Web Directions Conferences for web and digital professionals

Slow Conferences

In 1986, McDonald’s announced a plan to open an outlet at Rome’s famous Spanish Steps, a decision that caused outrage in Italy at the time. It was also immensely successful from the outset.

But it also started the Cucina Lenta, or “Slow Food”, movement, which itself gave rise to the broader Slow Movement

a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail‘s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting

Carl Honoré, in Praise of Slow

Slow Conferences?

For 15 or more years I’ve been running in person (and more recently online) conferences for developers, designers, and other professionals in the web and digital space.

Conferences are essentially the opposite of slow–for audiences and organisers, for partners and speakers. From early morning to late at night days are crammed with coffee and catering, presentations, receptions and post reception sessions. Exhibitors race to connect with as many attendees as possible. People leave exhausted, maybe even having acquired some sort of illness, though hopefully also more educated, more energised and excited for their career and work as well.

With the switch to online conferences things only seem, if anything, to have become worse. 24 hour conferences, hundreds of speakers spread out over multiple back to back days. Speakers up at all hours to deliver a live presentation to the other side of the world. Attendees up at all hours to hear a speaker deliver a presentation live. Speakers delivering the same presentation live several times across 24 hours to reach as many people as possible.

It’s almost as bad as Phil Collins taking Concorde from the UK to the US so that he could appear at the Live Aid concert on both continents on the same day (bet that helped feed the world).

But with our online conferences in 2020 at Web Directions we tried to do something a little different–to slow things down. To spread a conference over several weeks. To make each session shorter, and make presentations shorter as well. To give attendees and speakers time to reflect, and converse.

And it occurred to me that what we were stumbling toward was perhaps something you might call a Slow Conference.

The Slow Movement

I lived in Italy in the early 1990s, and remember Cucina Lenta as being a bit of a thing. Which is somewhat ironic as one of the things that very much caught my attention living in Italy was how important really enjoying a meal, savouring it, taking your time, was. Even there humble Pizza, or a Sunday evening meal at the local trattoria. Compared to the Anglo Australia culture of my upbringing, Italian eating seemed already very much slow eating.

The Slow Movement saw its hey day in the early 2000s, with the publication of Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slow in 2004, ironically written before the rise of the smart phone and our even more accelerated, always-on culture (he still uses the term “Web Surfing” something I’ve not heard in a decade or more and even unironically refers to “yuppies” at one point–ask your grand parents what they were).

Like so many idea-driven books, the topic proves rather malleable, and beaten out at times into rather thin sheets, but it does explore various movements, organisations, philosophies and approaches to slowing down, and finding “il giusto tempo“–the right time–for things.

Many of the ideas and practices associated with the slow movement, and in particular its most successful strain Slow Food have since crept into every day life. The rise of 3rd wave coffee, pickling (ok that was more of a short term thing), home made hams, salamis and bacons, the rise of American style BBQ globally, craft beer, artisanal cheeses, farmers markets, are all associated with a movement that started with a revolt against fast food.

But what does this have to do with running conferences?

As I’ve written elsewhere, when we first faced the reality that to survive COVID-19, we’d need to take our conferences online, our instinct, like that of so many other organisers, was to faithfully reproduce in-person events online. So we saw, and continue to see, online conferences that

  • have 40 minute plus presentations delivered live via services like zoom
  • reproduce the format of in-person conferences (8 hours plus days, 2 or more days in a row)
  • or even more extreme, run for much longer, some even up to 24 hours
  • with as many as half a dozen or more tracks of simultaneous presentations

In short online conferences have become even more intense, even more sped up, even more frenetic than in-person conferences.

I’m genuinely exhausted even thinking about it.

So as we began to imagine in more depth how we’d bring our conferences online, we took a deep breath and explored how things might be done differently.

Two of the things we did that I feel very proud of are having shorter days, and spreading these out of longer periods of time. Each day of our conferences has been a Friday, for around 4 hours, and our conferences to date have been spread out over 4 weeks. We were

“seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible”.

Carl Honoré, in Praise of Slow

CittaSlow–Slow Cities

The Slow movement was first seen as an idea for a few people who liked to eat and drink well, but now it has become a much broader cultural discussion about the benefits of doing things in a more human, less frenetic manner

Bruna Sibille, CittaSlow Movement

A philosophy that started with a focus on food found adherents in other aspects of life and culture, not least of them urban planning

A Slow City asks the question: Does this improve our quality of life? If the answer is yes, then the city embraces it. And that includes the very latest technology

In Praise of Slow

Among the principles that CittaSlow espouses are

  • Working towards sustainability, defending the environment and reducing our excessive ecological footprint
  • support[ing] the local Food and Crafts Communities

and importantly…

giv[ing] back a voice to those who have been voiceless – the indigenous peoples that have lost their cultivation techniques and their seeds and the small farmers who are the real scientists in the field and are not listened to. The women whose activities are closely connected to life, the old people who are guardians of our experiences, young people, who represents a real commitment to improving the planet

Why CittaSlow?

While, as Assim Houssein discussed in this 2019 Code Leaders presentation, our networks, web sites and applications aren’t entirely without an environmental impact–almost by their nature, online conferences address issues around sustainability and an excessive ecological footprint.

Rather than using large, energy hungry venues, and encouraging travel across cities, countries and the globe, with an attendant impact on the environment, we bring the conference to where our attendees are, lowering the impact of travel, and in the case of online conferences, of large venues, with their use of energy, lighting, elevators, escalators, AV, and industrial kitchens.

When it comes to the voices of the more marginal, conferences have an important role, and online events only make playing that role easier. With in-person events, the cost of giving a place on a stage can be prohibitive, and due to visa restrictions perhaps not even possible.

When conferences move online, it increases our opportunity to give a voice to those who have been voiceless on conference stages, and I feel strongly our responsibility for doing so

Learning

While in “In Praise of Slow” Honoré’s focus on learning is children and formal schooling, he considers the “Slow Schooling” movement–

At a stroke, the notion of the slow school destroys the idea that schooling is about cramming, testing, and standardizing experience

Slow Schooling–Maurice Holt, professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado, Denver

The lessons learned here are again ones which would resonate with many of us–cramming, attempts to accelerate learning, these often diminish the capacity to learn, or lead to reasonable short term, but poor long term outcomes in terms of recall and mastery.

What lessons can a slow conference learn from this? That 6 or more hours of intense, screen based presentations and lectures, often with complex arguments, or detailed code examples, across 8 hour (or longer) back to back days is perhaps not the most conducive environment for helping people absorb these ideas?

What approaches can online conferences take from the slow movement to create less frenetic formats that better help attendees absorb, and master the content?

Rest and leisure

In Praise of Slow doesn’t only look at official Slow Movement organisations and philosophies, it also focusses on the personal–the culture of “presenteeism”, and on what we have since come to call “work/life balance”. It’s nothing that we aren’t for the most part all very aware of–the negative impact on health, happiness, and ironically productivity of the “always on” culture that has if anything only got worse since 2004.

The standard in-person conference, and many online conferences I described at the outset–long days crammed with presentations, often on top of travel, capped off with late nights of receptions and dinners can be exhilarating, but also exhausting. They certainly don’t reflect a very healthy work/life balance.

In person conferences have specific unit economics, that shape the way an event runs–unit economics that online events don’t have. And so online events can explore different formats, timings, that perhaps deliver better work/life balance, and are more conducive to learning and knowledge retention. Events that don’t leave the audience exhausted, even sick, but rather energised and enthused.

Some Principles for Slow Conferences

Rather than prescribe how online events should be organised, what format, and timing they would best adopt, I want to finish by considering, learning from the Slow Movement, what principles a slow conference might commit to.

I feel we should when organising conferences

[seek] to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible

[give] a voice to those who have been voiceless

[work] towards sustainability, defending the environment and reducing our excessive ecological footprint

[destroy] the idea that [learning] is about cramming, and standardizing experience

but above all, as exemplified by the Slow Movement overall, we should strive to “[do] things in a more human, less frenetic manner”

These are the principles we’ll continue to hold important as we evolve our online conferences, and I invite all organisers to take the opportunity to do so as well.

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Dave Greiner Founder, Campaign Monitor