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The New Unconference: ECs (ExperienceCons)

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I’ve been to a lot of conferences and events. Last week I was at the Webmaster World Pubcon.

What was remarkable about that? The pubcrawl. That’s where the “pub” part of “PubCon” came from.

Huh?

What’s even worse is that very little alcohol gets consumed on these things. Turns out the average drink order per attendee is about one beer.

Every attendee I talked to said that it was the best part of that conference. And that conference is no loser. I attended several sessions and I learned a lot at each one. Things like this:

Did you know that Google treats words connected by underscores, like_this, as one word? Google sees that as likethis. Matt Cutts of Google explained why that is (coders at Google needed ways to find variable names in their code). He recommended using hyphens, like-this, instead. Why? Cause the search engine treats those as separate words, like this.

Now, why did that little tip matter? Well, he was looking at someone’s code on stage. They were doing it the wrong way and it was hurting their standings in the search engine. It was the kind of tip that you only get if you go to Web Master style conferences with experts who know why things work one way, and not another, on stage.

So, that’s one kind of conference experience. The “expert on stage.”

But there’s another few kinds. Dave Winer’s BloggerCon was interesting because he not only had experts on stage that knew a topic well, but he got the audience involved in the session. That works when you have an audience that has experts in it too. Last week I also had dinner with Steve Garfield, who is one of the Video Bloggers who is pushing that craft along (he had a video blog before I was doing Channel 9 at Microsoft). Watch how the VLoggerCon that’s coming up has just as many good ideas coming from the audience as it does coming from the stage. It’ll be interesting to see which sessions are more the traditional “old style” expert on stage, or the new, unconference style, where the guy on stage both presents and gets audience members involved. The new style doesn’t work all the time, though, only when there’s enough experts in the audience.

For instance, today at Makers Faire there was a guy who had been blowing bubbles for 30 years. 30 years! There was NO ONE in the audience who could even come close to this guy’s skill and mastery of his topic area. He was incredible. Bubbles in bubbles. All sorts of stuff. Used specialized equipment I’ve never seen until today (to generate smoke for the bubbles). But, he did get the audience involved and took questions. We learned that he used the general low-cost soap that comes in most bubble bottles. More high-tech, albeit stronger, bubble solutions containing glycerine didn’t work as well (he explained why, but that’s off topic here).

You can also get an audience to participate, I saw one guy, who was expert at building paper airplanes, get the entire audience involved by helping them build their own airplane. That was a lot of fun and the guy was just unbelieveable. I have one of his airplanes that he built out of two sheets of paper. A biplane!

But, now onto my point. I saw the future of conferences today. It was the Makers Faire.

What was special about it? Well, first, it was low-cost. And my son got in for free. This totally changed the attendance model that we see at most geeky conferences. A lot more women. Families.

Then, inside the front gate was a major sign that this was no VSLive or TechED. There was a firetruck. But instead of putting out fires, it made them! High into the air it blew a puff of fire with an impressive repercussion. It caught my attention.

But, walking through the place I saw all sorts of bizarre things. A cofounder of Apple Computer playing polo with friends on Segways. Robots. Weird cars and other rideable contraptions. Wind-catching generators. Inside the main hall were all sorts of contraptions and screens. And something fun, the kids were encouraged to put their hands on and try them out!

Inside the main hall there was a stage. Ah-ha, a conference! But it was surrounded by experiences. Things you’d remember the rest of your life. Puzzles. Robots. People dressed weirdly.

As someone said it was a Burning Man lite.

This is the future of conferences. Can you give me an experience I’ve never had? Can you give me something to take pictures of? Will you educate me? (I learned how to weld, how to make a wind-powered generator, how to program computers, how to ride a Segway, some new things to do in Second Life, and more).

The Make Magazine crowd had 10s of thousands of people come through their doors in two days. It was a watershed moment for me and I told both Phillip Torrone and Tim O’Reilly that when I saw them.

What’s the next ExperienceCon? Some possibilities: Gnomedex. Pop!Tech.

More later, battery is dead. The city is dark! : )

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Robert Scoble is the founder of the Scobleizer blog. He works as PodTech.net’s Vice President of Media Development.

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The New Unconference: ECs (ExperienceCons)
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