tweeting during a talk is that essentially, what you are doing is creating commentary on top of something that you have not heard yet. The problem is if you read the Twitterstream about some-
body’s talk, they either blindly parrot back a quote of some- one’s that they really liked. Where sometimes they misfire is on a point that someone is going to get to in two minutes. It encourages listening locally rather than globally.
What meetings or conferences have you been to that, in your opinion, have done things really well in terms of helping people learn? I love small meetings, workshops, 40 to 50 people, over a few days. Everybody gives a 20-minute talk with 10 minutes of question-and-answer. Lots of breaks and lots of opportuni- ties for people to talk about stuff and to really get to know each other. What happens is you hear this talk that you think is really cool, and that is the person you track down after- wards and have an hour-long conversation with. Because the meeting is small, it is not impossible to do that. I just love those. It is hard, because they are sort of expensive in almost every way to do. Every year, I go to the Cognitive Science Society meeting,
which has about 1,500 [attendees] over four days. That is okay, but it is never my favorite meeting. Then psychology and cognitive science broadly have these huge conferences like the APA [American Psychological Association] and APS [Association for Psychological Science], where you have sev- eral thousand people over several days and all these parallel tracks. I just get lost at those.
What could an organizer do to make those large conferences feel more intimate? That is a good question. I think it is really valuable to find ways of getting people to meet other people in the field that they do not know already. There is a tendency I find for peo- ple that go to conferences to hang out with the same people over and over again. The nice thing about these smaller meetings is that you are
thrown into a room with a group of people, only some of whom you knew before. You get to know everybody there much bet- ter. I think that if a large-meeting organizer can create smaller social events that [give] people the chance of meeting new peo- ple, that is a great thing — even if it is kind of gimmicky. I went to a conference not long ago where everyone had a little badge on and the badge lit up when you were standing near somebody who had put down similar keyword interests [on their registra- tion form] as you had. I did not think the technology worked all that well, but it provided a convenient excuse to say hi to some- body you did not know before. That to me was the valuable piece of it. You spent three minutes saying, “Can we figure out what keyword it was that made this thing think we ought to talk
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to each other?” Then a conversation would happen.
What about making the program more multidisciplinary? Yes, I guess the other thing about those small meetings that I really like is that they invariably are very multidisciplinary. Forcing people to take the problem that they are grappling with, whatever it is, and think about it from a different per- spective is incredibly liberating. You do not always realize the set of assumptions that you have come to the table with when trying to solve a problem. You discover that there is somebody else that has been thinking about almost exactly the same thing that you have, only they started from a differ- ent place. The insights that they have are different and the problems that they bump into are different. The biggest danger to me is the prospect that you will go
to a conference and just talk to a whole bunch of people who already basically agree with you. It is far more comfortable to go to a meeting where there is a whole bunch of people who are exactly from your subspecialty and they are all going to talk the same language and they are all going to approach the problem in exactly the same way you are. If you go to a meeting with people who are coming at an issue from lots of different directions, you are forced to think about it from all of their different perspectives. As long as the program is well chosen and the speakers are actually smart people within their disciplines — it is a little bit painful at first, but — you end up learning a lot.
Do you think that face-to-face meetings and conferences are an effective way to learn? Here is the thing: I love technology and I think technology provides us with all kinds of opportunities that we would not have in other ways. TEDTalks are a great chance to be exposed to someone that you might not be able to have come to a theater near you. Google chat rooms where you can get five people virtually together to have a conversation — in an era of limited budgets, it is better than nothing. But there is a real benefit to getting a bunch of people
together in the same room, because human communication has evolved for a small number of people in the same room at the same time in face-to-face communication. That is the thing we are best at. We learn less well the further you get from that. The chance to get a whole bunch of people together and really engage is better than any technology- mediated event. A well-run face-to-face meeting — there is just no substitute for that.
. Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene. +