I’ve always looked at conferences as less of an opportunity to learn something, and more of an opportunity to network. You connect with people, but on a business level. Rarely do you connect with people on a really human level.
You meet in some conference center in some hotel. You have nametags (which, ironically, just reinforce the fact that no one knows each other). You sit in big halls, behind tables, and pass people in the hall as you shuffle between concurrent sessions.
Then, when it’s all over at the end of the day, you might go eat with someone you know or have met, but likely you just head back your room and watch TV.
Now, these conferences are fine. They’re efficient. They’re about imparting information as quickly as possible, and they do a great job. I was at Web Content 2008 in Chicago, and I loved it.
But, sometimes, you need to do something different. Really different.
Zap Your PRAM is awfully different. It’s an “unconference.” More of a glorified, three-day slumber party, really. I feel like I’ve been at summer camp.
It’s run by silverorange, the design company that did Digg and Mozilla, and their famous intranet. Dan James and I have exchanged emails for years, about the intranet and other topics. Five years ago, he invited me to Zap 1, but my wife was in the middle of complicated pregnancy, and I had to send regrets.
But this time, I was determined. Being a Kiwi living in the United States with an expired green card (still permanent status, just an expired card), I had to meet with the Department of Homeland Security twice, just to ensure I could get back in the country. Then I had to get a New Zealand passport issued from the UK (figure that one out).
But, I made it. All the way from Sioux Falls to Prince Edward Island, via Chicago and Montreal. PEI is out off the east coast of Canada, in the North Atlantic. silverorange is based here, in Charlottetown.
We met at Dalvey-by-the-Sea, a giant Queen Anne hotel right on the northern coast. Built in the 1800s, it’s all about big fireplaces, wood paneling, front porches, and a general New England vibe. If you’ve ever seen or read “Anne of Green Gables,” it was the White Sands Hotel.
There are no concurrent sessions or keynotes at Zap. There are three sessions (talks? discussions?) in the morning, and three in the afternoon. There are only fifty people, and we all meet in the parlor on a bunch of comfy couches.
Presenters get up in front of the fireplace and start talking. The presentations are loose, and they quickly get overrun by questions and turn into free-for-all discussions. More than once, the original presenter turns into a bystander as the group takes an issue and runs with it, bouncing it across the room with wild abandon. The discussion period often lasted three or four times as long as the official presentation.
Presentations ran the gamut:
A discussion of Plazes, which morphed into a debate about how compelled we are to record every moment we experience.
A explanation by Brad Turcotte of how a new song gets developed, from germination to release and beyond. This went on to a fascinating story about the life of an indie song and how it ended up affecting a William Gibson novel (I’ll blog that later). Brad let us in on the secret of doubling. Sneaky.
A review of the design process behind Last.fm from their interaction designer.
A dissection of the Hollywood writer’s strike from a husband-wife writing team who walked the picket lines (they had pictures!), and why the strike mattered for creative people.
A panel on why we work, and why it matters. I was on this one, and realized halfway through that I’m apparently somewhat alone in my neuroses. The session kind of morphed into group therapy.
And it went on and on. In between each session were raging discussions, follow-ups, sideline conversations in the hallway, etc.
What made the whole thing amazing was the intensity, driven by an unavoidable communalism. You simply could not be at arms length from anyone.
Dalvey-by-the-Sea is isolated on the northern coast of PEI. We were 20 minutes way from…anything. Even if I wanted to leave, I didn’t have a car.
We had the entire place to ourselves. Besides four or five staff, everyone there was someone you had either engaged with, or would shortly.
Dress code was beyond casual. Even in jeans, I felt a little overdressed the first day, so I untucked my shirt and didn’t shave the next, and felt better for it.
The weather was…brisk. Just so you know: “brisk” is PEI-speak for “friggin’ cold.” Apparently not too cold not play a pick-up game of football on the lawn, but too cold for much else outside.
We ate meals together. The food was amazing, and they scheduled two hours for each meal, which meant some of the more in-depth conversations I had were in between bites of dinner. The evening meal ended with everyone lingering over coffee, then dessert, before drifting back to the parlor together.
The rooms were tiny, and there were no televisions, so there was literally nothing to do in your room but sleep. This meant that you spent any non-session time together in the parlor, as a group. One night we downed hundreds of dollars worth of scotch in a semi-formal tasting, there was live music the two other nights.
(In fact, I spent the last night drifting off to sleep on a couch with a Stella in one hand, and John Connelly singing in the background. Five minutes later, I came to and immediately launched into a 90-minute conversation about the Web development business with Dan.)
The net result of all this togetherness is that discussion raged into the night. I would go to bed in the wee hours of the morning, and conversation would echo up through the gallery until I fell asleep. The little heater in my room would drown it out when it switched on, and when it went off 10 minutes later, the voices would still be there. I drifted off to sleep each night with a smile on my face.
And this wasn’t your standard anti-septic, business, poser conversation. This was rich, earthy, “I’ve had three glasses of wine and we’re talking about something of which I’m deeply passionate, so I’m going to gesticulate wildly and talk louder than is socially acceptable” conversation. I don’t get enough of that.
(Seriously, when was the last time you actually saw someone throw back their head in laughter? Someone not on the cover of the Yahtzee box?)
Given the breadth of topics, there were times on the first day when I thought “What they’re talking about has nothing to do with me,” but I still knew there was a good reason to be there. However, I couldn’t articulate it until I read something on Ian Williams blog. Ian and his wife Tessa are the writers who presented on the strike, and he’s managed to capture one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever heard:
To me, if you’re someone who relies on creativity for a living — and that goes for more of you than you might think — you have to put yourself in the way of bizarre ideas. You have to be blindsided, slightly, by subject matter you’d never find or seek on your own volition. It may not always work, but just dipping your head into the cold, bracing water of other peoples’ obsessions can occasionally give you something you didn’t even know you needed.
Seriously — wow. That thought echos through a lot of my life in areas far, far beyond how I spent this last weekend. After I read it, I almost gave Ian a spontaneous hug just for writing it (but, his wife was right there, so, you know, not cool…).
I talked to Dan about Zap 3, and I asked if they could do it sooner than five years from now. He said that they would plan it when they had the “fire in their bellies.”
(Follow this up by looking through Stephen DesRoches’ crazy-awesome pictures of the event. I am in exactly none of them.).