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I’ve been at a lot of conferences in the last year with Wifi access, carrying two wireless devices: an old Motorola cell phone and a blackberry for email. Mostly the devices are about being somewhere else while I was supposedly at the conference. The Always On Summit is my first serious immersion into connecting to the full range of raging light-weight shared text and interaction tools (chat, blogs, wikis) at the conference. First the devices:

  • I’m wired to a powerstrip daisy chained along a row in the auditorium. I’m still using an ancient Thinkpad T21 with dying batteries. I want a new laptop with 10 hours of cordless life.
  • The Wifi was up and down the first day, with all the puns and smart lines along the lines of “always kind of on.” The moments of greatest irony were during the Wifi panel when panelist lines like “wifi should be like oxygen” rang the minds of many in the audience into synchronized retorts.
  • Palm is loaning out the new Tungsten C for the conference. Builtin Wifi. I tried a few sites (like mine), between wifi hiccups, test to see if applets will run (nope), played “Bejeweled” a couple of rounds. 300 pixels color screen. I’m not buying even at conference special of $250 vs. $500 list.
  • My blackberry. I get too much spam (even with spam control), so at conference I fetch email using wifi. The first day, out of twitchiness, I scanned my blackberry when the wifi breaks, most of the time.
  • I left my cell phone first day in my car in a parking lot at the other end of campus … when one of the panelists asked the audience how many didn’t regularly carry a cell phone, 1 person (in about 300 in audience) raised a hand. I think he was the same guy who had his cell phone go off loudly during a session and searched for it for 30 seconds in his backpack.

I remarked to Tony Perkins (Mr. Always On) that he shouldn’t worry too much about the Wifi snafu, better to be connected to the reality of mid-2003. The Wifi was fixed on the 2nd day, and now it’s possible to attend to the other channels. Recently a number of conferences have had wikis, blogs, chat available right at the conference (e.g. Supernova, PC Forum, OReilly conferences). All of these along with live webcasting to the web are part of Always On.

  • Chat, this is most live of the alternative channel. Even in the auditorium, because the running chat window is up on one of the two big screens most of the time. Most people mostly stay focused on the stage, but occasionally look over at the live chat screen and scan the text still on the screen. Most of the chatting is from a small number of people. There’s a mixture of amending or commenting on speaker comments. Every 3rd or 5th line makes sense even if you haven’t been tracking it for a while.
  • Wiki. A wiki is a set of web pages that page visitors can edit (e.g. amend, add, delete content) from their web browser.

    The Always On wiki, is a little hard to find, because its buried into the so-called “Webcast” section. Start here, and click on “Low Bandwidth”, on the right are wiki pages. At the top it says “Edit This Page”, and you can. People don’t usually trash pages, but if they do the administrator can roll back the page.

    The AO Wiki has very little on it right now. I think [check] the SuperNova or the PC Forum wikis have more on them, but I wonder whether it appeared during or after the event. The idea is that the audience would do joint notetaking, and that people not at the event can link in relevant comments or links. The Wifi not working on the first day certainly threw a wrench at live notetaking.

  • Blogs. A number of people are live blogging from the audience the second day. Check out Gulker. Most people apparantly prefer to put longer, “more authored,” thoughts on their own blogs where their authorship is clear. But Wiki’s should be a good place to contribute quick giveaway pointers or comments
  • Webcast. My Real player didn’t work, and it was crashing my browser as I go to the webcast page. So I uninstalled it, so I could access the Wiki. These live tools for “enriching” conferences for the audience and for connecting in a web audience have a ways to go. Meanwhile, Tony is saying that some 4000 people are watching the event over the web. A part of the chat is people in the audience answering questions about the live setting for people not at the event.

And now the obvious question. If my focus is so much on the devices and non-line-of-sight channels and on writing this entry and so on, how can I be possibly listening? Am I flowing or am I distracted? A bit of both. My interest is shifting where it wants to go, trying to experience and understand this new way a conference can be. Nothing is working perfectly, and too much of my attention is going to the device-techno-tool-goo in the middle at the cost of what’s being said.

If all this goo worked (meaning it mechanically worked and also that people understood a refined simplified nicely designed version of the goo as well as they understand say web browsing), I think it would really begin to turn live events into interactive events.

A central aspect of interaction is a shift of control from author to reader, from the stage to the audience. With my devices, with a choice of several spaces and places of content and connection to others at or not at the event, I have more say over how to be *at* the event.

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