Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The "unconference." Or, "a blogger falls prey to hype."

David Winer presents a little notion called the unconference, based upon the following premise:

The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum
of expertise of the people on stage.

A laudable observation: I can see why Glenn on Instapundit linked it. However, "Army of Davids" material, this ain't, because the following premise is used to support a terrible conclusion:
Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do?
Choose a reporter, someone who knows something about the topic of discussion (yes, there is a topic, it’s not free-form) and knows how to ask questions and knit a story together.

Oh, dear. So, we're reducing conference sessions to Oprah, only with the Discussion Leader calling on random participants as if they were students at school? What does it mean, to "weave a story?" Well, I can tell you what it doesn't mean:
  1. You cannot hear and form effective, rational judgments based on somebody's research findings.
  2. You cannot visit any session about which you are a neophyte in the hopes of learning from an expert.
  3. You have no means by which to differentiate who possesses specialized knowledge, and who does not.
  4. You cannot present meaningful visual materials, because the topic at hand, given a population of sixty-some active participants, will never remain sufficiently focused.
But what we're really dealing with, is a disastrous assumption, which the author seems to assert as a given good:
I walked into the room and said Time Out, and told the panelists to take their seats in the otherwise packed classroom. I saw Jarvis’s eyes light up — he “got it” right then and there. No crutches. No droning. We’re all equals in this room. No one’s ideas are presumed to be better.

This is the sort of egalitarian promise that fascinates reporters in general -- it plays into their overarching mythology. Sadly, however, it's just not true except in the squishiest conference sessions. We do presume that some people have more and better ideas, or else we wouldn't bother to go to conferences in order to hear them.

We have words to describe what is advertised: for "unconference," substitute discussion. And for "unconferences" involving sufficiently unfalsifiable discussions that everybody's opinion is as good as everybody else's, substitute roundtable session. Yes, roundtables. Aka, ugh. There's a good reason that roundtable sessions are usually poorly attended, and they're precisely the reasons why Mr. Winer seems to be advocating them.

This whole blogging and "Army of Davids" deal rests on a premise: technology is allowing more voices to kick into the public debates. But that is only a virtue because of the generally-untapped reservoir of expert voices who can increase the quality of the general discussion. Simply because there are hundreds of thousands of experts out there, does not imply that all bloggers' opinions are equal. Would I dare to debate Joe Katzman of Winds of Change on defense issues? Nuh-uh. Or how about Michael Yon regarding small-unit fighting in Iraq? Nuh-uh again.

Blogs are nice, and expanding technology has the potential to do us a lot of good. But falling prey to hype isn't going to get us anywhere.

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