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“Our Social World”: I’m not being social

Friday 9th of September is the day of “Our Social World”, a one-day conference in Cambridge. It describes itself as:

Our Social World is for business leaders, PR experts, technologists, investors, and people using blogs, wikis and other online communications tools. It’s about enabling conversations between businesses and their customers using the new tools made possible by the WWW. You’ll find new ways of letting your customers set your direction, ask you questions and understanding your market propositions.

Hmmm, ok. That’s exactly the kind of stuff I’m involved in. It goes on:

You’ll find out how people are using tools like blogs and wikis, and which niches are ready for innovative approaches. You’ll learn how new tools for communication are experiencing explosive growth. You’ll meet people using these tools to hold conversations with customers or other stakeholders, and have the opportunity to find out what works well and what doesn’t.

So here begins my issue – I already know that all that. I’m not saying I know everything – but it’s core activity as part of my day-to-day work at the BBC. is all about using blogs and wikis to hold conversations with our customers (well audience, same difference). Not only do I run that everyday, but I helped successfully convince other people in the BBC it was a good idea. So why do I want to go to a conference that is going to tell me stuff I already do?

But of course. You don’t just go to conferences to learn stuff, do you? You go to be seen and to network. Some would even argue that you don’t go to conferences that are about stuff you don’t know – far better to find out about it behind the privacy of closed doors.

A bit of me would love to become a conference whore (I use that term sarcastically and light-heartedly rather than offensively), and big up “Brand Ben Metcalfe”. But it just doesn’t seem right. I’m not sure why, but I’m just not comfortable with it and it’s not something you will find me doing. If you meet me at a conference, I’m far more likely to be talking to you about what we’re doing at the BBC in general.

And that’s not through jealously or because I can’t go… I probably could get the budget to go on this and loads of other conferences if I wanted to, and of course I would get paid to go too (which also flies in the face of my last post about the BBC saving money).

My (naïve) ethos is that I’d much rather let my work do the talking. My hope is that it does, but if I’m honest, deep down I know that it doesn’t.

I look around me, and I see that it’s the ‘personalities’ who are well known that get ahead, get mentioned, get the next lucrative job Yahoogle, etc. Not the person who puts their head down, gets on with the job at hand and doesn’t do any active ‘self-PRing’ at conferences, etc. I’m not saying that the people who do a lot of conferences don’t also put in the work, some do, but my point is doing the work just isn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like attending conferences – but you’re far more likely to see me at slightly off-topic conferences such as PodCastCon (Sat Sep 17th) which are based around stuff I don’t know enough about. If I do speak at a conference, again, it’s because I feel I have something new and interesting to say; something that moves the conversation forward… I’m not into conference speaking for the sake of it, to big myself up.

PodCastCon is in fact a great example of the type of conference you won’t find many of the professional conference circuit regulars attending. I know a few people who have snubbed that one because it’s “just £30”. There’s certainly a good reason why even one-day conferences such as “Our Social World” cost £350 + VAT to attend – it’s the element of exclusivity that is also desired by people who do the circuit… It’s the “who will see me?” effect.

One of my roles with is to be an advocate and evangelist for the work we are doing to “open up the BBC”. But I think it’s far more successful to do that with new people who may not know everything we are doing at the BBC, rather than attend conferences with the same old crowd and effectively be “pushing at an open door”.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I would much rather attend a conference and have a conversation with our audience, rather than attend a conference to find out how to have a conversation with out audience!

I know this post should be categorised as “a post you shouldn’t write”. It will no doubt get the backs up of the many people who do make a roll for themselves as being a “conference regular”. If that’s you, and many of them are my friends and colleagues, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments of this post to put your side of the coin. I’m very much up for you putting the other side of the story and I’m genuinely interested as to why people do it.

Published in Thoughts and Rants


  1. Yep, I wrote that copy. It’s not as slick as a pro would write it, but there you go. Interestingly, although the site is a wiki and open to anyone to edit, we’ve had very, very few changes. It would have been brilliant if someone else had improved it, and that’s what I was hoping when I set up the wiki.

    We’d love to see you at the conference, and it’s not too late; it’s all about sharing ideas. We’ve arranged it so that it’s not a day of being spoken to, but a day of talking to people. Each of the tables will have a speaker seated at it. Speakers only get a limited time to talk to the floor – most of the time is going to be spent in smaller groups. The tables will have a range of people on them – experts to novices.

    Personalities: Attracting people to conferences is difficult and doubly so when it’s not in London; you need to give people a reason to gather, and it’s the speakers that do it, which is why we’ve pitched the names. But I think the speakers aren’t what make for a great day. It’s the people you meet. And there’ll be loads of interesting people at the conference – take a look at the delegates page where people have written about themselves. But facinating though we are, most of us don’t have the brand name.

    You said ‘I know this post should be categorised as “a post you shouldn’t write”‘. I think it’s an excellent post. Thanks.


  2. I think there’s a difference in business-orientated conferences, which have big price tags, and are aimed at marketeers trying to leverage some of this ‘blog/wiki/podcast stuff‘ to try and flog stuff, and the grass-roots, community-minded conferences which cost less, don’t make money, and are about how these tools can democratise the web.

    I’d much rather be at the latter, and, judging by your appearances at OpenTech and PodcastCon, so would you…?

  3. Ben Ben

    In response to Jeff Veit (who is involved in the organising of Our Social World)…

    Firstly, many thanks Jeff for taking time to write a comment on the eve of the big day.

    I guess the first thing to write is that I think the introductory lines on your site are perfectly fine… My issue is not with the wording of the site – it’s pitched perfectly, it’s more like does that pitch make me want to ‘bite’?

    Clearly this is a networking orientated conference. And that’s fine, but I’m not sure how useful that is to me. I know I’m fortunate to be in position working for the BBC that I’m exposed to a lot of people in the industry, but I personally know most of the people in your speaker line up because I either work with them, are friends with them or seem to meet them a lot at events. The same goes with a large number of the attendees.

    It all gets to the point where it becomes “Oh, this is this month’s opportunity to meet the regulars”. Like I said, that’s fine for many people – especially as for many it’s “just 1 day out of the office”. But I guess I get self-conscious about not being productive and providing value for money to my employer… if I’m not busy or feel like I’m spending my time wisely then my guilty streak hits.

    I totally understand why you’ve chosen the speaker line up you have, but for me I guess what would have been so refreshing (and potentially a deal maker into coming) would be if you had speakers I hadn’t heard before, and aren’t the regular people.

    “Here’s Betty Smith of Berkshire local health authority who’s being using blogs in group therapy for recovering heroin addicts”


    “Here’s Clive Brown who’s just speaking for the first time about his master’s thesis that looked at the social behaviours and buying trends of audience and potential customers in “conversation with users” style consumercompany relationships” – I don’t know, something new and different and unique that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.

    There will be no doubt be another conference in a few months time I guarantee will have about 75% of the same people attending as Our Social World.

    Finally, I still think this is a “post you shouldn’t write” because essentially it is taking issue with the way a number of people just attend the same old events with the same thing to say and the same view point (be they attendees or speakers). Like I said, many of them are friends and colleagues, and although I have kept my criticisms professional rather than personal, I still know it will be taken to heart (which it isn’t my intention) and may have fall-out for the future.

    I do hope you’re conference goes well and that those who do go get what they are looking for out of it.


  4. Ben Ben

    In response to Frankie,

    I think the main difference between conferences is the price ticket. The price is arguably one of the biggest factors that define it’s character.

    The more a conference costs, the more exclusive it’s going to be. The higher the barrier to entry, the more “part of the club” you are made to feel.

    An entry price of £350 + VAT is telling in itself. If you ‘re an individual, then it’s unlikely you are going to pay what is actually a hefty £411.25 inc VAT for a day of chat. If you work for a medium to large company where attending these events if common, then £350 (because companies won’t pay the VAT of course) is a tiny amount that you probably won’t even need to get managerial agreement to spend. If you work for a small to medium sized business which doesn’t normally attend these types of things then £350 is large enough that the conference won’t get inundated and diluted with shed loads of companies sending delegates to ‘leech’.

    The one “conference” where price says it all about the type of person who will be there is O’Reilly FooCamp. The price to go to that invitation-only affair is having been a very good chum of O’Reilly in the past year. And yes, the all A-List attendee list is very attractive and of course everyone wants to go (if they are honest). It’s also why BarCamp was attended generally by total unknowns – few people who ‘thought they should have got a FooCamp invitation’ were going to accept second best.

    But I’m going a little off point here…

    Frankie, I don’t think many of the big business-orientated conferences actually are about people leveraging and selling – mainly because if you pay a lot to get in you don’t really expect to get ‘sales pitched’ at. If anything it’s the “free” conferences where that happens – Sun are great for doing that… “Come to our exciting conference to talk about the future of distributed applications” which turns out to be a whole day of case studies telling you why you should buy their latest messaging application or some such.

    I do enjoy “meeting the people”, the audiencehood of backstage and people like yourself who something interesting and fresh to say. And that’s why PodCastCon is £30 to get it – to attract that audience. If it was £300 people like yourself wouldn’t probably go.

    I’m minded by the fact that when I go to O’Reilly ETech (which yes, is networky, but tends to be people I haven’t met before and also has good lecture streams) I meet people like Jeff Bezos roaming the exhibitor floor, attending all of the talks and standing in line behind me when I’m queuing to get a cup of coffee. He can identify it’s worth taking three days out of his no-doubt busy schedule to “meet the people” rather than be with his fellow business peers. You don’t see Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or even Larry Page and Sergey Brin for that matter doing the same.


  5. kosso kosso

    well said! or are we all well sad?

    conferences are meetups. they can be a pilgrimage of like-minded soulgeeks desperate for recognition for the things they make or say and do. (like me!) it can be fun and forge new creativity. yay!

    talk to who you know, or make new friends. it’s up to you.

    it’s no different to your old school local disco 🙂

    I try to stop thinking about the business angle, as I find it clouds development.

    imho. etc. 😉

  6. I agree with you about the risks of becoming a conference whore Ben but for me, given that my work is behind the firewall, it is useful to meet other people doing similar stuff in other organisations and hopefully useful for them to hear what we have done.

    “My (naïve) ethos is that I’d much rather let my work do the talking. ” only applies if your work is public!

  7. Ben Ben


    That’s actually fair comment. Your good work isn’t seen by people outside the BBC.

  8. 🙂

  9. As the conference organiser I found the article interesting.
    Firstly the price was never £350. We had a corporate rate of £250 and a ‘normal’ rate of £100 plus a student rate (for a while) of £60 all plus VAT. this price was forced on us by the Moller Centre charging a fixed rate for every man woman who attended. The conference was always going to have a high ratio of speakers (don’t pay) to delegates. We had NO financial sponsorship at all. I backed the conference with my own brass! Why the Moller centre? because they gave us FREE wifi.

    Secondly the argument about the ‘usual crowd’ is spurious we were aiming at a different market than Reboot etc. My aim was to try and attract ‘silicon fen’ companies to wake up. On this we failed. However, we did attract a large number of people who had never heard of wiki’s blogs etc AT ALL. OK all the speakers knew each other but that is normal in early stage development. Yes I would love to have some of the delegates speak at the next one reciting their experiences and given the level of interest generated I think that is plausible.

    Overall the conference was a success measured by the large number of wiki entries created by the delegates. For most (if not all) this was their first attempt at creating direct web content! We broke even on direct costs, so all I lost was my summer free time . However, I gained an incredible first hand insight into the conference industry and knowlege of where some of the the Social Software is at. Many thanks to all the kind people who assisted me in this first attempt at bringing blogs and wikis to Cambridge.
    Geoff Jones – Our Social world Organiser and backer.

  10. “I guess what I am trying to say is that I would much rather attend a conference and have a conversation with our audience, rather than attend a conference to find out how to have a conversation with out audience!”. agreed. I attended the conference and while the intentions were good it fell between two stools: too technical / geeky for trad business types and not geeky enough for you to actually hear new things or speak to the audience.

    However, a lot of people in the blogosphere have trashed this conference, I believe unjustly. There are a lot of anti-commercial geeks who like to inhabit the fringes and don;t like it when what they do becomes more mainstream. In truth the success of web2.0 depends on it being understood and taken up by the very corporations and businesses that ‘we’ look on disparingingly.

  11. “I don’t think many of the big business-orientated conferences actually are about people leveraging and selling”

    To clarify my confusing comment, I was trying to draw a divide between business-orientated conferences, where the delegates are in the business of selling, using new media trends and platforms, and those aimed at individuals and communities, whose aims aren’t about selling but are about personal publishing and social ‘good’.

    Both fill a gap.

    Where Podcast Con got interesting (and heated), was where the different interests of these two audiences (who were both in attendance) collided.

    At the bottom of that review, I comment that there doesn’t seem to be any conference on a similar scale of the podcast con for the UK blogging community. Am I missing something, or is this true?

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