The past year I've been speaking at several both large and small conferences in Norway, but this month I also went abroad to speak at the Defrag social technology conference in Denver, Colorado. This conference is one of the most interesting I have attended, so to share my experience I've written this piece about the experiences and insights that I got out of Defrag.
Now if you'd like to start off by getting an impression of what went on during the conference before I get into my analysis, then go have a look at the Defrag 2009 liveblog that Graeme Thickins did throughout the event. Another good starting point is to look at the twitter-talk that took place with the #defrag and #defragcon hash-tags, which is all documented at Defrag's EventVue page. Finally there is a guerilla video stream covering most of the conference that were being created and put online by ReussDesign. My talk on open data was also filmed by Reuss and can be found about 12 minutes into the recording titled "Defrag Conference Clip 4".
The conference experience began with the pre-conference dinner on the night before the official opening. Unlike most conferences this dinner wasn't just a meet&greet, but also a conference session in itself where all attendees were given a choice of groups to join for dinner, each group being sponsored by a different company with a set discusson topic for the night. I had selected a topic titled The Inbox as Filter hosted by Gist, a web-service that aims to improve email through improving your connections and relationships with the people of your inbox. Of course we didn't stay on topic during the entire meal, but combined with the presentations by Gist it was a great way of to start off conversations among a bunch of like minded guys that touched onto a range of interesting topics throughout the italian tapas dinner we were served. Absolutely a great way to kick start a conference!
Defrag Conference Day 1
The next morning the conference itself began with a short opening remark by organizer Eric Norlin before moving on to the first keynote by Andy Kessler, accompanied by digital gadgets in every hand of the audience. The Defrag crowd would easily out-tech any of the developer-conferences I usually attend, well helped out by the gracious availability of both WiFi and power-strips everywhere at the conference. I'd estimate that nearly half of the audience sported laptops during the talks, with most of the remainder was keeping a keen eye on their smart-phones. This was especially interesting during Andy's talk as it caused quite an uproar among the audience, but all of it happened in the silence of the digital back channels so Andy himself might have been entirely unaware of it until leaving the stage.
One of the effects that this had on the conference might have been somewhat unsettling for some speakers, as only a fraction of the audience were paying attention to the stage at any time. The rest were mostly busy enhancing their conference experience by following Twitter and the other back channels, the chatter of which in many cases turned out to be as interesting as the speakers themselves. For myself I absolutely felt that this secondary stream of information was a good addition to the conference experience, and while it took some of your focus away from the talks it also provided fresh perspectives while the topics were still relevant in your mind.
Next up on the agenda were presentations of four current problems, as well as the afternoon topical explorations, neither of which I found very interesting as many were nothing but poorly disguised marketing pitches for a company or product. Due to this I found the largest value of this conference to be the small-group interactions and networking with all the amazing attendants, something that came especially well to light in the very high quality open space discussion session held just before lunch. This was unfortunately the only such session in the program, and something the conference could only gain from adding more of next year!
Crowding back into the main hall after the topical explorations we were greeted by a series of very interesting 10min "fragments", of which the presentation on Atlassians use of 20% time were especially inspiring. Then to sum everything up at the end there was a lively panel discussion with Chris Sacca and Chris Shipley, the two 'douchebags' :-) doing a great job of setting the mood and giving everyone a bunch of laughs before the evening reception with the sponsors. Unlike some other conferences I've been to there was no organized dinner in the evening of day one, so during the reception people clumped together in groups more or less at random to go out for dinner separately at various restaurants around central Denver. Afterwards those most eager to network randomly reconvened back at the hotel bars to squeeze the final bits of action out of the day, which let me have some great chats with amongst others Robert Scoble and Eric Knipp.
Defrag Conference Day 2
The second day of Defrag proceeded in much the same way as the first, with a few talks being very interesting while many were a bit light on content. Especially interesting were the fragment on the Synaptic web by Khris Loux, as well as the collaborative keynote on Discovery vs. Search where Robert Scoble among other things showed one of his FriendFeed-streams on-screen, a literal torrent of information flowing past as you can see for yourself beginning at 5:25 in this clip from the panel. Other than this the chats with all the great people attending were still the highlight of the day, and at the stands in the lobby I was introduced to a bunch of upcoming technologies including both brand new ones like Lijit and promising ventures that have been around for a while such as Xobni. Amongst these I got a great demo from Atlassian on their next version of Confluence, a tool I'm working with a lot these days, and I also got turned onto Box.net as a serious Sharepoint-competitor in the hosted space.
Day two was also when I did my own talk in the topical exploration session called 'Leveraging the Open Web'. In brief the session started out by an introduction to the industrialization of content creation Peter Sweeney, after which I covered the basics of Open Data from where I handed over to Paul Miller to talk about Linked Data. After the talks the session was then rounded off with a short debate facilitated by Ben Kepes. I must say that I rather liked the format of the session that began with four lightening talks around a central topic leading into a catalysed group discussion where both the speakers and the audience got engaged, however I believe that it could have been made even better by setting aside more time for both the speakers and the facilitated discussion, as the constraints forced the exploration of the topics to be cut a bit short. For a more detailed summary of the discussons in this session see the coverage by CMSWire, where you can also find writeups of the other topical explorations at Defrag.
After these sessions the conference wrapped up with a keynote discussion that looked back on the 10 years that have passed since the publication of the Cluetrain manifesto. It was a very interesting summary of the thoughts that have shaped the American internet economy, but it didn't feel very relevant to me due to the limited influence this book has had on the IT business in Norway thus far. Hopefully this will change a bit over the next couple of years.
After this final panel the conference was a wrap, and everything died down pretty quickly with most people understandably being tired from two long days at the conference, so we said goodbye to everyone except those of us with later flights out of Denver that ended up going out to dinner together and keeping the conversation alive for a few final hours.
The digital back-channels
As I mentioned the digital back-channels were a very important part of this conference, much more so than at other conferences I've attended. This meant that a lot of people spent much of their time following the continuous stream of tweets and other web-content about the conference that were published during the talks, some instead of following the actual talks themselves, which might have been just as interesting in some cases, as shown with Andy Kessler's talk mentioned above.
According to one summary the Twitter-hashtags clocked in at nearly 5000 messages during the two days of the conference among the 400 participants, meaning an average of 5 tweets per minute if you only consider the actual conference hours! In addition there were quite a few blog posts and articles published along the way, something one could easily keep on top of using the OneRiot real-time social search engine, so obviously the things going on at stage weren't the only thing holding the attention of Defraggers :-)
Not only did the back-channels provide a very interesting set of insights and commentary that you otherwise wouldn't get, but through these channels the conference itself can even be influenced directly by those only following the online streams, as described in this post about twitter and the ricochet effect. Such live coverage as this not only gives the attendants an extra level of insight and connectedness at the conference, but it also provides a lasting reflection of the event through all the tweets, blogs and videos that are published online for posterity. This is especially valuable for those that didn't attend, as the insights gathered can be found in the many blogs that has been written about the conference. For those interested in more on Defrag, these posts provide a good overview:
- Defrag 2009 retrospective by Mike Brevoort
- 80legs Defrag Experience
- The DefragCon Wave
- Are web factories stealing your job? by Peter Sweeney
- Beyond Social Media by Doc Searls
- nPost blogging Defrag
- John Wilker at Defrag Day 2
Last but not least an overview of more Defrag posts can be found at Lou Pagilas Defragging the Defrag Coverage.