BIL 2008: The Failures

Regardless of what people think at times, I’m not a negative guy. Despite the title of this article, I did write about all that was good with BIL yesterday, so have a look at that article before thinking I’m Mister Grump Pants, because I am going to get down on things here.
I suppose that my biggest issue with BIL is that it’s finding its footing, but that’s to be expected with a brand new event. Overall, the fact of the matter is that if BIL is the commoner’s answer to TED, then it has a long way to go in order to get there. Yes, it’s good to have open talks, but at the same time, these need to be vetted somehow. Allowing anyone to get up and jabber can quickly degenerate in to a Speakers’ Corner. I’d have to say that BIL needs to worship Chris Phoenix who singlehandedly gave some of the best talks at the conference. Also good was of course Aubrey de Grey (whom packed the hall), and KV Fitzpatrick. Then of course, there were some pretty lame ones such as Jonathan Sheffi and Lexi Bright (who did this somewhat inane self-motivation thing), Brad Templeton (who gave this incredibly classist, capitalist view of a future of AI cars which was dreadful), and a slew of others that were quite uninspiring, yet we sat through them all. Of course, this wasn’t the real issue. We were after all warned at the very start to have “low expectations”.
The real issue is that the vast majority of people were either interested in either “being” there or “networking” there. The later group who were constantly blathering outside the hall were summed up quite well in Ethan Zuckerman’s post. The former group however really drove me nuts. For one, there were all these people zipping around chat forums, playing Scrabulous (which I happen to love, but not when I’m somewhere to listen to people talk), and were generally just sitting around. I’m not sure what these folks were getting out of the conference, but what I was getting out of them was constant annoyance. People got up and down all the time during talks. It was incredibly disrespectful to the speakers, especially since these were just 15 minute talks. Where’s the live blogging? Where’s the hacking? Where’s the use of precious internet bandwidth for the good of the conference and not getting a triple word score with a Q and an X?
Beyond some general passing rudeness, folks seemed to break down in to two major camps. There were the über nerds. This group was doubly funny to think about as KV Fitzpatrick, at one point in her talk said that there were a lot of Alpha Geeks at the conference. It was the only bit that was really off from her. In truth, it’s really the floor over at TED where the Alphas are. You don’t get in to TED without some cajones. On the other hand, getting in to BIL just required driving there and apparently showing up with your beard fully grown.
Then there was the Burning Man/hipster group. This group poses the biggest threat to the future of the conference. They love taking over stuff like this and making activities and attempts at conceptual art. Things like a massive game of telephone pictionary aren’t needed at a conference. If the purpose of BIL is to provide an atmosphere like TED, but for everyone, then this kind of stuff needs to get snuffed out in a hurry. It’s fine for Burning Man, but keep it the hell out of a technology and idea talk. In some ways, I think that it’s good the conference will move to Long Beach next year as that will cut down a great deal on this element, since coming all the way from San Francisco to Southern California would be like, a total drag.
I don’t fit in to either of these groups. I was, along with a few others, this small wedge of people who were there for the talks and not the be-in. I met a couple of interesting folks, but overall found the networking aspect to be ridiculous. In reality, the type of networking you get in talking to this crowd is the same type you can get at just about any Apple store.
But to close, it wasn’t that it was a complete failure, just as it wasn’t a complete success. While I was just going to write these two articles, I realized that I now need to sum it all up in an article about what I feel, as an attendee to this first run, might be good to take in to account for the next one.
BIL 2008: The Failures

3 Replies to “BIL 2008: The Failures”

  1. I disagree with several of your points.

    1. Brad’s talk was highly enjoyable for me. Just my opinion though.

    2. The telephone pictionary was very useful.

    a. It served as an icebreaker and to warm up the crowd.

    b. Afterward it provided a good number of conversation starters for me and gave me something to look at and enjoy during downtimes.

    c. TED incorporates some of the creative fringe as well by dedicating performance time. I welcome it. Even burners.

    3. Respect is different these days

    At a Google tech talk everyone is also on their computers. At a SHDH lightning talks people mill quietly around the edges all the time. Whatever people are doing on their computer doesn’t mean they arn’t paying attention.

    I think you can control distractions by reducing the light level in the audience, reduce the number of entrances and exits, and ask people to be quiet. Usually if a room is rowdy it means that the ratio of truly interested people to hangers-on is low, and can be adjusted by correctly pairing venues with anticipated audience size.

    1. Thank god, some discord finally!

      I’m not saying Brad’s post was disinteresting, I just had major issues with his angle, but this is of course subjective.

      As for the pictionary, I didn’t find that the crowd needed any warming up. There were scores of people chatting without any real need to push them. It was definitely an open group when it came to talking, but that was just my take on it.

      It is also true that TED has performance pieces as well, but they have a real point and thrust behind them that makes them pertinent to the conference. They aren’t random bits just to fill up time.

      I strongly disagree with the first part of your third point. We make thing that we’re paying attention while on the computer at the same time, but we’re really not. Study after study is showing that when multitasking, we are definitely doing multiple things at the same time, but we’re definitely doing them all subpar. I find the whole computer thing akin to listening to someone talk with one earbud in. Yeah, you’re hearing both things, but you’re not processing either fully. Let me put it another way, would you want someone talking on a cellphone while you were talking to them?

      But as to the last part of your third point, you’re right. There are many better ways to control a crowd and BIL was just suffering from a slightly less than ideal venue for its first year. Undoubtedly this will be improved upon for next year now that they’re already planning that event in Long Beach.

    2. well one of those ‘hipsters’ got up to san fransisco from san diego, then down to the conference :) however, i do love and appreciate all feedback. i think for a lot of people, the point isn’t really about “getting there,” but instead about the journey. and i must agree that chris was one of the best speakers.

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