I’m fond of measuring TTL at conferences. I don’t mean time-to-live, however, even if some conferences are so dreadful that the measure might seemingly apply. I mean time-to-laptop: How long it takes before an arbitrary percentage — usually 50% — of people at a conference have their laptops out and are WiFi-ing.
At O’Reilly conferences TTL is a reasonable approximation of zero. The instant an O’Reilly conference starts everyone is on WiFi and tapping away in the dark, lit only by the blue glow of their laptop screen.
At other conferences it takes a while before we get to 50%. At Demo here in La Jolla the TTL was one: It took until the morning of the second day before the room was half-WiFi-ed. Yesterday most of the room was running laptop-less, but today it’s screens everywhere, like a giant typing class.
Why the differences in TTL? Some of it is content, but that’s not the whole story. Yes, at a boring conference you’re likely to pull out a laptop early, but you’re also likely to simply leave early too.
I think much of it is cultural. Leaving aside the Blackberry-bonders thumbing away beneath the table, it is the bloggers (“commenters”) and searchers (“contextualizers”) I’m thinking about, the sorts of people who can’t bear not commenting on stuff and putting things in context. Who really is this wahoo on stage? I disagree with their last comment. (And all of this, of course, while in many cases simultaneously providing a real-time transcript of the event.)
It is, of course, just another social network. Hallway conversations — the real reason most of us go to conferences — become in-room conversations. Instead of waiting until the end of a presentation to have the comments spark discussion, the speaker (and the forum) spark debate and discussion concurrently.
Admittedly, some observers might think those TTL(0) folks are ignoring how disconcerting it can be to present to a room full of people staring at their screens. The unavoidable truth, however, is that by bringing hallway social networks into conference rooms we have created a richer conversation space, and that is, net-net, not such a bad thing.