Every conference these days has a hashtag and attendees are (unless explicitly prohibited) tweeting, live-blogging, streaming audio and video. If you wanted to, from your desk, you could attend nearly every conference in the world, and for free as opposed to paying $50-$5000 to attend. In terms of content, you’d probably get anywhere from 80% – 99% of the content presented.

If you can attend 95% of the conference virtually and not pay, or attend 100% of the conference in person and pay, which will most people rationally choose? Which would you choose?

Right now, social media, for all its glamour and buzz, is still a relatively small space compared to the world of business as a whole. As it grows, how long will it be before conference organizers have to clamp down on usage to avoid completely devaluing their conferences?

Will social media, in other words, burn conferences to the ground? Yes – and it should.

My answer as co-founder of PodCamp and co-organizer of PodCamp Boston 4 is one we’ve been researching and looking at for years. Whether live or recorded, the talking head portion of the conference is something that is part of the old conference model.

While I love speaking publicly, I also recognize that it’s not terribly valuable in and of itself. I could convey the exact same information with a video camera and a YouTube account, and in fact I’ve done this to a degree. 60+ people saw my PAB 2009 presentation live. Over 300 have seen it virtually. Did the attendees of PAB 2009 get more out of the public speaking experience than the people at their desks? No, not really.

What we’ve been exploring with PodCamp year after year is how to take the other parts of conferences and amplify them, the parts you cannot get out of a talking head presentation. Side conversations in hallways. One to one interactions. Spontaneous group discussions. These are all things that you can’t bottle, and honestly, you can’t tweet, stream, or liveblog either. There’s simply no way for you, as a new media journalist, to be at 300 mini-sessions, or 3,000 micro-presentations, and if the conversations are valuable, you’ll be too busy participating to be archiving and broadcasting – and that’s as it should be.

What I think the conference model will evolve to, and where PodCamp is leading along with the other *Camp events, is the truly interactive community brainshare. Would I pay $500 to see Seth Godin speak? Sure. Would I pay more to sit down over beer with Seth and a few other folks at a roundtable and have him look at my marketing campaign, maybe sketch out some ideas on a napkin? Heck yeah. Multiply that times many tables over many hours and I’d walk away with a literal goldmine of useful information that’s tailored to me and my business. That’s what we want to bring more of to PodCamp – fewer talking heads and more sharing brainspaces.

When you walk away from a PodCamp, I don’t want you to say “that was a great conference!”. I want you to say, “I met and learned from some awesome people at PodCamp!” because in the end, your community is your strength. The conference is just a convenient place for the community to meet.

What do you think the future of conferences will be? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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