Excellent and necessary post.
You’re right to note that we’re jaded. We 'lefties attend a lot of these events as speakers, sponsors and attendees. We’re deeply (pitifully?) immersed in our industry, and it’s only natural that we find familiar names less appealing, great speakers and good friends though they may be.
But don’t underestimate the importance of location. I’m sure Colly put himself at substantial financial risk with New Adventures, just as we did with UX London. His response - and possibly the only sensible one from a business point of view - was to pack the conference with big names to maximise the financial return. If the conference is safe, it’s because it needed to be. And I’m sure it will go down fantastically with the Midlands community. I lived in Nottingham for 9 years, during which time I was barely able to discern any web community. I would have leapt for joy at the prospect of seeing great speakers in my hometown for under a ton, and I think Colly deserves praise for bringing an affordable conference to an under-served region.
What we’re seeing is also a simple supply and demand issue. Conference speakers are safe because safety is rewarded. As you know, the reaction to last year’s obscure dConstruct lineup was muted, if curious. We had to rely on the trust our audience has in dConstruct and Clearleft (or trust in the brands, if you will) to pull off a successful conference.
As the number of conferences seems to double every 18 months (Moore-Bowles law, anyone? C’mon, it’s early…), conservative lineups are almost enforced by the difficult of finding new, high-quality speakers. As you know, Clearleft are frequently asked why we don’t have more Brits at our conferences, particularly UX London. The answer is still the same, much to my sadness: there aren’t enough speakers in the wings who can offer the appropriate quality and reliability to a paying audience.
Herein lies an awkward Catch 22. This is an understandable way to reduce risk, but it exacerbates the problem. Organisers seem increasingly worried to take a chance on the specialists - the academics, the researchers, and so on. We’re now seeing ‘big name’ generalists being lauded as experts in highly specialised topics to which others have dedicated their entire lives. I worry that it’s a slippery slope toward dilettantism.
Yes, the scene has grown safe. Even stale. I applaud anyone who pauses to take a fresh look at how we can invigorate the UK community; hopefully Clearleft can be a part of that conversation. But while safety sells and financial risk remains high, that may end up being a quixotic endeavour.