behind the news

OPENing Up

Scenes from the TimesOPEN conference
February 20, 2009

The crowd at TimesOPEN skews young, white, male, and Mac. (The only PC laptop in sight, from my perspective, is the sad little Dell perched on a cloth-draped table in the front of the conference room, the one projecting the slides illustrating the conference’s several presentations.) That crowd also skews sociable and intellectual and eager to talk about the new applications being rolled out before it. As a result, that crowd also skews Twitter-happy.

There are actually two conferences taking place on the fifteenth floor of Renzo Piano’s famously IKEA-esque building today. There are the presentations themselves—Times designers giving demos of their TimesPeople, TimesWidgets, ShiftD, and (the biggie) TimesNewswire APIs—and the accompanying Q&As; at the same time, however, there’s a silent chatter taking place in the background.

“At one point,” morning-only attendee Jeff Bercovici noted, “the guy sitting closest to me was reading a blog post containing a photo of the guy sitting immediately behind him.”

It’d be easy to bemoan that bifurcation as: unsociable, nerdy, fill-in-your-insulting-adjective-here. And some have. “What if you threw a conference and everybody came, but no one paid attention?” Valleywag asked. “A New York Times event for Web developers drew a crowd who sat and Twittered instead of listening to the speaker.” Owen Thomas’s conclusion, not having attended the conference himself: “The speaker was Tim O’Reilly, a book publisher and conference organizer best known for popularizing the term ‘Web 2.0.’ We wonder: Did O’Reilly anticipate that the two-way, interactive websites he advocated would one day obviate the need for actual human interaction?”

I guess that depends on what your definition of “actual human interaction” is. As O’Reilly and the Times presenters spoke—about various tech-related topics, the common denominator of which being Community Building on the Web—another, derivative conference was taking place online. Specifically, on Twitter. Attendees of the tweeted conference—the majority of the 200 or so people at TimesOPEN itself, as well as, remotely, many others around the Web—discussed O’Reilly’s talk, offered feedback to the APIs being rolled out, debated that feedback among each other, and sent suggestions for questions to members of the in-person audience.

In the Q&A portion of O’Reilly’s talk, Placeblogger founder (and Knight grantee) Lisa Williams–who was in attendance at the conference–received a tweet from a non-attender, RSS pioneer Dave Winer: “Thank them for their support of RSS 2.0 in 2002.” During her question to O’Reilly, Williams relayed Winer’s message, provoking laughter from the room and from O’Reilly himself.

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While the overall value of the various new Times applications discussed today remains to be seen—among the people I’ve talked to here, the reaction to the apps themselves, and to the Times‘s overall efforts at innovation, have been mixed—what arose from the fifteenth floor of the Times Building today was a broader exchange (okay, a Meta Conversation) that both based itself in and moved beyond what took place in person. In many ways, it mimicked the life cycle of news itself: the Times providing the core content, and that content spurring a radiating, reactive, and derivative discussion.

It was just that the conversation took place, as Jeff Jarvis might say, free of “the tyranny of matter.” At the end of the day—between the last presentation and cocktails—the Times‘s chief technology officer, Marc Frons, provided some closing remarks. Before he started, he reminded guests of the upcoming cocktail hour: “I’m sure all of you could use a good drink after a full day of tweeting.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.