in your life when you realized that the tooth fairy was a fantasy? Perhaps it’s time for you to give up the fantasy of the conference curator too.

I believe in the value of good meeting facilitators and designers who can create appropriate process and an environment to satisfy conference learning, connection, engagement, and action objectives, but I don’t believe in the tooth fairy or the conference curator, nice though it would be if either actually existed.

Let conference attendees choose conference content. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time, and I can tell you, based on thousands of evaluations, it works very well. The fantasy of the conference curator is dead. Rest In Peace.

Image attribution: Flickr user storm-crypt

Do conference participants want less control?

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When Google announced the end of its popular RSS reader Google Reader, many assumed it was a business decision based on economics.

Maybe not.

Christina Bonnington writes in Wired:

…there’s another reason Google decided to put its RSS reader to death. According to Mountain View, most of us simply consume news differently now than when Reader was launched…

…No matter what Mountain View says about changing user habits, though, both Now and Plus do one thing: They keep you in Google’s world. It’s a de-emphasis of content source. In other words, rather than reading Cat Fancy religiously, you’re reading the Animals category religiously — a category populated by the sites Google’s products think you’ll enjoy most [emphasis added].

In other words, Google says it can do a better job choosing what we read than we can. If you’re cynical, you might interpret this move to be Google’s way of keeping you in GoogleWorld, surrounded by the ads that supply most of Google’s profits. (Yes, I know there are no ads on Google Plus. Yet.)

Now I’m not disputing that Google does a fantastic job in some areas: Search and Maps come immediately to mind. But I’ve seen no evidence to date that Google (or other single source for that matter) is capable of serving me content that’s better than what I can actively discover myself.

Meta-curation
We all need help these days to discover important content and ideas online—and how we define “important” is unique to each of us. I, and I suspect most people, rely on a mix of human-curated sources. Mine cover around eighty sources on topics like meetings and events, associations, news, tools, play, facilitation, privacy, copyright, networking, business, politics, personal development, consumer issues, philanthropy, Apple news, and a number of “interesting stuff” sites. Yours will be different. Jon Udell calls this approach meta-curation.

I’ve written here and here about my skepticism of conference curation. Individual participants want different things from events, and predetermined conference programs are a poor way to satisfy attendee needs. In my experience most conference attendees, when given the power to determine what they wish to experience at an event, relish the opportunity. The tragedy is that still so few meetings these days allow attendees to make this choice.

From this perspective, moves like Google’s are a small step backwards toward a world with less control. Removing a tool that allows us to monitor a collection of online information sources that each of us selects incrementally reduces our options. In this case, luckily, there are alternatives to Google Reader available (though I still haven’t found one I like as much). But restricting choice, whether it concerns online meta-curation or conferences’ responsiveness to real participant needs is something that should concern us all.

Photo attribution: Flickr user PSNH

Jeremy Lin and the myth of the conference curator

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“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