I had an enjoyable day at Bloggercon, held at the Stanford Law School Saturday last, despite the conference itself.
Dave Winer claims that the format of the conference is designed so that the good conversations are in the sessions and not in the hallways, but the best conversations for me were in the hallways and out on the lawn, as is generally the case at any conference.
The format is problematic in reality. A lone session moderator begins with a presentation of various ideas on the topic, and then a free-for-all ensues, where the 50 to 250 people in the group raise their hands, ask a question, elaborate on some issue, or whatever. Often, you might have to wait 10 minutes or more to actually get to speak on some topic now 10 minutes cold.
However, Winer and the other conference insiders reserve the right to break into the flow of the sessions, and so Scoble, Searls, Steve Gillmor, and the like seem often to be having their conversation in the session and not the halls, but not everybody else.
Personally, I am not opposed to the seemingly undemocratic nature of this outcome. I believe that the quality of the conversation between these A-Listers is actually more illuminating than the “gee whiz, I’m just glad to be here” statements coming from the newbies. My recommendation would be to, however, salt the mix with more powerful dissenters and structure the latent debates inherent in the sessions so that the various points of view can come to light, and just drop the pretense that all utterances are equally worthy.
For example, I love Doc Searls, but starting a session on “Making Money” at Bloggercon by questioning the validity of that intent is off message. As a result, the session about making mony turned out to be another philosophical discussion about the core values of the Internet, or stated more negatively, a session where the strong subliminal message was “Don’t Make Money Blogging, Please.”
This was best typified by a interchange between Dave Winer and Chris Nolan (Politics From Left To Right), a political blogger who simply wants to get to the point where she can live on her blogging. Winer’s position was that this is basically wrong-headed; she should use the blogosphere to mix and mingle, and other opportunities to make money would appear. For example, she could get paid for writing elsewhere, presumably by more traditional media, or books. Nolan’s response was she didn’t want to write elsewhere, where she would have to deal with editorial supervision or controls. Then Winer spun into A-Lister fantasy land, arguing that the purpose of blogging is to have people come together and invent new businesses, not to get paid to blog; and that anything short of that grander purpose was somehow counter to the spirit of blogging, and perhaps both dangerous and immoral. Nolan pointed out that she hasn’t landed a book deal, although she would like one, but independent of that she is still selling ads.
A great quip from Brendon Wilson (brendonwilson.com) underscored the elephant in the room: there is a world outside the blogospheric core of idealistic early adopters who cling to some sort of money-free purity, and that’s where true economic value will be determined. Wilson pointed out that he is an author, and for each $35 sale of his book at Amazon, he receives like $1.50 in royalties. However, as an Amazon affiliate he receives $3.50 per sale coming through his website.
In a world where information is increasingly low cost, people’s attention is increasingly valuable. If you can snare that attention — because your blog is high quality, and through the inexorable powerlaws it grows more and more eyeballs — the extra-blogosphere economy will value you and your blog highly. But the value has to be extracted by something, and if you don’t charge people to read it, you have to charge someone for eyeball capture.
Winer and Searls suggest that the way to capitalize on that value should not be direct, but indirect: start businesses (like Winer), get higher paying jobs (like Searls and Scoble), or become media personalities (like Curry). Nolan and others (like me) believe that it is fair game to simply convert relevance to a community of interest into cash flow. Here at Corante, we plan to invent some innovative ways of doing it, over and above renting rectangles to sponsors, but nonetheless we believe that is legitimate and doesn’t break some Covenant of Bloggerdom.
Essentially, the conference founders are perfectly transparent and open about their perspectives, so I have only admiration for them in that regard. But I suggest that they consider a point/counterpoint approach where the dynamics would be more interesting. At a nuts-and-bolts level, the format doesn’t work, despite all the self-congratulatory back patting at the end of the conference. In particular, Winer’s insistence that this is a “user” conference where vendors really cannot speak — he nearly ejected Bob Wyman of PubSub, who was in mid sentence about something I thought was fairly innocuous — is an increasingly difficult stance to keep, especially when his goal is to foster collaboration between the participants to create new businesses and products.
So, from my perspective, Bloggercon is more of a fan conference, where the followers of the conference insiders — great minds all, admittedly — can come and bask in the philosophical musings of these titans. Its Dave and the Friends of Dave having a love-in. Its fun in a way, because the conversations at the party are high quality, but its not a conference about the business of blogging or even one about where it is all headed. Its really a chatauqua, a revival tent meeting, where the faithful can all sing together and encourage the uncertain. But its fun to listen, even if you don’t agree with the message in the psalms, because they sing so well.