Over the past 7 years I’ve probably been to almost every major web industry conference at least once. I can’t remember the last time I saw a good honest disagreeable debate on stage. There’s too much “yeah, totally” and “I definitely agree” and “Absolutely” going around.
Panels of friends
Part of why this happens is that the web design industry as a whole is pretty chummy when it gets together. That’s not a bad thing, but it amplifies the echo chamber.
Another reason why this happens is that when people put panels together they usually put their friends on them. Friends can disagree, but it doesn’t happen in public very often.
Finally, most of the panels I’ve seen aren’t assembled to present three different points of view — they are assembled to present the same point of view in three different ways.
Conferences are meek, Blogs are strong
There’s plenty of debates going on over the web. Take the recent Calcanis vs. Hansson round. And then the recent Norman vs. 37signals exchange. And then there are the savvy provocateurs such as Michael Arrington that suggested 37signals drove a company to the deadpool because we encourage people charge for their products. We didn’t respond on the web, but it would be fun in person.
These back and forths are wonderful. They are passionate, interesting, and heated. People are forced to sharpen their position and everyone learns a thing or two. They expose important discussions and spawn new ones. They also generate a lot of traffic for those involved.
So why does the web have all the good debates? Where are the web conferences pitting two opposing viewpoints on stage? Hearing two passionate points is a great way to reevaluate what you believe. Where’s the web conference called Web Fight Night? I see a big market opportunity.
If anyone wants to set up a conference or special event let us know. We’ll take the side of the “self-funded small business that encourages people to stay away from the VCs, says you don’t need to live in San Francisco to be successful, suggests that charging for your products is a good thing, espouses the advantages of small teams, applauds shorter work weeks with more reasonable hours, rejects the notion of traditional ‘seriousness business stuff,’ and believes keeping it simple is the way to success.”
Edward Atkinsonon 11 Mar 08
I, and I imagine many of my colleagues as well, would show up to a serious debate (and pay money) more often than I would to a standard industry conference.
Articulating through writing is a necessary and good thing. Articulating on the spot, in-person, is a much harder and in some ways more important skill. When put on the spot, what somebody really thinks tends to show up, instead of what they’ve edited and refined.
Would 37signals be interested in being involved in a less business-centric setting?
The web industry is not the only place experiencing a lack of fruitful debates. However, politics may be a topic for another day. :)
Matte Elsberndon 11 Mar 08
I agree, my take on years of web conferences are:
1. Same people talking pretty much every time – why can’t we get some variety? Some unheard voices & perspectives?
2. Friends club – since it’s the same people talking (and to some extent attending) it’s the same perspectives. Plenty of “me toos” and “i bow down before you master” type scenarios.
3. What is there to learn? – It’s really hard to learn technical skills from a conference (though it’s tried), very rarely do I hear something provocative, so it’s usually just someone’s story… but having set myself up for that, no one ever wants to tell me their unique story.
4. Who’s the audience? – Why spend 1/2 or more of your talk bring people up to a base level of skill. If someone wandered in and has no clue, then sorry for them. Don’t bore the majority of your audience to educate a few.
So.. I’ve been looking for a group of people up on the dais I’ve never heard from who spend the entire time they’re on stage telling me how their unique pathway to that stage and then take a stand on some aspect that will evoke some dissenting opinions.
Anyways… haven’t been to a “web conference” that really wow’ed me since Swanky in Toronto during the summer of ‘98.
Fabian Neumannon 12 Mar 08
After Foo- and BarCamps we might need some BashCamps. Let’s get it on! ;)
Jaanon 12 Mar 08
I think conferences have, in many cases, become places to get some TLC from people who think alike. Nothing more nothing less.
One note worthy exception was this past October’s Future of Web Apps (FOWA) in London, hosted by Carsonified. Don’t get me wrong, there was TLC in bunches, but there was also open and engaged dialogue, unexpected speakers and topics. It was less “top down” and more “here’s my view, what’s yours?”. Key was, in my mind, the open and unpretentious way that Ryan Carson and his team introduced the speakers, they way questions and post-presentation interaction was encouraged, and above all – the highly involved audience. People at FOWA were passionate!
The FOWA event is by far the most valuable industry conference I have attended since over the past few years (followed by last year’s Web 2.0 Expo).
Dennison 12 Mar 08
Maybe its just more Q & A. I saw some great things brought out from you guys from the session at SXSW. People brought up some interesting points.
Or maybe its the format? What about more of a town hall type of setup?
JFon 12 Mar 08
I would love to see an entire conference based on Q&A. No canned presentations. We’ve started moving in this direction with the SEED conference with nearly a full afternoon of Q&A.
Steve R.on 12 Mar 08
Hey Jason & Co.-
I’m still at DePaul. You got some heavy flack last time you were there, though that wasn’t a ‘web conference’. Interested in trying again?
For those who missed it, Jason and David came to present their ‘Getting Real’ process, business model and ROR to faculty and staff at DePaul U. in Chicago, hosted by a student entrepreneurship group back in ‘05. A faculty member challenged them pretty consistently through their whole pitch, but finally backed Jason into a corner and forced him to admit that ROR was not a perfect tool – the quote was ‘ok, you are right, you should not use Ruby on Rails to control the launching of nuclear missiles from a submarine…’ after said faculty member insisted that ROR was not a sufficiently qualified tool for ‘real work’ and cited examples of what it ‘could not’ do, up to and including the nukes.
I wish we had recorded the presentation…
Seriously, you both had an impact there – the school added an ROR ‘certification’ shortly thereafter. If you come back, they might actually add classes to the curriculum so you could major in web development without having to stick to .NET exclusively. It would be a fun fireworks display, too… and a lot has happened since then to make 37signals ‘a player’ in the minds of faculty, so you’d probably get a larger ‘corporate’ turnout.
Brandon Fergusonon 12 Mar 08
Couple years back when I was still in art school I tried to host Thursday Night Fights. Basically the idea was to get designers together and go at it. Design crap and rip into it to make the products better.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out well. I think you need a few really good lightning rod personalities and some people who believe strongly what they’re arguing.
As a side note, Forum Solutions and Trabian hosted something exactly like what you’re talking about at their Partnership Symposium (credit industry folks) last year. Two people who had been duking it out online for months were scheduled together in debate format. It was excellent. I’d love to see this in a Web conference.
Jack Sheddon 12 Mar 08
One of the more interesting conferences (non-tech) I’ve heard about is the illustrious Renaissance Weekend. It’s a small, but elite group of folks, invite only, and EVERYONE who attends has to be on a panel. Period.
My friend was lucky enough to attend, and he noted how vastly more interesting it was than any tech conference he’d been too (and man, he’s been to them all).
What he noted was how light-weights were often on panels with heavy-weights. And disagreement and discussion were rampant. He noticed how often many of the less-known voices, even students, were able to challenge and debate so-called luminaires. They didn’t always win, but they did often enough to make the weekend interesting.
Elliotton 12 Mar 08
Why are you looking for outrage? Even you must admit that web development is one of the most mundane areas of discussion there can be.
Alexander Mimranon 12 Mar 08
I think people shy away from confrontation in person. Not all of them, but most. The ones that aren’t shy are liable to fly off the handle (Arrington) and punch someone in the face. To me, that is some serious entertainment. No hiding behind a blog.
Actually, it would be great to aggregate all online “bouts” so you can see both sides of the argument instead of having to switch between bloggers. This would give Norman a chance to respond in-line to your great rebuttal instead of making people visit JND.org.
Benon 12 Mar 08
Spoon-fed panels like the one this week involving Zuckerberg at SXSW are beyond chummy. Why can’t anyone challenge this ‘social-titan’? He already gets free pr daily from every damn a-list blogger? If anyone watched the video interview (I gave up) of Mark you will see how this guy is getting his hand held as he iterates, iterates, iterates, every damn FB clique.
Tony Stubblebineon 12 Mar 08
Jason, I’ll bite.
I formally invite you to take part in a Business Model Face-off at the Web 2.0 Expo in SF (April 22-25). We’ll take successful founders who made it with different business models (let’s say you vs. enterprise sales vs. venture-backed/acquired vs. single-person-lifestyle) and make them prove that their way is the most repeatable and builds the most happiness/wealth.
I’m co-organizing the Web2Open, the unconference that runs inside of Web 2.0. I’d already reserved a place for what I was calling Ownership Hacks, tips from people who built their companies with the intent of owning them. But I’d happily replace that with people screaming at you =)
Let me know if you’re available. The main difference between the Open and the main conference is that attendance is free (that’s a hint for you bay area readers) and there are no presentations. Some of the topics (fights) get pre-scheduled but there are still plenty of open slots as well.
Pete Fordeon 12 Mar 08
Hey, thanks for the veiled RubyFringe plug! What you’re asking for is exactly what we’re doing in Toronto this summer.
- Zed Shaw on hand, if you want to kick his ass
- we reject “serious business stuff” in favour of awesome, new stuff
- we stayed away from sponsors, and charge a fair amount
- we’re gathering the creators of the three alternative Ruby implementations in the same place for the first time. after each is given the opportunity to discuss their project, we’re going to orchestrate a panel/debate/showdown
Hurry, there aren’t many spots left. I guess I’ll see you there?
Robert Dempseyon 12 Mar 08
Perhaps you all would be interested in coming to acts_as_conference and speaking next year :)
Duff OMeliaon 12 Mar 08
I’d love to see discussion between Jason Fried and Paul Graham.
Berserkon 12 Mar 08
Speaking about outrage.. I must say that the recent X-UA-Compatible thingy had a bit more oomph than your gentlemanny conversation with Calacanis. Even though the right side won I feel a bit sorry for Zeldman for being put in a painted corner by MiSFiT.
Rob Bishopon 12 Mar 08
Can you explain your business need to have face-to-face stand-offs?
I just need to know what the business benefits are when we already have the ability publish whitepapers, case studies, quantative research, responses to all of those and therefore not get emotionally caught up in a moment of on-stage wrangling. I feel personalities, particularly trendy business-bucking web2.0 ones, muddy the intellectual debate too much myself.
If you had to go down that route, existing formats such as parliamentary debating (parli debate in US slang) or mace-style are good ways to go if you want to control this process, but I seriously doubt any real progress will be made other than to convince the easily led onlooker down one path or the other.
Just give me the research and I’ll make my own mind up. If you just have qualitative data then I’ll ignore you and no-ones the worse.
Wiki :: Debates
Elliot Jay Stockson 12 Mar 08
I agree on the whole, although I would argue that my talk “Destroy The Web 2.0 Look” at FOWD in New York last year (see: video / slides) was a form of “outrage.”
It wasn’t a panel discussion so I guess not exactly what you were referring to, but it was certainly an attack on the norm, and the ensuing reaction was a great one – the slides were passed around the blogosphere by the thousands (current views: almost 99,000) and there does seem to have been some kind of backlash against the ‘web 2.0 look’.
We’ll never know if that was anything to do with my talk at the conference, but I’d like to think it played a part, and it was certainly clear that a little bit of on-stage “outrage” went down rather well. :)
It’s a shame you weren’t there, Jason!
Tomon 12 Mar 08
I could be completely wrong, but one reason that the Web has all of the great debates is because people are (a) afraid of stepping on other people’s toes, and (b) afraid of having their precious design/software/interface/[what have you] being torn apart in front of a live audience.
I know that the web gives a much larger audience than any auditorium ever could; however, people still have more courage with their keyboard than the microphone, and people still feel that if they can’t be seen then there is still some level of anonymity (regardless of how true this really is).
I’m sure the guys at 37signals would have no problem going toe-to-toe with Don Norman in a formal setting, but I can’t see the authors of many of the blogs that I read doing so despite however defensive (or offensive) they author their articles.
coldclimateon 12 Mar 08
Though not exactly a conference, more a meeting of minds in a bar, the Think and a Drink (www.thinkandadrink.com) dabate about the skills shortage and bridging the gap between students and working geeks provided plenty of “discussion” lately.
Adam Landrumon 12 Mar 08
This made me laugh out loud. I attended sxsw last year (2007) and I heard these phrases every third word. Don’t forget, “so…” and “it’s like…”.
The other nit I have about the panels were the 23 year old experts. For the most part, there is no depth in the panelists. Of course this is problematic is such a young industry, but nonetheless, it is apparent that most of the panelists were running on theory and lacking experience.
Don Schenckon 12 Mar 08
Okay Jason … I’ll speak for 30 minutes at SEED on why seting goals and having a well thought-out plan is important … the antithesis of some of your ideas.
That’ll get the blood flowing!
(I’m dead serious)
Geoffon 12 Mar 08
Just read this post about Apple’s Design Process. I’d like to see 37s and Apple’s Michael Lopp heatedly debate the merits of pixel-perfect mockups vs fat sharpie design.
Charleson 12 Mar 08
I totally agree.
The JavaOne conference had a “Framework Smackdown” session. It was supposed to be a passionate debate among the proponents and authors of the leading Java frameworks. It was in the largest breakout meeting room and the session was packed. We couldn’t wait!
It wasn’t a smackdown at all. It wasn’t even a showdown. It was a let down.
John Rivielloon 12 Mar 08
Great point. I felt the Browser Wars panel was one of the better panels at SXSW this year for that reason exactly. The representatives from Firefox, Microsoft & Opera all respect each other, but they definitely disagree on certain topics and those arguments were what made the panel worth listening to.
MLon 12 Mar 08
Speaking of Q&A at conferences: Zuckerberg Interview: Take Two has him giving this quote on the complaints about his SxSW session:
ACon 12 Mar 08
What do your examples have to do with constructive debate?
Nismotoon 12 Mar 08
Yeah, totally. I definitely agree.
Like, your blogs are full of it too.
carlivaron 13 Mar 08
So what kind of interesting debates are planned for RailsConf?
jrdubocon 13 Mar 08
I think one of the reasons that web conferences are so consensual is that most people who bother going to those conferences think the same way. The others are too busy in “serious” business, you know….
Vickyon 13 Mar 08
If the same speakers attend the same conferences and their opinions are well known to the panel it’s a lovefest.
As the guy from DePaul said, the best dialog starts from someone that knows just enough to ask a out-of-the-box (perhaps uneducated question, remiinds me of back in the day when the scariest computer user on y0ur network was someone who knew enough about Dos to go into your system and ‘experiment’ or fxxxitUp.
37S we’ll fix you up.
JFon 13 Mar 08
@ Steve R.: We’ve love to present at DePaul again. Just did a talk at U of Chicago and we’re working on lining one up at Northwestern. We love keeping it local.
Get in touch.
Vickyon 13 Mar 08
What about MATC in Milwaukee? Only 1 1/2 hours away?
Show Wisconsin some love! We’ll spring for the cost of the tolls!
Kyle Neathon 13 Mar 08
I’m totally with you there—it’s something that’s always bugged me about conferences.
One thing I would like to point out is that not everything at SXSW was panels. one of my favorite events was one of the Core Conversations (Mark Bixby’s about do-it-all vs specialization). It was exactly what we need more of: one moderator who brings up a topic, and everyone shares their experiences / point of view.
I do think that in a couple of years more conferences will begin to use this format as the skill level difference between the audience and panelists continue to shrink.
Twitt Thison 13 Mar 08
Really good point.
It made me remember a panel I assisted about web development frameworks at a Web 2.0 Expo.
The people in the panel representing the different frameworks (lead developer from django, rails, etc) were way too nice to each other. So instead of it being an interesting discussion about witch framework is better for what, what sucks about rails, django, etc. The panelists just talked about the features of each framework while holding each other dicks.
If I remember right the conclusion was “choose the framework built on the language you already know” so gay!!
It was terrible, an absolute waste of time and money.
People or at least I was hoping for a django vs. rails vs. etc war. I was looking forward to learn something good say witch framework performs better out of the box, witch one is easier to scale, etc.
There is really not need to be so nice while wasting the attendees time and money.
I look forward to a FRAMEWORK DEATH MATCH and more honest panels.
Stefan Seizon 14 Mar 08
Spot on Jason. Good observation. “Incest” is the issue here.
This discussion is closed.