I’m spending the day at the Supernova 2004 conference; the main reason being a plenary panel on syndication with Dave Sifry, Kevin Marks, and Scott Rosenberg. Some notes on the conference, and on conferences.

Conferences · There are basically three models for putting on a conference:

  • The trade-show model, where vendors pay money to conference organizers to get on stage and pitch their stuff.

  • The academic model, where people submit papers and they’re peer-reviewed and impartially selected for excellence.

  • The power-conclave model, where somebody smart and well-connected invites interesting people he/she knows to come and talk about interesting things.

For example, the recently-canceled Comdex was a classic trade show, and its demise is just another symptom of this approach having run out of steam... if I want to find out about commercial products, visiting Web sites is way more efficient than strolling the aisles and looking at vendor PowerPoints.

Lauren runs the big XML conferences using a mostly academic style; since she gets roughly three papers submitted for every available slot, they end up with a terrific program and draw a big crowd every year.

Supernova is definitely a Power Conclave. Fortunately, Kevin Werbach knows a lot of people who are very interesting indeed. So it’s pretty good, but there are a couple of problems: the crowds are big enough to make in-session interactivity a bit awkward, and, to be brutally crass, the presenters are generally not that hungry, and a few of them have coasted a bit.

On the other hand, the hallway schmoozing is really superior. Here are some session notes.

Thomas Malone · He’s a professor from the Sloan School at MIT, spoke with no slides, which helps make you listen; he has a beautiful voice and a store of really well-turned phrases. [As backdrop, from all directions the rustle of a thousand fingers dancing over a hundred keyboards]. His thrust is one we’ve been hearing a lot lately: increasing democratization and empowerment in the business environment, there are lots of symptoms out there.

Maybe the material was new for some of the people—I was briefly offended when he claimed that democracy was invented by the Americans and copied by the French in the late eighteenth century. But I guess it’s useful to have respectable business-people, not just wild-eyed bloggers, making these points.

Esther Dyson got in with the first question: “I loved the talk and I wish it were true.”

Ray Ozzie · I loved Ray’s visuals; black backgrounds with sans-serif mostly lower-case type sprinkled erratically here and there; some slides had good photographs replacing the black. The talk was a bunch of Groove case-studies ostensibly aimed at demonstrating at distributing power and initiative to the edge wins. I can believe that.

The Network is People · Esther Dyson, Christopher Allen, Ray Ozzie, and Mena Trott were very thought-provoking. Allen talked about the Dunbar number, which deserves a closer look.

Here’s a deep line from Mena: We evolve from publishing for thousands, to smaller groups. She wants, she says, to move from a readership of 10,000 to a readership of ten; but ten people she cares about and would like to have over to her home. Also, she’s noticing that a substantial proportion of the TypePad blogs are basically private for-friends, with no desire for general public exposure.

The discussion veered into privacy; I don’t recall where it went, but it made me think about how we moved from the era of the small town, where everybody knew everybody and secrets were few, to the relatively impersonal and urban civilization, where privacy is real and secrets are many. Now, with potentially anyone carrying a camera-phone and potentially anyone having a blog, what is private and what can be published?

Esther Dyson observed, wisely, that caring for a grandchild makes you feel better in the long run than winning at golf; but then—astoundingly—implied that life on-line is more like the latter than the former; that online, there is little investment for the long term. Well, as one who writes thousand-word essays with (hopefully) lasting value and maintains a URI space designed for decades, I disagree. Her contention reeks of McLuhan’s canard that the medium is the message (no, the message is the message dammit) and I raised a voice in protest. Esther and I should talk this out at length sometime.

Us · Our syndication panel won’t contain many surprises. I asked Kevin Marks of Technorati a carefully-staged set of questions: How many feeds are there? 2.8 million. How many new ones yesterday? Fourteen thousand. How many postings to those feeds in a typical day? 270 thousand.

Then I asked some questions I didn’t know the answer to: What is syndication good for (beyond blogs and the news)? What happens when you aggregate millions of them? And, how many tools do I need to handle my input spectrum (mail, voice, video, chat, and now syndication).

The discussion wandered around and a couple of people from the audience echoed Mena’s points that they didn’t want to be in the top 1% of the power curve, they wanted to connect well with the small number of people they care about. I admitted that I, on the contrary, would love to have 100,000 readers; not that that’s likely to happen, but it’s nice to have a challenge.

Lunch and Gmail · Sometime during lunch I got a gmail account (thanks, Vijay) (no idea what to do with it) and had a long talk with Steve Gillmor during which, coincidentally, I wondered what would happen if they added really good shared calendaring to gmail. Might that, finally, at long last, be the Outlook-killer?

The next few sessions kind of blurred together in my mind, plus the hallway conversations were interesting. But then I stumbled into Fighting the Distributed Wars with Tara Lemmey (of the Markle Task Force), John Robb, Doc Searls, and Ambatipudi Sastry. And hey, it wasn’t a metaphor, it was about fighting the bad guys in Iraq and keeping them from taking the terrorist fight to us. John Robb was quietly spine-chilling on the subject of how Iraq is currently serving as an R&D lab for terrorists, they’re learning how to be most effective in attacking distributed systems like oil pipelines and the power grid. We’d really rather they didn’t get too good at this. Tara Lemmey talked about how insanely difficult it is to whip archaic government infrastructure into something that can be reasonably nimble and effective in dealing with the bad guys.

[More later...]

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June 24, 2004
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