If you read my blog you’ll know that I’m a fan of short presentation formats like Pecha Kucha (20 slides x 20 seconds) and Ignite (20 slides x 15 seconds), and I have no fundamental objection to the longer, eighteen minute free-form TED format.
But there’s something about TED that I don’t like.
TED is elitist.
It is marketed as such: “The annual TED conferences, in Long Beach/Palm Springs and Edinburgh, bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers”. Attendees are hand-picked. Attending TED is very expensive: currently $7,500 per year for TED Conference and $6,000 per year for TEDGlobal. Much is made of the elite audience in attendance. Presenters are expected to spend significant time creating a highly scripted presentation that touches the audience profoundly, ideally in some novel way.
There’s a page on TED’s website that attempts to address these issues. It defends the exorbitant cost of attending TED live events by claiming that the majority of people who attend are very successful and their success has enabled them to pay these fees. TED is owned by the private nonprofit Sapling Foundation. The foundation’s 2015 990-PF tax return states that the foundation had assets of $53 million, revenues of $65 million, and paid its top six employees over $2 million in compensation. TED states that some people are given scholarships to attend, but the 990 shows no details on the level of financial support provided and the website is silent as to the method of selecting scholarship recipients.
I believe that the majority of people have something worthwhile to say about some topic, and what they have to say is of interest to their peers. The Pecha Kucha events I’ve run have been filled with presenters who responded to an open request, and the resulting sessions have been interesting, entertaining, and fulfilling to their audiences. TED perpetuates the myth that only a minority in this world have something worth saying. The organization derives revenue from appointing itself as gatekeeper of who should be up on the stage and creating an exclusive event that can be capitalized. TED is welcome to take this approach, of course, and entitled to its success.
But we should not be led to believe that the presenters of TED are the only people who should be presenting in this way. Such a belief perpetuates the old hierarchical model of learning: a minority of people who know and a majority that don’t. The reality of the importance of social learning in today’s world, learning where a teacher at one moment becomes a student the next, is weakened by a organization that succeeds in the marketplace by selecting and glorifying a few to the exclusion of the rest of us.
This week has seen three articles published on crowdsourcing in the events industry. Suddenly, crowdsourcing events is hot! Here are comments from someone <shameless brag> who has been crowdsourcing conferences since 1992.
The longest and most detailed article is Are We Thinking What I’m Thinking? by Barbara Palmer in the September issue of PCMA Convene magazine. I, of course, love this article because I feature extensively in it. (And, all the photos are mine!) Massive kudos to Barbara for quoting me accurately and clearly conveying my crowdsourcing philosophy, perhaps the most radical approach described, that of using crowdsourcing to determine sessions at the event.
Barbara also interviewed Sam Smith, who, together with Ray Hansen, organized last week’s Event Camp Twin Cities (at which I ran a couple of sessions). ECTC used crowdsourcing very successfully at the session design level by reaching out to the #eventprofs community, asking for suggestions for novel session formats and content, and then creating a conference program that incorporated many cutting edge ideas. One of the refreshing strengths of Event Camp Twin Cities was its overt philosophy that “we are trying new stuff here, and probably some of it won’t work.” The result was a truly innovative conference, full of enlightening experiments (with very few failures, as it turned out).
Next, Barbara asked Elizabeth Henderson about her ongoing work on the design of the 2011 Green Meeting Industry Council Sustainable Meetings Conference. Elizabeth is concentrating on creating crowdsourced event design teams with members drawn from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is another way to use crowdsourcing at the pre-event level that helps to avoid a groupthink mentality about a conference.
Finally, Barbara quotes various meeting professionals’ views on crowdsourcing, around the theme of the role of the expert compared to the role of the crowd. In this section, the viewpoints expressed downplay the value of the crowd’s input. This is the crowdsourcing as a minor fad point of view. The possibility of influencing session topics and content is mentioned, but the description of crowdsourcing’s value for “entry and exit music, entertainment options, ways to green an event, reception themes, and party-venue options” implies relegating its importance to the relatively superficial. And the final two comments—”I suggest that event professionals crowdsource topics, content ideas, and suggestions – and steer clear of crowdsourcing speakers and actual sessions” and “Crowds can tell you what they want…But an expert can say, ‘You are going to need to know this'”—revert to the old worldview of novice attendees being guided by wise non-attendee experts. Such a worldview ignores the reality that conference audiences invariably contain a healthy mixture of novices and veterans.
The second article is Michelle Bruno’s The Good and the Evil of Crowdsourcing Conference Contentfrom the Trade Show News Network. Michelle starts by saying “Event organizations that crowdsource conference content are learning there is a right way and a wrong way to solicit community feedback.” This formulation is unfortunate for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen above, there are a number of ways to approach crowdsourcing an event, and it’s simplistic to say that any of them are right or wrong. Second, the article offers no evidence that any particular approach is better or worse, except for the gut instincts or opinions of the people Michelle quotes.
First, Michelle describes Mike McCurry’s work on developing peer networking sessions for the 2010 PCMA Education Conference held in June. Since the event is over, it’s a shame that there are no follow-up comments as to the effectiveness of Mike’s pre-event crowdsourced topic selection. Perhaps this information exists but is unpublished.
Next up is South By Southwest’s crowdsourcing of 30% of their conference sessions. I tend to agree with Jeff Hurt (quoted in the Convene article) that for a conference of this size, the process SXSW uses becomes a popularity contest rather than participatory crowdsourcing. This is because there’s no significant pre-selection communication between attendees and/or the folks offering the sessions, so we end up with what is basically online voting on thousands of suggestions.
According to Michelle’s article, the same kind of process is used by the Nonprofit Technology Network, which points out that it takes about 90 minutes to vote on every one of the 400+ sessions suggested for their 2011 conference. It’s unreasonable to expect more than a small fraction of attendees to expend this kind of effort, so the question then arises: how representative of all attendees are the responses NTEN gets?
The article continues with comments by Chris Bucchere about using (what he calls) crowdsourcing in a very different way from the above examples. He says “Using your community to ‘spec’ work for you is an ‘evil’ way to crowdsource.” This declaration ignores the common thread in all the above uses of the term: namely that crowdsourcing is also a win for participants because they get the sessions & formats they want. Chris’s idea of using crowdsourcing seems to be about building community/brands via contests with incentives for the winners. Perhaps this is an effective strategy for “anyone who wants to leverage the power of the social web to build a brand”, but it’s hardly new; advertising contests go back to at least the 1920’s (e.g. Ivory Soap) and it’s a stretch to relabel them crowdsourcing, even if we’re using a social media platform for them now.
In closing, Michelle says “On the other hand, there is such a thing as giving the community so much power that they begin to make specific demands that may or may not be in keeping with the goals of the conference or the organization.” This brings up the issue of control at events, something that I’ve written about before. In 20 years of using crowdsourcing at events I’ve never experienced a single instance where a majority of participants made unreasonable demands. On the contrary, on every occasion when something unexpected (to me) has emerged from good group process, it’s turned out to be an accurate and useful way to improve the conference.
The final article isn’t, in fact, an article, it’s a just-released video of a 19 minute TED talk by Chris Anderson entitled How web video powers global communication. In it, Chris describes what he terms Crowd Accelerated Innovation: “a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print”. Chris argues that the rapidly increasing availability of web video is drastically speeding up the ability of people all over the world to focus on and improve the best of breed sharing they discover on their screens. In a sense, web video becomes a tool for effectively crowdsourcing experience and experiments. Chris believes that this new medium has the potential to revolutionize learning and the development of new ideas and their implementation, but cautions “…to tap into its power, organizations will need to embrace radical openness.” I think there’s a certain degree of hype in his presentation, but it’s well worth watching.
So, there you have a rich variety of the ways in which crowdsourcing is entering and affecting the world of events. Which ways, if any, speak to you?