Speaking circuits and the cult of celebrity

Two recent blog posts have popped up on my radar, on a topic which has ground my gears in the past. Firstly Working on a few things in your bedroom, doesn’t make you an expert! and a reply Doing, speaking and (not) being an internet celebrity.

I’m quite willing to admit that in the past I was one of those people Rachel and Zach mention. I’ve been guilty of expecting success and feeling entitled to some kind of recognition. I think everyone to some extent wants to be famous, but the fame doesn’t have to be international. The kind of fame many people want isn’t so much fame as satisfaction - the satisfaction of having reached someone.

I’ve been to a few conferences in my time but have learnt some just aren’t for me. I’m definitely on the techy side of web development. I don’t design, I don’t really project manage, I like systems. I code. I love code. However web development is a broad spectrum of technologies and skills so when I went to dConstruct the first two times, I thought it would be a statistical certainty that at least one of the talks would give me the kind of rigorous mental workout I was after. Both times however I left disappointed. Instead of detailed insights and pithy teachings directly applicable in the projects I was working on, I got zen truth, feel-good monologues and some frankly misjudged talks. My nadir was listening to a designer take over an hour to explain how fonts were like shoes and choosing the right pair for your activity was important. It felt childish. I didn’t feel reached.

I watched the dConstruct speaker lists for some years after that but saw the same faces popping up and I’ve not been back since. I started to get interest in speaking myself, mainly - if I’m honest - out of a kind of bitter resentment that people were getting attention for giving such insubstantial talks.

I am, of course, in the wrong here. Just because I didn’t learn anything doesn’t mean no one else would. Conferences are aimed at a demographic and I’m simply not in it. I accept that now. I’ve been to conferences since that are far more focused in their audience or subject matter and I’ve come away happy. I’ve also spoken at local geek meet ups and I obviously blog, so my desire for recognition has been sated.

The animosity towards the Cult Of Celebrity interests me having been one of those people. Thinking back now I wasn’t annoyed that the same faces were appearing, I was annoyed that the same faces meant the same insubstantial talks and if I wasn’t learning from these huge names, that meant there was something wrong with me! Its not a cult of celebrity, its peer pressure. I wonder if it isn’t that people are annoyed that the same faces are speaking, its that people are worried that they’re not interested in them! It really means something to web professionals to be able to go to these events, particularly the large ones. The ones your Twitter followers would be impressed with. If you’re not at them you feel like you’re missing out, like you’re not keeping up, not one of the crowd. In some small way you can even feel like you’re risking your job not to go. To go, only to come away empty handed, feels like a bit of an insult and feels a bit worrying too.

I think the truth of the matter is that picking the right conference isn’t quite as straight forward as people think. I mean this from the perspective of audience and speaker. The web has taken leaps and bounds in the last decade and I get the impression that with so many newcomers to the field and such a rapid-paced field in itself, there are increasingly more people trying to keep up with the nearest bandwagon without first checking that it’s going in their direction.

As in the band DIY scene, I think the real satisfaction comes from small sweaty gigs to a handful of people who were there for the music, not for the name of the bands.