With its 4000 participants, re:publica has become one of the largest internet conferences in the world, probably the largest in Europe. For myself, it is too big in size and too small in outcome.
Maybe for some this is the annual meeting of a not-so-small-but-still-not-huge group of the German internet people who know each other for years and are glad to meet over and over again. However, if you are not part of this club, it does not feel as cosy as I have read it was for some German bloggers.
Yes, I had some nice talks with people I’ve never talked to before or with whom I usually just communicate online but not at a rate I would have liked to. Since the (wireless) internet was not working during the conference, it was close to impossible to coordinate and to spontaneously meet with people one had never met in person before. Thus if you did not stumble over them by chance or because you were at the right talk at the right time, it was actually not that easy on a conference of that size to get together.
Most of the panels and presentations I have seen didn’t really capture my attention, mostly because they were overly general or because they discussed already well-known aspects of digital developments of the last five years. Nothing I saw live (waiting for the videos of the rest) was really inspiring, really revealing, although some of the talks or panels were still quite entertaining or interesting to watch. Yet, I saw myself leaving several sessions after 5-10 minutes. And maybe my own talk was the same, I would not want to distinguish myself in that regard.
What was missing was something that the motto of the conference – ACT!ON – kind of promised but could not really keep. And the size of the conference plays into that. There was nothing that motivated me to do something new, to learn something I haven’t thought about before. The conference did not really in itself create spaces for ACT!ON, action that would bring together people in new constellations that would cause positive change in society or new ways of thinking. The size rather makes that existing groups re-enforce, not so much new groups forming.
Most of what I heard was state of the art issues that could have been presented two years ago. When I was at re:publica in 2010, I remember being flashed and excited, having learned about open data and what one could do with it, witnessing what Ushahidi could do, learning about citizen journalism in Norway, seeing new open source network analysis software, listening to the promises of Wikileaks and much more.
Maybe some of the promises of the brave new digital world that were made at the time could not be kept, but re:publica 10 definitely shaped my online and offline activism during the following two years. This time it felt like a repetition.
In a way, I found it a very conservative conference. A nice atmosphere, very relaxed indeed, very well organised with a new huge location that in a way functioned quite well for these masses. I have all respect for the work behind all this, for getting this organised in the way it was. I do not want this blog post to be understood as a critique to the organisation and all those involved.
But still, with all these great efforts, re:publica felt kind of old-fashioned for an internet/new media/new social activism conference. Kind of free of ACT!ON. Kind of a summary of what is known. Why invest all this creative and organisational energy with so few social output?!
One could say that, as a euroblogger, I did not have much to contribute to that either, and I would agree. I felt that during my interview with Philip or my speed podium on Friday (both German). I felt that I was basically part of what I am criticising now, talking about the state of the art while lacking ideas where to go.
And that’s what I probably had hoped from the conference in the way it made me rethink two years ago: I would have liked to leave with at least one new idea that made me want to act in new ways, as a euroblogger or as an activist in general. I definitely will watch the various videos once they are online to see whether I just went to the wrong sessions, but last Friday I did not leave with the shiny eyes I had the last time.
Or, in short: Just a Klassentreffen is not enough for me, seeing this much potential in one space. What about a smaller size conference with more potential for change? What about separating Klassentreffen and ACT!ON? What about asking: What are the problems to solve and who do we get together to start solving them? Do we really need the old guys to get to that change? I don’t have an answer and am just thinking aloud. And, again, maybe I have just been to the wrong sessions.