Elitist only need apply?

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

One interesting side note related to the Weblogger conference. In my comments attached to the first conference posting, an anonymous poster wrote:

A meet-up would never work because it just wouldn’t have the elitist pseudo-professional look to it that these people want to portray.

Since the comments were coming fast and furious, this one was buried a bit, until AKMA commented on it in my second conference posting. He wrote:

Anonymous suggested that there’s an elitist streak to these meetings; s/he is right, in both the obvious negative sense and in a positive sense, where “leading” personae get the chance to sit around and talk to one another, allowing their imaginations to strike sparks and develop notions that wouldn’t have arisen or grown as readily in solitude as they do in company. I don’t have a problem with that, though I’m mostly just a wannabe in tech circles. If I get cool innovations and insights from the elite, what’s my stake in saying, “but no one’s paying attention to me?” If Shelley and Mark Pilgrim and Dave and Sam want to put their collective brilliance together for an evening’s technical tete-a-tete, I oughtn’t to complain that they’re being elitists.

In circles in which I’m marginally closer to being part of an elite, I try to help people join the scintillating conversations—but I also get weary when someone with whom I hadn’t expected to be talking damps the exciting exchange of ideas with discursive Blank Space.

It’s a tough balance, but in that balance “elitism” isn’t only a bad thing.

My first reaction to any form of elitism is that it’s a bad thing. However, AKMA has a good point; people with advanced knowledge on topics need time to talk, to exchange ideas, to feed off of each other in a productive sense. To discourage this would be as counter-productive as not encouraging discussion from the people who don’t have this advanced knowledge.

Both AKMA and Dave Winer referenced a post by Aaron Swartz about how to have a good conference. Aaron has some interesting points, particularly about the inappropriate use of speech. However, he also writes:


3. Get smart people and encourage them to talk. Now this one is a bit difficult. Most conferences seem to use a large mass of “normal” people (the “audience”) to subsidize the “special” people (the “speakers”). Since I tend to be in the latter group and don’t have much money, I sort of like this. But the annoying side-effects are that “special” people don’t get to discuss things with each other and “normal” people waste everybody’s time by asking stupid questions. I’m not sure how to solve this. Maybe only let “special” people ask questions? I suspect this would seriously hurt the feel of the event.

So what happens when you do this? The closest thing I’ve heard of is the Hackers Conference. Reading the description made me drool. Everyone’s a presenter, interrupting is encouraged, everyone gets a booth to demo, there’s lots of talking-to-each-other time, the conference runs 24 hours, they invite only the best. They also do a lot of other clever things to make it work, especially in the physical location.

Sadly, I’ve never attended. Mostly because I’ve never been invited (you have to be invited to come, and you have to be cool to be invited) but also because it’s incredibly expensive (I suspect this is because of the physical location thing, but also because there are no “normal” people to subsidize the rest of us). Maybe someday, all conferences will be as cool as this. Or at least the ones I’m interested in. I sure hope so.

No matter how I look at this, no matter how much I want to not get into position of yet again picking on someone whom everyone adores, I cannot agree with this sentiment. No, I cannot agree with this in any form.

I understand what AKMA is saying, that people with extreme knowledge need time to communicate directly with each other in order to generate new ideas. I think this view agrees with Aaron to some extent.

Perhaps my odd euphoric energy from earlier today is running down, but the whole conversation about ‘normals’ and ‘specials’, and ‘normals’ and ‘stupid questions’, and ‘normals’ funding the conference so the ‘specials’ can talk is sobering. And disquieting.

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