Networking In The Virtual Hallway @TOC Online Conference

Last Thursday I attended the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Online Conference – An Emphasis on Ebooks, on a media pass. That’s my FTC blogger disclaimer. Travel was through arrangement with my feet and I slept in my own bed, which are two important votes for the concept of an online conference. Of course, an online conference isn’t much of a perk for employees who actually like traveling and were hoping to take in a Broadway show at the stockholders expense, but the real value of any conference that doesn’t include classes for professional certification is in the hallways and on the display floor. There were no vendors at TOC Online, something I hope they consider in the future, but there was a virtual hallway, though the bandwidth was limited by a single shared chat box. As Jon Reed writes, interactivity is the killer app of online conferences.

My purpose in attending the conference was to write this blog post about the online networking environment, so I tossed aside my normal ethos of keeping my mouth when on a free pass and did my best to seed conversations in the chat box. Eventually, it developed that a lot of the people hanging out in the hallway were interested in eTextBooks. Now I have to point out that those of us reading the scrolling chat box can’t be paying much more attention to the audio feed than idiots who text while driving, but that’s par for the course at most conferences. While it’s possible to use @ signs in a shared chat to let people know that a response is targeted for a particular individual, everything goes by so quickly that it’s very difficult to carry on a meaningful conversation. And of course, it’s all public.

So I offered to talk to a few people after the conference if they’d give me contact information. My thought was we could do a conference call on the phone and quickly find out if we had anything in common to talk about, but the “please add me” messages piled up so fast that I got tired of searching back through the continuous chat for their e-mail addresses and set up a Yahoo! Group to park them instead. In the end, I counted 43 people asking to be added to the eTextBook discussion, about 15% of the peak attendance, which means most of them simply saw it as a conference attraction, like heading for the booth with the biggest crowd. I contacted O’Reilly during this process and they agreed to host the group as soon as they could get it set up, which will hopefully happen today.

So was the virtual hallway at TOC online a success? It worked in the sense that a public chat was available and people started using it for something other than complaining about the audio quality or sending questions to the moderators. But it could have been much better and added real value to the conference. One of the downsides of running a single track online conference is that there’s nowhere for the beginners to go when the presenters are talking over their heads, and nowhere for the professionals to hide when the presenters have less experience in a particular area than they do themselves. At the brick-and-mortar TOC in NYC with four or five concurrent tracks, a display floor packed with vendors and equipment, and ample hallway space for networking, there are endless opportunities for birds of a feather to flock. The highlight for me at the last TOC was meeting some publishers I had previously known only through e-mail, and being able to sit down with a couple, show them website analytics, and talk dollars and sense about specific business activities.

So here are my suggestions for O’Reilly or anybody else running an online conference to provide support for networking. First, a single streaming chat with no private communications (other than to panelists) isn’t going to cut it. Ideally, the software should support multiple tabs which would be set aside for “conference”, “hallway” and “vendors.” The conference tab would give access to one or more tracks of the scheduled presentations, along with their slide shows and an open chat for questions. The hallway tab would give access to person-to-person chat, ideally with useful options like being able to expand a chat to full screen so that typed lines would extend all the way across and scrolling would be much slower.

One possibility would be to have volunteers manning four or six chat rooms with general titles, like “Text Books”, “Romance”, “DRM (Digital Rights Management), Pricing, etc, so that attendees could quickly find the discussion they were interested in. It would be important for those volunteers to be prepared to answer very basic questions, because a large percentage of the attendees to any open conference will have no experience in the field. I'd volunteer for this, and I think it's important that the conference find volunteers who don't sell services, so it doesn't turn into a marketing ploy.

Another possibility would be to have four or six empty rooms the attendees themselves could title on the fly, like “Talk About Kindle,” or “Are ISBN’s Really Necessary?” and the conversations would flow or not. I think there’s something to be said for limiting the total number of chat rooms available, even if there are multiple tabs for chat at a large online conference, because the “thrown together” aspect is usually a benefit. But private chat should always be available by directly addressing an individual. It might also be desirable for individuals to be able to filter out other individuals who they have heard enough of or simply consider obnoxious.

A vendor booths tab is also a must. It’s not that I’m enthusiastic about having people trying to sell me things, and the online aspect means no free hats or pens, but it’s good idea to see what other people thought was important enough that they built a business around it and rented booth space to try to sell it. I remember the founder of the company that developed the Rocket reader grabbing me outside a conference hall around nine years ago and enthusiastically demonstrating the eBook device that was a decade before its time. Vendor booths could easily include embedded videos (let YouTube do the hosting) to demonstrate products like the Espresso 2.0 or the Kirtas Scanner.

Best of all would be conference software integrated with Skype or with built in audio capability, so people engaged in chats could switch to audio if they get frustrated with typing. At that point, there would only be two important things missing from the online conference: free food and body language. I can live without the free food (especially if you have to pay a couple thousand dollars to get it), but the eye contact and body language are essential time savers. I’ve spent hours on the phone or weeks in correspondence with people in publishing before we ran into dead-ends that would have been apparent in two minutes if we were standing face to face.

When I meet somebody in a conference hallway, pretty much the first thing I ask is, “So, what do you do?” That provides the context for the rest of the conversation, if it continues, and I think I can spot baloney pretty quickly if somebody starts talking in generalities because they have no specific business experience. By the same token, if somebody at an eBook conference asks me what I do, I’m going to tell them in the first sentence that I’m selling around $1500/month in eBooks, I experiment with them but it’s not my main business, and I’ve written a couple dozen blog posts on the subject. Make that a couple dozen and one.

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