Learning new tricks: The conference outside your field

Last week I was in Porto for WikiSym 2008. It was both fun and informative, in ways some followup posts will explore. Perhaps the most interesting and invigorating part was the opportunity to be at a conference that was both related to my daily work and yet distant from my research expertise. WikiSym’s a conference for wiki developers, researchers (several sociologist/communication types studying Wikipedia), and practitioners. Aside from George Landow, who gave a keynote, I think I was the only literature professor.

On the one hand, this was a bit awkward, especially at moments of idle chit-chat.

But on the other hand, there were some real advantages:

  • It was fun to see different possibilities for conferences. Any conference with a twitter printer and a flickr feed is worth attending. OpenSpace was fascinating. And, of course, the conference about wikis had a wiki that people could edit with reports and notes and such throughout the conference. Those technologies and social practices made the conference productive in real-time, as it were, rather than simply providing inspiration or food for thought (though it offered those, too).
  • An advantage of a conference like WikiSym, especially if you’re a relative outsider, is that there’s surprisingly little bullshit posturing. People were friendly and open, without much worrying about what kind of school you’re from, or whether you’re going to be able to help their career. (Some of that may be a characteristic of “people who are interested in wikis,” but it seems related to the idea that, in a mixed group, reputation matters less.)
  • It was also fun to be able listen without having to sound smart. It’s always surprising to discover the extent to which anxiety over status or expertise clogs one’s thinking.

Of course, just going to a random conference outside your area would probably be meaningless or frustrating.  For the exercise to be useful, it needs to be something you’re genuinely interested in, and preferably have at least some experience with. Beyond that, however, I’d say that such a conference can be powerful.

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