Unfortunately, many of the sessions had an erie unproductive quality to them. The Gillmor Gang noted this as well. These days most conferences provide a wifi network and much of the audience is on their laptops during the sessions. But SuperNova, true to it's name, was OVER THE TOP in this regard. Nearly EVERYBODY was frantically typing away in e-mail, IM, or their blogs during all the sessions. Leaving the poor people on stage to wonder if anyone was listening! The CEO of Skype called in on a POTS line. It was erie to be in the audience looking up on stage at powerpoint slides being driven by an assistant with the dis-embodied voice coming over the PA. And of course he couldn't hear questions and the mikes didn't work well, so the Q&A was a disaster.I think that there are two challenges to the modern conference. Let me call these problems (1) Revenue Vs. Content and (2) Polyphonic Channels.
Revenue Vs. Content
Every conference organizer struggles with a balance between (a) providing content that attracts interesting paying attendees and (b) the value that this interesting paying attendee audience offers to potential sponsors. There are four ways that conference managers leverage the interesting paying audience in order to extract money from sponsors -- advertising (such as a logo on the conference bag); demonstration areas where sponsors have tables or booths to promote their company or product; special presentations in which companies have the opportunity to draw an audience to a demonstration of their product and talk by their representative; and (most insidiously) content participation, either in the form of keynote presentations or panel participation.
A particularly bad trend has been to present conferences, such as BlogOn, in which all of the sessions are panels. While this is a boon to conference organizers (more speaking slots to curry favor with sponsors) it is a disaster for attendees. Most panels are run as general investigations of a topic -- the moderator asks softball questions of each panelist, the conversation leaps from issue to issue, the result is a conversation that is a mile wide and an inch thick. This might work at a conference where the audience knows little about the topic. But at a conference like BlogOn the audience often knows MORE about the topics under discussion than the panelists.
Solution -- focused presentations by individuals that are in-depth and offer the opportunity for Q&A with a specific individual. Where a panel is scheduled, the topic should be specific (ideally divisive), panelists should represent opposing views (or at least a range of views), and the moderator's job should be to keep the conversation on topic, not dominate the conversation with his or her own questions.
At the modern conference we have wi-fi access allowing side bar conversations via IRC, wiki, blogs, IM, and email. Half the people in each session are typing away furiously on their laptops, more engaged in the blogosphere than in the meatspace. The challenge for conference organizers is how to bring these separate threads of conversation together, instead of allowing them to splinter. Can IRC, blogs, and wiki add value to the ongoing sessions in real time?
The suggestion was made at one point in the BlogOn general session to display the IRC channel on the main screen behind the panelists. Let everyone see the conversation amongst the attendees that was happening simultaneously with the panel discussion. For a variety of reasons this didn't happen, but the idea pointed in the right direction. For example, why should audience members go up to a microphone to introduce themselves and ask a question (which most often devolved into a statement... you know what I mean if you have been at one of these...) Why not have questions asked on the IRC channel and allow the moderator to sort out which of these really consitituted an on topic question?
Solution: This will require experimentation, but conferences such as BlogOn is the perfect place. Use technology to make these conferences a conversation amongst all attendees, not just a presentation by a minority.