conferential: March 2009 Archives

The more, the messier

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Even after not having been there, one of the nice things about CCCC, at least in a program where many people go, are the conversations that take place afterward. And although I'm a grouser, I would admit secretly to a certain amount of energizing that takes place even as I think the conference needs improvement desperately.

So the question of scale. When I wrote that I thought that the conference had gone awry for reasons of scale, it would be more accurate to say that the conference hasn't scaled along with the membership. And by that, I mean to challenge the commonsense idea of "the more, the merrier," or what's sometimes described in network studies as the "network effect," the idea that as more users opt in to something, the more value the network accrues for everyone who's part of it. The classic example of this is the fax machine. The more fax machines that people buy, the more value it has as a communication device for everyone who already owns one. And this is true of utilities in general.

There's a great piece over at RWW today on the reverse network effect, though, which is something I've seen less discussion of. The basic idea is that, unlike an app like Skype or PayPal, where the network effect is pretty much ongoing, social networking applications, for most users, actually plateau in usefulness, regardless of how many users there are. It doesn't matter to anyone who doesn't work for Facebook that the service now has 175 million users rather than 50 or 100 million.

Bernard Lunn explains:

In a social network, the value for existing users of a new user joining the network plateaus once users have most of their own contacts in that network.

There's a finite limit to the amount of networking/socializing we can do, and once we reach that limit, we will either stop growing our network, or the quality of that network will change. Perhaps we will turn from "hanging out with close friends" to "social butterflying," for instance. I would argue that this process is never necessarily stable--that there are both centripetal and centrifugal forces at play--that we are our own "deictic systems." Nevertheless, I think this sense of plateau-ing is largely correct.

To bring this back to discussions of the conference, I think that there's a point in our careers (and while it may happen at different times for each of us, I think it still is pretty common) where the conference shifts from being a place to meet new folk to being one where we caretake the connections we already have.

Here's how I'd test it, if I were of a mind to do a project: I would do a massive survey of conference attendees, and ask them to answer the following two questions: which sessions did you attend? why did you choose them?

My guess is that new and relatively new attendees are more likely to attend sessions because (a) they want to learn more about a topic, (b) they want to see a scholar whose work they respect/admire, and/or (c) the person/people they were with decided to go. Furthermore, I suspect that not only do more experienced conference-goers attend fewer sessions, but that they are far more likely to attend sessions by people whom they already know (ie, friends, colleagues, and/or students) than for the reasons above. It's not a perfect threshold, but I suspect that the patterns would emerge if you separated out folks who had been to 4 or fewer and 5 or more.

Partly, that's because attending sessions is one of the ways you reinforce extant ties as a conference vet. And those ties carry trust and affinity, but also obligation. I can remember plenty of times where another panel sounded more interesting to me personally, but where I opted instead for panels of those whom I wanted to support.

I'm most certainly not saying that one reason is better than another. What I am saying, though, is that once you've gone to CCCC a few times, your motivations may shift. Inevitably, there is a point at which the network value provided by the conference plateaus. Doesn't mean that you stop meeting new people completely, or that you never go to a panel with speakers you don't know, just that these activities are much less likely.

And these network plateaus organize themselves differently. For some people, it may be a SIG or Caucus that they attend every year. Some people may basically attend CCCC to catch up with their grad school friends. Some may attend as a way of mentoring their own students. Some may only do it to keep up with the work being done in their speciality. Again, none of these reasons is better than any other, just different. And these are all valid reasons to hold the conference and to attend the conference.

For me, a question worth asking, though, is whether or not there's a point after which that plateau begins to turn into a downward slope, as Lunn describes it. I think it fair to say that the recent (@5 years) spate of articles and CCCC papers bemoaning the absence of X, Y, or Z is a sign of this. And I notice that spate because many of them are drawing upon CCCC programs as evidence of this fact.

In some ways, our conference is designed according to an implicit faith in the constancy of a disciplinary network effect. I talked a little about this here when folks were talking about CCCC rejections, about how more specialized research was disadvantaged by the decisions made regarding the submission process. I also think that there's at least an implicit assumption that good proposals are those that target a general audience, including newcomers to the field. There's a reverse network effect as a result, one that Alex talked about yesterday, where the same questions are repeated year after year, because we're not encouraged to assume any prior knowledge in our proposals or our presentations.

But you may say to yourself, this is not my beautiful MLA!

In many ways, MLA suffers from the opposite problem, I suppose, given the way that their conference is organized and designed. Tied as it is to the misery of the job search, MLA doesn't have to worry about attracting newcomers.

But surely there's some in-between space. I have to believe that it's possible for a conference of this scope and size to be able to accommodate newcomers while still be rewarding for those whose motivations differ. The fact that folk use the CCCC program as evidence of our field's failings and/or neglect and/or fragmentation should be a sign to all of us that there are plenty of us who want something more from the conference, that it might be a place that serves both community and discipline.

Would it surprise you to learn that I've been talking about this for 5 years now? Here's an idea I posted in 2004, complete with my old skool design if you follow the link:

Book of the Year: Every year, several books in our field are nominated for a book of the year award (and one or two receive it). Plan a series of sessions, each of which focuses on one of the BOTY nominees. Allow the author to hand-pick 2-3 people to give presentations about the book and then the author would be a respondent. Participants in the BOTY series would be allowed to do a second presentation (assuming that their proposal had been accepted).

I still love this idea. And here's the thing. It would be a thread of sessions that (a) rewards the best scholarship being done in the field that year (in book form, at least); (b) rewards the writers of those books (by featuring their work in the program; (c) recognizes that work in a highly visible way; (d) functions as a centralizing force for the discipline and conference; (e) introduces newcomers to the best work being done by experienced colleagues; and (f) provides some space for sessions where advanced discussions of quality work might happen.

But I'm drifting off-point a little, and this has become much longer than I'd planned initially. (It started as a one-para linklove post to RWW.) Here's my broader point: for certain people in our field, there is an advantage to having a 5000-person conference rather than a 500-person one. There are more people to meet, sessions to choose from, etc. For others in our field, the advantage is reversed, because many of them may feel that the smaller conferences (like RSA, e.g.) allow you to accomplish more specialized, sophisticated work.

As for me? I believe that a genuinely flagship conference should be able to achieve both the social value of 5000 and the disciplinary value of 500. And I'm hypothesizing here that our org has pursued the former at the expense of the latter, even though I honestly believe that this expense has been largely unintended. That's the reverse network effect.

And that is all.

Non-blogging the Cs

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That's what I'm doing, I guess. I do have the excuse of not actually being there. With the exception so far of Dennis and Alex, there are a lot of folk who don't share my excuse who are non-blogging it just as hard as I am.

That's a really backwards way, I suppose, of a little bemoaning on my part. I'm happy to update status and tweet, but if you don't believe that something's been lost in the grand migration to nanoblogging, well, I'd disagree. Not that CCCC was ever a hotbed of blogtastic simulcasting or anything, but the peak of that activity seems to have passed. In an age of increased networking and transparency, the conference seems content to slide back into pre-web levels of opacity. And by the conference, I mean us, of course. I hear tell that the wifi at this year's conference is dismal, which is certainly a contributing factor, but again, it's not as though it's something that we don't have control over. Or at least influence. Wifi should be considered a conference utility not unlike meeting spaces or electricity, and we should be holding our conference sites to pretty high standards.

Anyways. What actually prompted my post was Steve's link to Dan's presentation, and his ruminations on the conference in general:

what's the point of conferences nowadays? Sure, it's about networking, having meetings in person (always more efficient than meetings online, I will admit), getting "away" in the sense of a retreat, getting "away" in the sense of an opportunity to go out with friends, etc. It's fun. But now that it is possible- even pretty easy- to put a presentation like this up on the web, I'm not sure if the pros of a face to face meet-up outweigh the cons of conferences- the costs of registration/lodging/food, the time away from work/family/friends/home, the damage to the earth resulting from air travel, the bad eating/drinking habits, etc.

My answer to this is similarly ambivalent, seeing as how this is the 2nd year in a row that I've missed CCCC, and I can't really lay claim to missing it especially. It's always been one of those things for me that I enjoy when I'm there, but don't really like getting ready for, getting to, or recovering from.

That being said, I think one of the things that's important about CCCC is that it's the one time where we catch a glimpse of the true size of our network/discipline. It's only a glimpse, mind you, but still. As large and unwieldy as the conference is, our discipline is larger still, and it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of that on an annual basis. I think we forget sometimes. Larger in terms of people, but also larger in terms of interests, perspectives, and philosophy.

But that being said, I think it fair to note that the conference has largely run afoul of the problems of scale. I think it's designed for a much smaller group, and I think our vision of it has not really kept pace with its growth. I've written on a few other occasions about how that's the case, so I won't go into details, but I do honestly believe that it's not a matter of tweaking. I'd love to see some overhauls and I'd love to see some conversations about the possibilities, but I'm not optimistic that either will ever occur. And I've written (and ranted to anyone who'll listen) about why I don't feel that optimism is warranted, and don't really feel like dredging up those args either.

I do think a national conference is worth it, but I'm not sure our national conference is worth it. But then, it's what we've got, and so I'm thinking now about Louisville, and wishing that a few more panel reviews find their way online in the next couple of days.

That's all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the conferential category from March 2009.

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