A funny thing happened at the forum -- the PC Forum, that is.
Last month, my company held our 25th anniversary PC Forum, the annual meeting of the computer and online market. As you might expect, while the speakers were holding forth onstage, audience members were second-guessing them from the floor.
Only this time, the attendees engaged in some high-tech heckling, using their PCs hooked up to the conference's wireless local-area network (Wi-Fi, for wireless fidelity), and from there to the Internet.
The implications are broad.
No, it won't make private meetings public. But it will make for more two-way communication at public meetings. Listeners can simultaneously query the speaker and communicate among themselves instead of everyone remaining silent while one person at a time speaks.
Imagine your typical conference session: Some people are on stage, talking to each other and occasionally directing comments at the audience. The audience sits silently.
If this were a television broadcast, the audience would be sitting around in a living room, listening and chatting, commenting on what's happening onstage, perhaps correcting some facts or arguing with some interpretations.
Now combine the two scenes.
Instead of chatting aloud in a living room, the chatters are in the conference hall and online -- silent but active, so they don't disturb anyone.
Moreover, they have full access to the Internet. They can find the data to correct speakers as they "blog" (short for "Weblog"), posting real-time commentary about what's happening onstage.
That happened during an interview with Joe Nacchio, CEO of Qwest Telecommunications, who was bemoaning the challenges of the telecom market.
Two bloggers covering the conference in real-time, Linux Journal Senior Editor Doc Searls and San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor, got e-mails from a friend "watching" along online with a hyperlink to Nacchio's stock sales.
Both posted the link, and Gillmor added to the thread: "Joe Nacchio, CEO of Qwest, is whining. Poor guy, who took gazillions out of the company (thanks, Buzz, for the link) in stock sales while piling on the debt and giving shareholders a not-so-good deal, is bemoaning problems in capital formation ..."
Around that point, the audience turned hostile. I can't say how much was due to the blogging and how much a straight reaction to Nacchio onstage. Michael Chaplo, CEO of Joltage, which provided the wireless network (or"HotSpot"), says about half of the 500 or so attendees were online at the peak.
In short, there was a second conference occurring around, through and across the first.
THE WI-FI PEANUT GALLERY
All this happened last month in Scottsdale, Ariz., and will be happening again and again as more conference venues get "wired" with wireless.
It also happened at the last meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. I was online with a director during a ICANN board meeting -- and other board members (I know; I was one) were checking their mail and instant messages.
What's going on here?
As always, the phenomenon is happening first in a reflexive way -- as you may expect, at conferences where the subject is computers. But such phenomena have a way of spreading.
I remember the progression over the years at PC Forum. First we didn't have enough phone banks. During breaks we had long lines at the phones. Then people got their own cell phones, and they wandered around talking to themselves -- or so it seemed.
Then they got e-mail, and they would disappear into their rooms to log on. Then we put up a conference network, with Internet access, and there were lines for the networked PCs.
Now they have wireless, and they can use their PCs anywhere -- inside the main hall and out.
It used to be expensive to "wire" an event, costing tens of thousands of dollars. Now it is amazingly cheap -- $2,000 or so -- especially if the organizer already has the equipment, the hotel has a Net connection and the attendees already have the proper cards in their PCs. In fact, at some industry conferences the users supply all the equipment themselves.
Moreover, with services like Joltage's, anyone can set up a local wireless network linked into a fixed Internet connection. Pretty soon any self-respecting technology conference will have Wi-Fi.
A conference is always an attempt to orchestrate. Now, it is also something to annotate.
Speakers can see questions and respond without questioners uttering a word. Or the organizer can invite a questioner to talk. This is different from the write-your-question-on-a-card method, where only the organizer gets to see the questions, and can select the "convenient" ones.
It should also raise the quality of the questions, allowing the shy to express themselves clearly, the slow to upload a coherent comment with one click and the self-promoters and hand-wavers to expose themselves.
All this changes the role of the conference's organizer and moderator.
Previously, the organizer gathered people, focused attention for the conversation, and perhaps moderated a debate or two. But now the moderator will manage multiple channels, and a good participating audience is almost as important as a good roster of speakers.
Of course, you could argue that little of this is new. People have always whispered at meetings and interrupted speakers with awkward interjections.
What's different now is that it can happen on a wider, more socially acceptable scale. Conference organizers will have to install Wi-Fi facilities (until they become standard in every hotel) and they may create special password-protected online "places" for the parallel discussion.
Some attendees may enter those, but others may create their own, sharing them with people outside the conference -- and paid attendee list. Perhaps the model is that it's free to watch, but you must pay to post ...
What happens in the long run?
In some sense, the power of the conference moderator is reduced. Bloggers can add their own value ... and they can relay their version from inside the tent to those outside the tent and out of the organizer's control.
A paranoid organizer (or speaker or board chairman) could forbid real-time blogging: Please turn off your cell phones AND your wireless devices as you enter! But I hope the audience will object.
Meanwhile, the smart conference organizer will see this for what it really is -- an open-source-style phenomenon where everyone can add value to the event.