There are good things about conferences and there are bad things about conferences. One of the bad things is how little the audience gets to participate directly in the content being created. Sometimes there’s a question and answer period at the end of a panel where people line up at a microphone to ask questions. But that’s usually it. Other than booing and applause, and of course the back channel on Twitter, there’s not much of a feedback loop.
That’s partially a good thing, of course. A room full of 2,000 people all shouting their opinions on a topic isn’t much of anything except chaos. But sometimes there are people in the audience who have a really interesting perspective on a topic, or even know more about the topic than the people on stage.
The idea of an unconference has evolved over the years with Foo Camp and BAR Camp (and others) where the audience and the speakers are one. Those types of events are really rewarding, but they don’t work on a large scale single track event. Again, it would just be chaos.
A couple of years ago Dave Winer had the idea of putting people from the audience, literally, on stage (there’s a link out there somewhere but I can’t find it). As far as I know no one has ever really experimented with this yet. But we’re going to try it out at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York on May 24-26.
We’re going to leave an empty seat on stage for many of the group panels at TechCrunch Disrupt and invite someone from the audience to come up and participate. I’m not sure how exactly we’re going to do this yet. We could just ask for a volunteer from the audience right before the panel, for example. But a better way might be to take volunteers for the panels early on in the event and pre-screen them for interestingness, passion for the topic, knowledge, etc.
I particularly like the idea of including audience members in the group of experts who judge and comment on new startups launching.
I’m guessing some of the smartest things on stage will be said by these audience members. And it will certainly freshen the format. And I really like the idea of a panel of top experts in a field along with someone who may not have the resume, but certainly has the knowledge and opinions, to be up there too.
We’ll expand the discussion of this on the Disrupt blog over the coming weeks, and announce firmer plans closer to the event.