The Ideas-Conference Boom

New York magazine landed in my mailbox this week, with a story, "Those Fabulous Confabs," that comes straight from the heart of the meetings industry.

It’s a gossipy look at the growth and evolution of the TED conference, and dozens of similar conferences, like PopTech and the Aspen Ideas Festival, that have sprung up in its wake.

Audience at TedGlobal 2010

The story covers some of the same ground I did in a story last year, although I was more starry-eyed about the trend. And if you were at 2012 Convening Leaders in San Diego, there’s a good chance you already know what TED’s founder, Richard Saul Wurman, who is quoted in the article, has to say about conferences. (Or you can read Executive Editor Chris Durso’s interview with Wurman.)

The story asks a question about the new conferences which nagged at me:  “Are we running out of things to say?” I’m not sure if editors were just trying to be provocative, but the notion that a few dozen or even few hundred conferences could scratch the surface of what there is to say about sustainability, creativity, or solving global problems, just for starters, is one I can’t take seriously. Organizers’ judgment about who and what is worth hearing may fail, or we may be running out of time to listen to all those ideas, but those are different problems.

What I also found interesting was the short shrift the article gives to attendees. Other than an elite group of speakers and A-listers, ideas-conference attendees are painted as a pathetic and grasping lot. (The story begins with an anecdote about an attempted mugging of a TED conference attendee for his badge.)

The article recounts the value that speakers get from the connections they make from such conferences, and it seems likely to me that attendees —who mostly don’t have a voice in the story — could tell similar stories. The conferences aren’t proliferating simply because they offer content that, in many cases, is available on the Web. Attendees go for the opportunity to connect, and I don’t think they are so clueless they would continue to attend if there wasn’t something to be gained.

I would love to hear what you think.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.

  • Adrian Segar

    >Barbara, I've written about the elitism of TED (see http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/uncategorized/2011/10/the-tyranny-of-ted/) and its destructive consequences. TED, and other conferences like it, perpetuate the idea that only a minority in this world have something worth saying. These events fetishize presenting into a celebrity game-show like event, in much the same way that teen magazines serve up discouragingly photoshopped images of perfection.

    The article paints attendees as consumers of "desirable" presentations; desirable in the same way that a luxury car is desirable. This is sad. Ideas and their presenters are being sold as fashionable items that you need to pay $7,500 to obtain in person, with the standard, these days, twist that you can watch but not touch for free.

    Conferences don't have to be like this. Mine aren't. But in a world that's fixated on celebrity, the reality that most people have something of interest to contribute and share with others is not sexy.

  • Barbara Palmer

    >Thanks for commenting Adrian, I knew you would have something valuable to say. You articulated what was bugging me about the portrayal of the attendees, but more precisely.

    I tend to think in terms of diversity and niches — that there is room for t elitist conferences, where people who can afford to go underwrite the dissemination of ideas, and then the conferences that intentionally keep things accessible and elicit and value the contributions of everyone.

    I appreciate your perspective, and I'll keep thinking.