Time to hit reload on Web 2.0 Expo?

As interest in the start-up world has grown and the attendance at many annual conferences has swelled, this one has stayed static. But here's why that might be a good thing--if the conference organizers know how to handle it.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
The lobby of the convention center that housed this week's Web 2.0 Expo. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--The Web 2.0 Expo this week was missing something. It might've been Tim O'Reilly, the founder of conference co-producer O'Reilly Media and a well-regarded, if slightly granola-inclined, industry sage. He was out of town; gone from the program was his traditional opening keynote, a quick but poignant take on the state of the industry.

Or it might have been the hype missing from the rather quiet halls of the Moscone Convention Center. A few years ago, it was a must-attend event for industry insiders and a launch pad for new start-ups looking to get onto the radar of the tech elite. There were, typically, some relatively lavish parties. It was, I'd speculate, probably a destination for many of the start-up and marketing dollars that now go to the liquor-soaked, brand-packed, ever-growing South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW). That took place in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, and next to it, Web 2.0 Expo risks looking like it's over the hill.

The Web 2.0 Expo 2011 was not poorly attended by any means--the smart move of offering a cheaper "expo hall pass" has made it possible for locals to show up and network without a full-price ticket. The organizers, as always, put on a good show. Events started and ended on time. The conference Wi-Fi was fast and reliable. And the trade show floor was actually frequented, though perhaps that's because there was free beer distributed at several booths in the afternoons.

But the trade show floor was more compact, the keynote hall filled with fewer chairs than in years past. The presence of local tech luminaries seemed to be restricted to those with speaking engagements; they, after all, have their own O'Reilly-produced Web conference, the smaller and pricier Web 2.0 Summit, which offers a roster of A-list speakers and typically a smattering of major company announcements, too. At this week's Expo, the big announcement was the unveiling of sponsor American Express' Serve payment platform, a traditional financial services company's initiative to push it into territory where tech companies like PayPal have already innovated.

The Web 2.0 Expo is a traditional trade show dedicated to an industry that has swapped traditional trade shows for retreat-like "unconferences," bacchanalia like SXSW, and company-centric events like Facebook's F8 and Google I/O. The people who show up are generally out-of-towners who want to see, in panel and keynote form, a glimpse of what the Bay Area digerati have been talking about all year; the sorts of people who wouldn't show up at SXSW because it's too insidery and too difficult to actually learn anything. This is the crowd that wants to go to panels, not to be too hung over to show up at them.

For a look at the differences between the two: At SXSW, walking around with a laptop was decidedly uncool, given the dominance of lightning-fast smartphones and iPads. At Web 2.0 Expo, laptop bags may as well have been part of the uniform.

Or consider that nobody was really talking about Color, the bizarre and boundary-pushing mobile photo-sharing app that has been all over the tech press of late. The topics onstage and in the halls of the Moscone Center were cloud storage, or mobile payments, or whether companies should hire social media managers.

Or consider the different ways in which the same topic--the rise of "gamification," or the tactics of game play applied to the digital business world, was addressed in talks at SXSW and then Web 2.0 Expo. At Web 2.0 Expo on Wednesday, veteran video game designer Amy Jo Kim talked about a handful of concrete tactics from the gaming world that translate relatively easily to business strategy (things like "embrace intrinsic motivators like power, autonomy, and belonging"). Several weeks earlier at SXSW, entrepreneur Seth Priebatsch avoided talking about the immediate applications of game mechanics--everybody in the audience probably knew that stuff anyway, right?--and instead speculated that the phenomenon could eventually grow prevalent enough to solve the problems with U.S. public education. There weren't many take-home points, but there were a lot of big and exciting ideas.

There are people in the tech world who would want to hear from Priebatsch, and there are people in the tech world who would want to hear from Kim--most of the "early adopter" crowd would prefer the former. Ideas are shared at both, in different ways, to very different audiences.

A few years ago, it was up in the air as to whether SXSW or Web 2.0 Expo would be the must-attend conference on the collective calendars of the digital elite, and SXSW clearly won. But Web 2.0 Expo doesn't have to be the Web conference that isn't SXSW; it's clear, based on the huge discrepancies in programming and attendance, that it can be beneficial for for people who, on the most basic level, are looking to learn, to understand, and to get a clear read on the frequently convoluted nature of digital innovation. The fact that SXSW has gotten so big offers opportunities for Web 2.0 Expo as a destination for people who are eager to attend a big-ticket event about the Web but who prefer daytime panels over parties past midnight.

But Web 2.0 Expo is going to have to be more clear that it does serve its own purpose, and that it's a purpose to with which people both inside and outside the technology community could connect--because even though attendance numbers were not available, the fact that the halls just felt empty is disconcerting enough.

Though some say that's just a problem with the venue.

"Moscone West always makes me feel like an ant on the floor of someone's apartment. Every conference there feels empty," said Kevin Marks, a longtime industry event regular and former Googler whose current project is podcast Tummelvision.TV. "Web 2.0 Expo was good but needs some of the SXSW clutter to bump into people more."