Web 2.0 Expo: Time to hit refresh?

The dominant conversation at the San Francisco confab was how to innovate and thrive in the new economy. Here's a suggestion: change the way conferences work, too.

Where are the crowds? The Moscone Center was noticeably quieter this year at the Web 2.0 Expo. Evan Bartlett

SAN FRANCISCO--Stepping off an otherwise quiet street and through the door of the downtown restaurant Roe on Thursday night was, at first, like a foray into a secret fantasy world where no market crash or economic recession had ever happened.

It was the launch party for Yola.com, a rebranded Web publishing platform formerly known as SynthaSite , in conjunction with this week's Web 2.0 Expo down the street at the Moscone convention center. There was an open bar, of course: The signature cocktail was a kir royale, a blend of champagne and blackcurrant liqueur, so champagne flutes were the drinkware of choice in the darkened room. The music was loud. Yola's logo was everywhere--projected on the wall, on T-shirts handed out at the door, on stickers scattered across the bar for the taking.

Yet if you surveyed the scene, there were signs of conscious frugality. The guest list was tight and the party was kept small, with only the ground floor of the two-story Roe booked; the open bar eventually ended, and the kir royales stopped flowing. While Yola was a "silver" sponsor of the conference, the event had not been heavily publicized. The same applied to many of the other scattered parties at the convention. If you knew the details, you could slip into a fun and relatively low-key affair that might even have free drinks and snacks. It was all about doing a bit of digging.

With a "doing more with less" theme, change was in the air at the whole Web 2.0 Expo: This edition of the biannual confab, co-presented by O'Reilly Media and TechWeb, felt like the recession had scooped a hole out of it with a spork. Attendance rates were slightly down, and even though conference representatives said more than 8,000 people came, the halls of The Moscone Center were noticeably quieter than in years past. Yet this is still a must-attend for the majority of the industry. Exhibitors from big tech companies like Microsoft and Adobe, courting developer talent to populate their various platforms and services, said that this is the best way to reach the biggest audience.

And here's what that audience was hearing: that with the harrowing financial climate, there is opportunity in casting off centuries' worth of old institutions that now only serve to hamper innovation.

"The current global financial crisis is the Web's fault," author Douglas Rushkoff said in his Wednesday keynote . "It's a good thing, and...it's really the arresting of a 400- to 500-year process from which value has been extracted from people and companies unfairly and unproductively."

"Six hundred thousand jobs were lost last month, and we've got to believe that the Internet has something to do with the massive restructuring, reorganization, and revitalization of what is our future," Meetup founder Scott Heiferman said in a talk on Friday morning. "They say that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, so there is this opportunity for us to turn our backs to the screen, to turn our backs to a centralized 20th-century culture where we are dependent on these bloated banks and insurance companies."

That's so last century
The irony lies in the fact that with so many talks at the expo fixed on the opportunities presented by financial difficulties, and the final death knells of the 20th-century way of doing things, the convention itself was still an old-school trade show. The expo floor was full (though not as full as last year) of colorful booths and talkative PR representatives, the panel lineup still packed with the usual marketing and programming buzzwords--ROI, SEO, PHP, RSS--and the art of the business card swap still paramount.

"There's just not a whole lot that's cool this year," one disappointed attendee told me. Another said he'd found that after last month's South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, there was something stale about the Web 2.0 Expo, even though it was much healthier than many had anticipated. Maybe it's time for a reboot.

You see, if you got past the surface, did a little digging--just like with the after-hours scene--there were some noteworthy talks at Web 2.0 Expo. There was a seminar about just how much you need to know about wine in order to impress business associates, a crash course from Digg's director of business development for old-media types who want to capitalize on the social news craze, and a session about marketing insights from the creator of the Burger King "Whopper Sacrifice" Facebook app. Keynote speakers like John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, and the founders of indie T-shirt sensation Threadless , weren't exactly the sorts of conference highlights you'd expect.

In those talks, the lack of banter about monetization and user engagement was refreshing. The T-shirt clad Threadless guys, for example, didn't really seem to be in their element sitting on couches onstage for a keynote "conversation" in front of an auditorium of laptop-wielding conference-goers in uncomfortable chairs. They were 21st century dot-com heroes in a setting that some of the expo's out-with-the-old speakers would likely have characterized as so last century.

One of the biggest and most promising highlights of the conference was the after-hours Ignite offshoot, the latest in a series of wacky geek-culture seminars presented by O'Reilly and spearheaded by Web 2.0 organizer Brady Forrest. Seven hundred people packed into a nearby nightclub for a set of decidedly unorthodox presentations: a mandated number of PowerPoint slides, set on an automatic timer, so that no one could veer off topic or go over time. Ignite events are held all over the world and have quite a cult following; with presentations like "Mr. Hacker Goes To Washington" and "Demystifying Weird Japanese Toys and Tools," it wasn't your typical Web 2.0 Expo material.

Conference representatives seem to think that the conference format still has life in it. "The expo itself is not going to change. I think the content changes from year to year based on what the trends are like and what the market looks like," TechWeb community manager Janetti Chon told CNET News. "We try to be the conference that appeals to all Web enthusiasts...of course the conference will evolve as the market and industry evolve." She does have a point. Web 2.0 Expo is so big and far-reaching that putting any kind of new spin on it would risk alienating some sector of attendees.

Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media, said in his address to the expo on Wednesday that the term "Web 2.0" was "never intended to be a version number." But maybe it should've been. With all this talk, finally, about putting old institutions to rest, maybe the digerati should consider taking the plunge and making our industry gatherings something truly new. If we're going to talk about a fresh start, there are a lot of things that can be done to make our events reflect it.

From what it sounds like, many of us are ready for it.

 

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