A couple years ago, when I was on the other side of the continent from all the Silicon Valley/San Francisco events, I wanted to know what it was like to attend the West Coast conferences. Now that I’ve been to a bunch, I figured it might be a good chance to fill everybody else in. The good news is the news that everybody reads about, new products and ideas and people meeting each other and connecting. The other parts don’t get talked about are interesting, too, though.
It’s especially important to note some of these things because most attendees seem to forget that the overwhelming majority of people who are interested in the topics discussed aren’t present at these events. What’s more, there’s no reasonable way they could attend, due to expense and geography and family/work obligations.
Last week, I got a chance to swing by the Web 2.0 conference. Lots has been written about the product launches, acquisitions, and the perpetual “how do you define Web 2.0?” question, but I thought, now that a lot of roundups of the event have been written, it might make sense to talk about some things that are invisible unless you actually attend the conference.
First, lots of people at these events are regulars of the circuit. These folks show up at events like these throughout the year, around the world; When people talk about there being an insider’s circle, these are the people they’re talking about. But, that’s not to say that this is an all-powerful clique, because for every one who’s a high-powered venture capitalist with a giant portfolio, there’s some number of professional conference-goers. Some of these folks are really smart and talented, but some don’t seem to have any discernable reason for popping up at every conference. The joke I keep making is that somebody must have a PowerPoint deck that says “Our business model is that we help funnel funds from venture capitalists into the conference sponsorship economy. Using Ajax technology!”
So, there’s the Old Boy’s Club. And surprisingly, there’s a 50-50 ratio of wanna-bes to real successes within that club. But the unsurprising part is probably what the makeup of that club looks like. Web 2.0 might be made of people, as Ross Mayfield said, but judging by the conference, Web 2.0 is pretty much made of white people. I’m not used to any event in a cosmopolitan area being such a monoculture.
Now, the folks who organized Web 2.0 are good people whom I genuinely believe want their event to be inclusive. But the homogeneity of the audience doesn’t just extend to ethnicity, it’s even more evident in the gender breakdown. There are others who’ve covered this topic better than me, but it’s jarring to me not merely because the mix was such a poor representation of the web that I know, but because I think it’s going to come back and bite the web in the ass if it doesn’t change eventually.
See, it’s not just making sure the audience and speakers represent the web we’re trying to reach, but the fact that Bay Area tech conferences are so culturally homogenous is dangerous for the web industry. When people talk about buying a song on the iTunes music store, they’re still using some tired Britney Spears example, or if they’re under 35 or so, they might mention Franz Ferdinand. This is not an audience in touch with Bow Wow or Gretchen Wilson, even though they’ve sold millions of tracks. When they talk about television, they’re talking about broadcasting Lost or Desperate Housewives, but they’re not aware of Degrassi or Ultimate Fighting. Worse, I met a number of people who were comfortable with being culturally illiterate about a great many people who live right here in the U.S.; I can’t imagine how they would reach out to other cultures or countries.
The contrast here is especially jarring because everyone was saying that Web 2.0 companies need to be both media companies and technology companies. Most major media companies try to connect with a wide variety of audiences, and for all the horrible things about the music business (for example), the one thing they’re really open to is identifying cultural and artistic trends that might be important or valuable.
So that’s one look at a little bit of cultural myopia at Web 2.0. There’s some good news, though, about success for some new web companies. I’ll try to write a bit about that later, too.