Thursday, April 15, 2010

Coat-tail Crowds

Parties have "after parties." Panel talks have the "back channel." (Think Twitter.) Now, on the fringe of this week's invitation-only Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship in Oxford, there is something new: "coat-tail" conferences -- actually, a couple of small, satellite events scheduled to occur simultaneously around the Skoll gathering but which aim to include more of the crowd in the discussion.

One of the coat-tail events is an "e-Philanthropy" conference, sponsored by the Oxford Internet Institute, being held just up the road from the Said Business School, the epicenter of the Skoll gathering. Much of the talk there has been about how philanthropy needs to become more effective in solving social problems and measuring impact. A second fringe event, called Oxford Jam, is being held across the street. Founder Ben Metz, a former Ashoka Fellow, says his event is intended "to provide another space for conversation" that mixes up people attending the Forum and those not invited. With a logo that reads, "Oxford Jam: Spread Evenly," Metz's event also seeks to raise the visibility of younger and more diverse social change activists with a spirited menu of scheduled conversations, breakfast meet-ups and dinner collaboration exercises.

For the past two years, Metz says, he has been attending the Skoll conferences, hosting a dinner off-conference during each. Last year, he said, attendance at his dinner jumped from 25 people at the first one to more than 100 at the second, with many attendees coming up to him later telling him that "the dinner was actually more produtive than the whole of Skoll put together," Metz says. So this year, Metz decided to expand his annual dinner into a three-day ''jam.''

So far, so good, he says. His opening 'jam' sessions on Wednesday included some Skoll attendees who decided to stop by between Skoll pre-sessions, and Metz expected many more to attend his events through Friday's close.

Metz, though, insists his fringe sessions aren't "just a Skoll thing" but rather a sign of how the ''big conference model'' is changing across the sector, thanks to the Web and social media. "It's really about the growing influence of Web-powered crowds," he says. "The wisdom in any one room is much greater than what you can find on a platform (at a more traditional conference)," he added. "Why don't we as a community start looking at (new conference) structures that will harness the widsom of the crowd more effectively for the benefit of all?"

Metz says there is a place for panel discussions -- much of the Skoll forum's format and still the traditional format of choice at many events. But he said that new Web-wired crowds also now want to have broader and more spontaneous interchanges on the fringes of traditional big conferences that can "uncover hidden talent and hidden gems where you didn't see them before."

Metz predicts the coat-tail conferencing trend will take off across the social action sectors. "I think there's an arc that's just starting which you see in crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing that has yet to hit conferences and physical interactions all around," Metz says. Oxford Jam is a beginning. "We'll see how this goes," he says. "It's an experiment. By the end of the week, we could crash and burn or be wildly successful."

Watch this space for updates.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by

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