I am a self-confessed conference junkie. I got the conference bug early on in my PhD studies, when a paper I was co-author on was accepted to the International Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning (iamlearn‘s mlearn conference). I soon discovered that conferences were a place where I could find my tribe. I could find people who were interested in the same things I was interested in. People who understood me.
However, being at a conference that is part of your tribe is not the same thing as being a conference insider. This was never more clear then when I attended the MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) conference two years after my first mlearn conference. I was definitely with my tribe, but I was definitely not a conference insider – I even blogged about how I felt like an impostor in the room. I was definitely with people who thought like me, people who I thought were cool, and people who I could a lot from, but I wasn’t part of the in-crowd.
I didn’t know what it was like to be part of the in-crowd until I attended #et4online in Dallas in April of this year. I blogged about how it was a truly transformative conference experience. In truth, this was partially because of all the people that Maha knew, that then I got to know, but in part it was also because I knew a lot of people. I had attended the conference the previous year, but more importantly, over the last two years I had made connections with a lot of people. These connections meant that I became part of the in-crowd. I was not only with my tribe, but I was also privy to lots of the private information that is shared with the in-crowd before it is shared with everyone else. It meant I got to sign up for things before all the seats were taken.
Recently, I attended the Social Media and Society Conference. I was not quite aware of just how much this was not an Ed Tech conference. I decided to go to the conference because a panel I was a part of had been accepted to present on – a panel of women in Ed Tech. Unfortunately, a couple of my co-presenters couldn’t make it in person. This meant that I was at the conference, where I was not with my tribe, where I knew very few people, and where I was definitely not a conference in-sider.
For a social media conference, I found the conference to be very difficult to make connections. One area that always frustrates me at conferences is when lunch is not provided onsite. On the last day of the conference, the schedule was running 15 minutes behind. When I tweeted to ask if we would make-up that time by shortening lunch, the comment I received back was that no, lunch was such a useful/awesome networking time that we wouldn’t dare shorten it. The problem is, that when the conference doesn’t provide a venue for lunch, then lunch is only a good networking time for people who are already connected. It is great for those who are part of the in-crowd. It is not so good for those who don’t know anyone at the conference. For those who are not with their tribe. If there is no onsite lunch option, then people must disburse to find a place to get lunch. There is no central place where people are sitting. There is no place were those who are not already connected can go and sit at a random table and meet random other people at the conference. The opportunities for these random encounters, which often turn out to be one of the most useful parts of the conference, are lost – or at least they are lost for those who are not already well connected. Those who are well-connected, and those who are part of the conference organizing committees, don’t run into this issue. It is only those who need the opportunity to network the most, who do not get the opportunity without an onsite lunch option.
I wrote this post in part to highlight that there is a difference between being at a conference with your tribe, and one of being at a conference as an insider. You can learn a lot from a conference when neither is true, however, that learning and the opportunities for connecting are severely hampered when the conference organizers don’t consider the unconnected participant experience.