When Ray Poynter introduced me during the first ever world-wide online MR conference, he said that I am a person who is not just talking, I do things! Look who's talking! I mean, look who's doing. I mean, Ray has accomplished something that will be remembered as a major pioneer achievement in our industry and he has done it without any large organisation backing him.
The NewMR festival is alive and kicking during most of this week, but the highlight was naturally the marathon session yesterday (Wednesday) with presentations for almost 24 hours, planned to suit three different time zones. Ray and his partners seemed happy and fit when my session started halfway through the festival, at mid-day European time, but if I know Ray, he had been around all the time since the Australian/Chinese start some twelve hours earlier. As expected, the connections between people participating from every corner of the world didn't flow completely without problems, but it was amazing to experience how well the organising team took care of difficulties and rescheduled quickly and efficiently without disturbing the listening experience.
I would have expected it to be somewhat of a weird experience sitting in my bedroom talking to noboby and getting no reactions, but it felt surprisingly conference-like and realistic. I even got slightly nervous shortly before getting on air, just like I do before entering an analog stage. A great help in getting the real feeling was the list of connected participants, continuously updated. During our session the number of logged-in listeneres rose from 80 to 100, including most of the prominent figures at ESOMARs headoffice in Amsterdam (whether they were actually sitting in Amsterdam is of course a completely different story). This is a great figure, given that there were 350 participants in total, spread across all time zones of the world. I don't know what Ray had hoped for, but he should be more than satisfied. Most MR conferences struggle to get past 200 paying delegates and having 100 people attending one presentation is a rare sight. And don't forget: this was the first attempt! Many conferences run for several years before they reach their audience.
But comparing an online conference with an offline event, is exactly the same mistake as we did when we transferred mail and phone questionnaire to internet ones a decade ago, a mistake that was pointed out by several speakers. Having logged in is by no means a guarantee for listening or paying any kind of attention to the speaker. If you loose interest in the Hilton ballroom, you are stuck there (unless you feel like being rude and walk out, but very few speakers deserve that treatment), but my guess is that I was not the only one to check emails, web sites and all of a sudden realise I had no clue of what the current speaker was talking about.
Maybe it was also a mistake to try and transfer the one-speaker-twenty-minutes format from the real to the virtual world. I personally felt that the ten-minute question-and-answer session that Ray and I engaged in, worked much better than many of the regular presentations and a friend of mine confirmed this afterwards. But hey, for being a first-timer it was fantastic. The first guitarr or the first car wasn't perfect either, but look where they are now!
Part of the "problem" is that Ray is ahead of the technological development in his thinking. This conference was essentially a radio broadcast, accompanied by still pictures. You couldn't even see the person talking, expect for the odd picture on the first slide. It couldn't have been differently this time, not the least because of broadband limitations in many countries, but I am really looking forward to what this festival will be like in five years from now, with motion pictures and various forms of live interaction. The internet revolution has just started and Ray will continue to be one of its leaders!
One advantage with a technically advanced (some readers would probably not agree with me on this account) event like this one, is that you get a kick forward in your own development. For me it meant visiting Twitter for the first time, opening an account and even posting my very first tweet. Not that Twitter was anything new to me, I have heard countless conference speakers talking about it, I have just not seen the point going there before. After realising that much of the discussion concerning the presentations was taking place there, I felt it proper to check it out, so now I am a wee bit more modern. Check me out next week when I will be tweeting from the Baqmar conference in Belgium!
Perhaps the greatest advantage with the NewMR festival is that all presentations were recorded and are available for listening any time you like after the festival. I wish this opportunity was available at ordinary conferences too, when you often miss the top presentations because of parallell sessions or an interesting discussion in the exhibition area. And don't tell me to read the paper - that is just not the same thing (plus it takes much more time).
Ray and I have often talked about the need for rehearsals and the lack of them at physical conferences and this time he got to show that he is true to his words. All presenations, including our discussion, were rehearsed and recorded in advance. Apart from providing a back-up recording if something should go wrong with the live presentation, it gave us all a great opportunity to get comfortable with the unfamiliar format, the technology and to reconsider what could be done better in our presentations. I certainly had some food for thought that I believe sharpened my arguments.
It could of course be argued why we need one specific day for the presentations. Why not post them on a web site and let everyone listen to them when they want to? Apart for the obvious counter-argument that you will postpone and eventually forget about listening when you can choose any time you want, I would like to stress the fantastic experience of sensing that all these skilled people were online simultaneously. Getting an informed reply in a normal online discussion forum could take days - if it happens at all - but here it was a matter of minutes.
Although lots of things could be improved, nothing takes away the feeling that this was a landmark experience that we will remember as a decisive moment in the development of conferences for a long time. I am truly happy that I will be able to say to everyone: I was there!
SMRD (participating in the conference as an activist in the Lonbono movement)