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#PdF11: Notes On Curation

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, June 2 2011

This is my eighth Personal Democracy Forum, and the seventh that I've curated (not counting the three satellite events we've done in Europe and Latin America in the last two years). As we gear up for #PdF11, I thought I'd share some thoughts about this year's conference, not so much in the spirit of Tracy Russo's great post on "how to rock PdF" but with the goal of explaining more of the underlying choices and tweaks that got us to this year's program.

As far as I know, there's nowhere you go to learn how to curate an event, though come to think of it there probably are places where you can study things like event management, theater management and museum curation. Circus school might not hurt either, given some of the juggling and plate-spinning skills needed in this business. But the truth is, in my experience curation is mostly an art, plus a bit of witchcraft and a dose of luck. Along with watching what works and what doesn't, both at our own events and those of other great conferences.

We made several deliberate choices as we started planning this year. First, we made some modifications in the conference structure:

  • We decided to do fewer breakouts and reduce the number of speakers per breakout, based on the theory that "less is more." In 2010, we had 30 breakouts over the two days and things seemed a little over-packed; this year we have just 22. This meant turning down several proposals for things we might traditionally have done, like panels on local online politicking or how-to sessions on various topics. You should let us know in the post-conference survey whether this was the right decision.
  • We decided to almost completely eliminate panel sessions in the main hall, based on our sense that, to put it kindly, main hall panels can be dull. Instead, we chose to ask our main hall presenters to each speak individually. I've noticed that when one person has the stage to him- or herself, they usually rise to the occasion and bring their full energy and passion to a talk, whereas when four or five people share a table for a panel session together, the energy in the room can drop.
  • Building on last year's PdF, we're offering more short talks in the main hall plenaries, ranging from five to ten minutes long. Some of these, to be sure, will be on topics that some folks in the audience aren't interested in. (You can't please everyone all the time!) But based on the feedback we got from last year, a short talk on an uninteresting topic is much better than a long one--and people are happy to use those few minutes to tune out, check their email, and then tune back in for the next talk. (Yes, we know you're multitasking, don't try to hide it.)
  • We've eliminated time for audience questions in the main hall, which I know we may get some flack for. But here's why we did it: in my experience, all too often, when you have something like 750 people in a room, the questioners who manage to get to the mike rarely ask a valuable question. More often than not, they make a long-winded statement that is more an advertisement for themselves than a real engagement with a speaker. And leaving time to indulge in that means taking time away from speakers who genuinely have something to say. I know this is somewhat of a lousy trade-off, because it may appear to limit audience participation, but given that most if not all of our attendees will be using and reading the Twitter backchannel (in addition to whatever backchannel to the backchannel emerges on IRC), there's going to be a lot of audience participation. And where time permits we will try to pose comments or questions from Twitter-stream to our speakers.
  • At the same time, we've added a new feature to our breakout sessions: the "deep dive" conversation with a half-dozen of keynote speakers, in one-to-many or two-together sessions, where there will be plenty of time for dialogue and discussion. And more than a dozen of our main hall presenters will also be participating in our regular breakout sessions, also allowing you more time to offer feedback and dig deep on particular subjects of interest.

Curation, of course, isn't only about structure and timing. It's about which people to invite and on what topics. I've already posted about the latter (see this overview of the Agents of Change theme), but wanted to say a little bit here about the former. This year at PdF we've managed to meet two critical goals: to have parity in the number of speakers representing the Democratic and Republican parties, and to have parity in the number of men and women speakers. It turns out that for our ecosystem, it is much easier to achieve political parity that it is to get to gender parity. Our Republican and conservative friends were glad to help recommend people and make introductions, and it was also gratifying to see that even a blind invitation from me and Andrew would often be enough to get a positive response from an invitee.

The dynamics of gender balance are different. And here I just want to point out one issue, which you might call the hydraulic pressure of male domination. We had no problem identifying a great and balanced array of fantastic potential speakers of both sexes; women are playing leading roles alongside men in every sector, whether its government, elected office, online organizing, social entrepreneurship, new media, or tech development. And as a curator, if you conscientiously invite people in rough parity, you will generally get to parity.

The quirky thing is this: Other people are still more likely to recommend men than women as speakers. This happened multiple times. We get pitches from friends, PR agents, industry colleagues, fellow cool-watchers, you name it. And on their own, the cumulative sum of those suggestions tilted male, perhaps 3 or 4 to 1. Even more frustrating, in several cases, I had confirmed a woman speaker who then had a change in plans, and she would recommend other men who could take her place. (Men dropouts also recommended other men rather than women.) I would usually reply asking for suggestions of women as well, and then things got more balanced. What I learned from all of this is if you aren't explicit about changing the gender ratio, all kinds of societal habits and grooves kick in that tend to favor men over women.

That said, this is a complicated subject to talk about openly. I know for sure that many of the folks who pitched me or made a suggestion of someone to invite simply thought they were promoting a person or project that they thought would be of interest to the PdF community. They didn't think, "I better make sure my suggestions are balanced"; they probably assumed we would play that filtering role. But even though Andrew and I may be somewhat undemocratic or opaque in how we go about inviting people, we are still human and we do respond to entreaties from others, all the time. So it's my hope that by talking about these unseen factors, the subtle hydraulic pressure that flows in the background that advantages men over women across our society, we can make gender parity less of a rarity and more of a norm.

We still have plenty of work to do. We may have a balanced group of speakers in terms of gender or politics, but we're still more white than America is, let alone the whole world. I'm betting that our mix of attendees is also less diverse than we'd like, on all of these metrics. Creating an integrated community, even in a space as lively and rapidly changing as the one PdF works in, isn't something that happens overnight. We still live in America, which is stratified and polarized and segregated in all kinds of ways. Hopefully, you agree these are issues worth working on--we can use your help!

A final point about curation. There is a feng shui to it as well. The space we're in matters, as well as all kinds of little touches that my colleagues Andrew Rasiej, and Jen Vento and Anthony Russomano, respectively our COO and conference manager, spend a lot of time working on. Making sure there's lot of good networking space, making sure the WiFi works, getting all the signage and program materials together, feeding you lunch and coffee and drinks--a hundred and one details go into making a great event. This past year, Andrew, Jen and Anthony scoured the city hunting for the best location for PdF, and we think we've found it in NYU's Skirball and Kimmel Centers. Hopefully you'll agree.

We'll know by the buzz you make, and the buzz you give us.