Why digital media conferences are a waste of time for everybody involved
In 2011, I attended my first-ever "new media conference" -- and with any luck, it will also be my last.
As a student who knew even less about the industry than I do today, I dutifully sat through panel after panel of thought leaders and thinkfluencers, idea merchants and innovationists, who all fancied themselves prophets of the digital revolution. At the time, I was impressed by this army of business-casual Shingys, who newsjacked my mindshare with such immersive jargonizing.
But four years later, were these future-of-media prognosticators right about anything? Or were they industry incumbents clinging to old business models – so fearful of disrupting their ancient workflows and revenue lines that instead of truly embracing technology they merely checked the boxes next to whatever buzzwords they read on Nieman Lab that day?
Thinking back, I remember one common theme at the conference was that reporters should think of social media as more than a promotional tool -- that Twitter and Facebook, we were told, are glorious democratized mainframes of live information and gold mines for finding stories and gathering sources.
That's sometimes true. But as Facebook and its algorithms have emerged as a tyrannically powerful force in how content is distributed, shared, and consumed, social media is more about promotion now than ever before. Making matters worse, Mark Zuckerberg is trying to convincing publishers to bypass their own websites and post directly to Facebook -- which contrary to the utopian dreams of new media enthusiasts will only further marginalize and commoditize the work of journalists instead of enriching it.
Meanwhile, the claim that social media is an indispensable reporting tool -- a "truth machine" where lies are debunked as quickly as they spread -- was painfully called into question during events like the Boston Marathon bombing, which exposed the inadequacy of relying on social networks for vetting information and arriving at the truth. What's more, these purportedly democratic social networks have proven to be just as easily manipulated by powerful unseen forces as the old, more closed-off distribution platforms like radio and television were. (Remember "Cuban Twitter"?)
I also recall an emphasis on creating beautiful, innovative, and informative data applications and other time- and effort-intensive works of journalism which require true expertise and are thus difficult to copy. These works run counter to the kind of content that's stolen, repackaged, and churned out by bargain bin bloggers. It's an attractive argument for capital-J journalists: In addition to making reporters feel smart and important, this sentiment justifies the continued existence of expensive institutions like Columbia J-School.
Yet in 2015, the aggregators are still winning, and they're better at it than ever before. Buzzfeed -- which at the time of the conference hadn't yet hired Ben Smith and still possessed little relevance -- has become terrifyingly efficient at spotting a trend that's about to go viral (like "The Dress"), repurposing it, and selling it on social platforms. In turn, brands are lining up with sweaty fistfuls of cash for the privilege to run native advertisements on Buzzfeed, which has greater reach and millennial cred than perhaps any other brand on the web. It's too bad Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti didn't host a panel about building the media company of the future at this conference of yore. Perhaps that's because he was probably too busy... building the media company of the future.
This gets to the heart of why so many media conferences are a waste of time: Nobody knows anything, and the people who do know something probably won't deliver a speech about it at a conference. That's not necessarily because they don't want to reveal their secrets. After all, execution -- particularly in Buzzfeed's case -- is everything. They're simply too busy building the future of journalism to sit around talking about it.
As for the people who do give speeches at these conferences? Often, they're old timers who have been in the industry long enough to have some clout, and are therefore likely behind the ball themselves on innovation, clinging to the hope that if they can just embrace "social media," "big data," and other buzzwords of the moment on some shallow, perfunctory level, that they can keep operating like they always have and with the same profit margins. These dinosaurs go to conferences more to learn than to impart wisdom -- of course they have to at least play the part of the soothsayer or else they may not be invited back.
This truth about conferences is captured perfectly in the hilarious fake promotional video above by Funny Or Die -- which is quickly becoming as trenchant a voice on digital movements as any tech blog -- titled "The Monsters Of A Rapidly Changing Media Landscape." Adopting the tone of a demolition derby announcer, the narrator promises a weekend of "speeches speeches speeches" with "the most hesitant new media experts in the world."
"It's a strange time," each speaker begins, which is about as far as any of these leaders in publishing, film, television, and radio are willing to go in admitting the extent to which their industries are totally fucked.
"I like the feel of a CD," one record industry exec says, as if there's some nostalgia behind that over-priced fragile medium, or that customers were somehow happier when dropping $17.99 on a piece of flimsy polycarbonate one scratch away from becoming completely useless. To these old school establishmentarians, "digital innovation" means using new media platforms, but only to sell the same outmoded pieces of technology.
So next time you feel compelled to go to some "Future of Media" conference, just watch this three minute video instead. It's no less profound, and it will save you both hundreds of dollars and the wasted hours of networking with people who can't really help you. After all, if they were truly shaping the future of media why would they be there instead of working?
[The team behind Funny or Die will be our guests at our April 8 PandoMonthly event in San Francisco. Tickets go on sale next week.]