At the beginning of May my coworker mentioned she had extra tickets to Collision Conference, the “fastest growing tech conference in North America” and asked if anyone would be interested. I messaged her and said yes. So first, I want to thank Jessica for getting me free tickets to the conference. Second, I want to share some of my thoughts on Collision Conference specifically and Conferences and Networking in general.
- Strong Opinions Weakly Held Disclaimer
- Are Conferences Overrated?
- Is Networking Overrated and a better way to Network
- Why I Respect and Disagree with Ev Williams
Strong Opinions Weakly Held Disclaimer
First, this title is 50% clickbait. A more rigorous title would be: “Some conferences are useful. But for most people, depending on your goals and how efficiently you want to spend your time, some conferences are overrated. Most Networking is useful but the way we do some aspects of Networking in 2019 is inefficient.” Obviously, that title is too long and you’ve probably already forgotten half of it. So it’s better to start with a more concise, arguably glib title that sticks in your memory and then address the nuances in the blog post.
I also somehow feel obligated to hedge my opinions by saying that this article is a strong opinion weakly held type article. This means that I am going to take an opinionated stance in this essay but I am fully open to listening to someone proposing a counter-argument and realizing that I’m wrong about something or even realizing in 6 months from now that I no longer think the things I am saying in this essay are true.
Basically, what I’m saying is if I end up attending or speaking at Collision 2020, no one is allowed to call me a hypocrite. In the words of John Keynes, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
Are Conferences Overrated?
Before we can answer if conferences are overrated let’s find out why we go to conferences and our goals:
- Networking: meet interesting people that you could help or could
help you with your career
- Be Educated
- Be Entertained
I think 80% of the value of conferences are in the first point about networking and meeting people which I will talk about in the next section.
For the second two points, I have always wondered what is the difference between listening to a speaker you enjoy in person versus watching a video of them talk on Youtube or listening to them give a long form podcast interview. After listening to Ev Williams and Max Levchin’s talks at Collision, two founders I admire and have listened to before online, I can conclude that the difference is almost zero.
From an entertainment perspective, it’s pretty cool to see someone who you’ve seen on the internet live in person and the little mannerisms they have up close, maybe even get a selfie. Otherwise, 95% of the value can still be received by watching a Youtube video. Youtube might even be better because you can skip forward the boring parts, go backwards for interesting parts and control your listening experience.
I think the value of going to these talks live is having the live audience ask questions. Most people who speak at panels/conferences a lot often get asked the same questions. By having the audience ask questions, you get to receive a broader set of questions. Also, the people who get to ask the questions, get access to a speaker that they may not have been able to get otherwise.
I think the Collision organizers could have done a better job of allowing more time for audience questions. To be fair, the speakers only had about 20 minutes to talk so I would have just reduced the amount of time the moderator asked questions and increase the time audience members could ask questions. I would have the moderator give a brief intro, keep audience questions short and filter out crazy questions and just spend the rest of the time taking questions from the audience.
Maybe they could even have a twitter poll and just ask people at the talk to vote on Twitter if they want the moderator to ask questions or the audience to ask questions. In a digital world, physical events really need to start thinking more about why attending conferences physically is better than attending them digitally.
Is Networking Overrated and a Better Way to Network
The real value from these conferences is networking and meeting people. But I believe in 2019 this value proposition is a lot less compelling than it was in the past. I think the environment of a conference is not conducive to building relationships and I actually think social media does a better job of building meaningful relationships.
I think creating thoughtful, useful content (blog posts, slide decks, videos), sharing it with your network and people you admire on social media and engaging and providing value to them is a much more effective way of building relationships. This is not to say that networking at conferences doesn’t work. It’s more so a question of efficiency and opportunity cost.
In a world of time scarcity, It might be a better use of your time (and more fun!) to:
- Write a thoughtful Medium post, slide deck, Youtube video, white paper etc.
- Share it on your Twitter, Medium etc.
- Add useful comments to tweets of eminent people you follow on Twitter, LinkedIn
- Ask them to get a coffee, 15 minute phone call etc.
- Bonus: Someone eminent comes across your content, serendipity happens and THEY ask if YOU are free for a coffee.
Why I Respect and Disagree with Ev Williams
Out of all the speakers at Collision, Ev Williams’ talk was the one I was most looking forward to. Ev is the founder of Twitter and Medium, two products that I love and use daily. A lot of the ways I think about building the media company and community aspect of Atila is partly inspired by Twitter and Medium. These are two products that I think have radically transformed the way we humans communicate, yet I feel both are significantly not living up to their full potential. While I continue to admire and respect Ev’s accomplishments, I realized I disagree with some of his opinions.
One of the few times Ev got very animated during his talk was when he was asked what is wrong with the media industry and he blamed advertising. There are a few problems with this. First, is that advertising essentially subsidizes people in poor economic conditions to access the same internet resources as those like us who are more privileged. It is sort of an elitist argument to suggest that everyone should have to pay for certain software when some of these people literally can’t even afford to put food on the table.
I also think that advertising is not inherently bad. Advertising, when done right is actually very useful for helping people become aware of things they may not have known about otherwise. For example, I actually remembered to apply to collision Conference after seeing an Instagram ad.
Also, advertising when done right is actually useful. For example, I wanted to go to Collision conference as early as last year, forgot about it and saw an Instagram ad that reminded me to follow up on getting a ticket. The reality is that there is a demand for advertising. Businesses want people to know about their products and consumers want to know about products which are relevant for them. Maybe that’s why I’ve noticed a few ads on Medium as well. But I’m sure Medium would say that those are in fact not ads but “native branded content” ?.
Of course, there are downsides to advertising such as: incentivizing excessive data collection and misuse and rewards spammy practices that drive traffic. Like everything, there are tradeoffs to be made and I think he could have done a better job of addressing the nuanced pros and cons of both sides.
I always get very skeptical when founders start a company based on their ideological perspective on how they believe society should behave. The paradox is that some of the best founders (e.g. Larry Page, Elon Musk) have a very opinionated and somewhat ideological perspective on how they believe the world should be. I think they also balance that with a very pragmatic understanding of free markets, incentives and human nature.
During his talk he also mentioned the importance in having human editors curating content for Medium. I disagree with the idea that humans are the optimal solution for curating and recommending content for users. I think that humans are more prone to bias and irrationality and don’t scale as well compared to algorithms. I think that while from an emotional point of view we may “feel” like we want humans recommending content to us, the honest reality is that algorithms are much more effective at providing relevant, personalized content that we are more likely to enjoy.
I really liked his thesis on how Medium allows anyone to share their story with the world. One of the thing that Medium has done to make the world a better place in my opinion, is they have probably helped a million people start writing and share their stories with the world. People who may not have done so otherwise. I think this is an incredible accomplishment that I really commend Ev for achieving.
Ironically, this is also part of the cause of the decline in the traditional mainstream media. Anyone can write a story from their laptop or smartphone and get wide distribution. Contrasted with traditional media and the economics of having a full-time staff of writers, expensive office real estate and overhead, declining ad sales etc. The economics and business model of most traditional media companies no longer makes sense. I would also put companies like BuzzFeed, ESPN, MSNBC in this category as well.
[On a side note: it would be interesting to talk with people who work for newspapers or companies like BuzzFeed, ESPN, MSNBC and ask why they haven’t jumped ship yet. I’m sure it’s not that easy and many people have been working there for a long time and developed skills and relationships in that niche. it’s not fair to expect them to just quit and “learn to code” or “become an entrepreneur” while they may have a family to support and loans to pay. Though, I’m interested in the people who think that newspaper and traditional media is still a solid long term bet and would love to hear their arguments. If you know such a person, let me know!]
Back to the decline of traditional media: 20 years ago, Jeff Bezos’ Famous “No Thank You Mr. Pecker” Medium post would have been distributed as a NY Times or Wall Street Journal Op Ed. By the way, this isn’t Ev Williams’ fault. This is a function of technology and progress. To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, “Medium didn’t happen to the media industry, the future happened to the media industry”.
I wonder if Ev is aware of the dynamics at play here and is just being very cautious about how much he can share due to the nature of his audience. One solution is to have these conversations be off the record and with a smaller, more curated audience, where speakers feel more comfortable talking candidly.
Overall, the Collision Conference was a fairly good experience. I’m glad I went because at least I got to write a blog post about Collision and take a nice cover photo.