Jan 15 2010

Tagging and face-to-face events

Face-to-face conferences aren’t what they used to be and that’s ok with me.   How many times have you gone to a face-to-face conference in another city where you rub shoulders with a lot of strangers, listen to a bunch of talking heads with obscure PowerPoint slides in cold dark rooms, make a few acquaintances at the reception, give your talk to a group that may or may not get what you’re talking about, and come home with a printed proceedings that goes on the bookshelf?

My days of passive participation are over and done with:

  • For me, the reason to go to a big conference is the small group conversations with people I already know somewhat or with whom I share a common interest
  • We have the tools to coordinate and connect before, during and after the event — to keep the conversation going (it starts before the conference and goes afterward as well)

I always want to know who else is attending an event, what they’re thinking about, where people are staying, and where we’re going to eat.  During the conference, it’s useful to eavesdrop on parallel sessions that I’m missing by watching the twitter stream.  And it’s helpful to be able to look at people’s slides right away, and to find related materials that’s mentioned or written during the conference.   And it’s nice to see photos of the event afterward, too.

Tagging before, during and after a conference is a key tool for using a big conference as a kind of host system a smaller group that wants to connect.  The economics of face-to-face meetings leads to big conferences.  The economics of meaning-making require smaller, but not closed, conversations.

Apart from email, forums, teleconferences, mobile phones, and other technologies, tagging is useful for enabling a small group to use a large conference as a platform for its own purposes.  It’s an example of a technology that allows the integration across tools by means of a practice and a protocol (as we discuss in Chapter 4 of Digital Habitats).

Using CPsquare’ssidecar” participation in the AoIR Conference (which coincided with the EPIC conference) as an example, here are some observations of how tagging can play a role in supporting a subgroup’s participation at a big conference.

  • Emergent intention.  Early on nobody knows for sure who will be there and therefore whether it’s worth going.  Email discussions about who’s going are key to establishing that there will be some kind of quorum which would make a long trip worthwhile.  But at a certain point, tagging the resources that emerge is essential.  Four months after tagging the AoIR conference, for example, we noticed that the EPIC conference was scheduled the same week.  That coincidence turned out to be a key to the dynamics of the conversation.
  • Fuzzy social boundaries.  Tagging is open in the sense that anybody can use it and it’s visible to everyone. Tagging prospective participants or presentations is a way of encouraging participation.  Looking at the tagstream, for example, you can see that Sus Nyrop, who did participate, was hoping that Christina Costa would join us (although she couldn’t make it in the end).
  • Identification of relevant resources .  Being together at a conference may focus on a particular topic, but you have to identify a lot of other relevant resources like where to stay.  We used the lodging page from a previous conference in Copenhagen to figure out where our group might stay.
  • Multiple outputs. Active participation generates a lot of different outputs. Tagging is the ideal way to keep track of them.  Delicious links are here. Flickr photos are here.  Not much video produced at that conference.
  • Distributed leadership. Although I used the “cp2oir08” tag more than anybody else, others used it as well.  The goal is to coax people to contribute, whether it’s a tag you came up with or not.


  • Propose a tag early.  Announce it by email or by other means to get the word out.
  • Tag should be as intuitive and descriptive as it can be but as short as possible.
  • Weave tagging into group practice and tagged resources into the conversation.  Mention what’s been tagged by you or what you’ve found in the tagstream that others should know about.
  • Think of the tagstream a community-building resource. A tagstream is the accumulation of tagged materials contributed by everyone, which  is stored on a tagging platform such as delicious, and which retrieved or monitored via an RSS feed (but which can also be viewed as a web page).
  • Identify related or parallel tags (such as “ir9” that was used for the AoIR conference as a whole on Flickr, delicious, and Twitter).
  • Think of the tagstream as an ideal research tool, when you’re going back to figure out what happened or when.

Photo by Bev Trayner.

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Tagging and face-to-face events”

  1. Atul says:

    Nice post, John. Something i have been thinking about, though from within the organization. Basically, the idea of people folksonomy, the way it is done for content on KM platforms. Nice to see this idea coming for face-to-face interactions too.


    • smithjd8 says:

      Although we do it all the time, it can be very problematic. One reason groups are handy is that you can tag a group: name it, label it, and whatever without causing offense. Tagging an occasion is safe, too. Tagging people can be quite delicate, don't you think?

  2. John, this is a very useful posting.

    I have struggled with this, particularly when the conference (or participants) are not community of practice or technology-focused. I tend to attend conference on my own, and enjoy when I have the opportunity to attend a new conference for the first time. I am wondering how to get the word out about this or otherwise begin the conversation when there is not already a previously established community that can be identified?


    • smithjd8 says:

      Partly this should be the job of conference organizers, although they may have a conflict of interest. It seems to me that there are many ways in which technology can help us get the conversation going before an event and help us continue it afterward. But it takes extra work to make that happen. If you are strictly driven by the current economics of conferences you might not bother to make that investment.

      • John, I agree with you on this one, except also know that there are few conference organizers I have met who do this.

        I think the question is more about how can this be done by some interested participants, given that many conferences do not provide many resources to enable this . . .

  3. […] Learn­ing Alliances » Tag­ging and face-to-face events. ”…Dur­ing the con­fer­ence, it’s use­ful to eaves­drop on par­al­lel ses­sions that […]

  4. […] Learning Alliances » Tagging and face-to-face events. ”…During the conference, it’s useful to eavesdrop on parallel sessions that I’m missing […]

  5. […] Learning Alliances » Tagging and face-to-face events. ”…During the conference, it’s useful to eavesdrop on parallel sessions that I’m missing […]

  6. […] Learning Alliances » Tagging and face-to-face events. ”…During the conference, it’s useful to eavesdrop on parallel sessions that I’m […]

  7. Twitter Comment

    Yep this is good Tagging and face-to-face events [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  8. Twitter Comment

    Found in @DavidGurteen newsletter: Tagging and face-to-face events [link to post], might be handy for our upcoming #sgf10

    Posted using Chat Catcher

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