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Digerati discuss future of tech conferences

At a dinner in San Francisco, leaders in the Web 2.0 industry talked about how to manage the backchannel at future tech conferences.

It seems that the future of tech conferences is on a lot of people's minds these days.

On Friday, I ran a story here about how to survive and thrive in the so-called "Conference 2.0" era. The idea being that even as a multimedia backchannel made up of live, online chat on services like Twitter, IM, Meebo, and others proliferates at conferences and makes audience members feel empowered to demand more direct participation in keynotes and panel discussions, it doesn't have to be a disruptive force.

In fact, experts I talked to for the story told me there is plenty of opportunity for savvy conference organizers and speakers to find a way to leverage the backchannel in order to make things more interactive and progress toward more decorum than we've seen at some events recently.

Well, according to a blog post by Web 2.0 Expo co-chair Dave McClure, these topics were very much on his mind and the minds of several others at a dinner held Sunday evening in San Francisco. Among those who seemed to have been in attendance at the dinner were Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and Laughing Squid blogger Scott Beale.

(The Web 2.0 Expo is an official partner of CNET Networks' Webware 100 Awards; CNET publishes

While a little jealous that I couldn't be at the dinner, I nonetheless am very interested in McClure's post, and I hope to be able to talk to him sometime this week and then elucidate further here.

Suffice it to say, some of the general topics under discussion as those at the dinner attempted to chew on how to make Conference 2.0 more useful for everyone involved included: "conf speakers / content don't meet expectations of audience," "sometimes speakers / organizers don't know / don't survey what audience wants to hear," "audience has an opinion, sometimes vocalizes it loudly (lately, via Twitter / Chat / Blogs)," "online tools may magnify negative opinion--does this create 'witchburning effect?,'" "sometimes you have to run the show and can't always pay attention to the backchannel," "how are we soliciting feedback on conf content / sessions BEFORE the event?" and many more.

Again, while I wasn't in the room, I can't say for sure, but it seems as though one topic on everyone's mind was how to deal with situations like the one that developed at the recent South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, when the audience at a keynote discussion there between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and BusinessWeek writer Sarah Lacy became dissatisfied and extremely vocal with its displeasure.

So, at the dinner Sunday night, McClure seems to have posed the question of what expectations the audience at that South by Southwest keynote was led to have and, I surmise, how managing those expectations could have changed the eventual unpleasant outcome.

These issues are going to be increasingly important to iron out in the coming weeks and months as the backchannel evolves and as audiences become more and more used to having their say when they want to have it.

Many people think this is a bad thing, fearing that it turns over power to "the mob," but my sense is that a lot of very smart people in and out of the tech conference business feel that there are ways to manage this that can help everyone avoid repeats of what happen in Austin.

More to come. Stay tuned.