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Stuff Costs Money

Over the holiday weekend, Dick Kaser, ITI’s VP for Content, posted a comment to my post about SWIFT, the not-so-swift “2.0 platform” ITI had invested in for its conference attendees.

In 418 words, Dick explained that stuff costs money. Thing is, we know stuff costs money. Everything costs money — even “free” stuff, like kittens or software. (Not that “turnkey” software is a walk in the park, either.)

To be fair, not everyone realizes that stuff costs money. My five years managing a web portal in California that many people thought could be run for “free” (I guess because it was mostly run by women) taught me that a lot of people don’t think stuff costs money. But even Wikipedia costs money.

The conference economy

The idea that stuff-costs-money also fuels the conference economic model. It costs money to hold a conference, it costs money to attend a conference, and it costs money to present at a conference.

ITI covers the registration fee for speakers, and that’s a nice offset. But Dick might check into how many speakers fly in just long enough to give their talks, and he has to be aware that registration fees are just a fraction of the total cost of attending any conference you can’t drive to on the same day.

This means (as is obvious to anyone already participating in the conference economy) that speakers at an ITI conference pay for the opportunity for face time. They might pay directly or through their institutions, but somebody pays, because to flog this poor dead horse, as Dick said in the DLib article he references — a point I had made several years earlier in an article published in The Bottom Line, “The Tao of Internet Costs” — stuff costs money. (In 2006, DLib even found out that DLib costs money.)

Paying for face time is an accepted part of the conference cost model. Of course, there’s more to it than that — informal networking and opportunities to meet vendors and the occasional fluffy white bathrobe. But fundamentally, we are investing in face time, either for ourselves or our institutions or in most cases, for both stakeholders. For many conferences, the payoff works out well for everyone involved.

As David Lee King pointed out, SWIFT breaks the conference economic model. It’s not that speakers and other heavy-duty conference types “don’t want special tools.” We already have “special tools.” They’re called blogs and websites. These tools costs money — to own, to build, to maintain — but they have a pay-off. Even with a modified term of service, for me to blog over on the SWIFT site makes no sense, because I’m making money (figuratively and indirectly) on my own site.

Money for nothing, and your wifi for free

About that wifi. Now, Dick doesn’t know me, and I don’t know Dick. (Some might add, on so many levels.) So I don’t know if he was trying to be funny in claiming he thought I expected ITI to pay $29 times 2000 so its attendees could have “free” wifi. Like, ha ha, I know you really know about negotiating for conference services, I’m just joshing you!

Because as several people responded to me privately, the obvious response is that the people who negotiated with the Otter Group for their 2.0 web conference platform thingamajig — and I know the Otter Group doesn’t give away their stuff for free — might have negotiated instead for a better deal for wifi — a service provided by the numerous non-library conferences I’ve attended in the last five years, where free-to-me wifi was part of the deal. Here’s how that formula could work:

  1. Take the money intended for a “platform” and hold it aside.
  2. Bargain for a group wifi discount.
  3. Apply the SWIFT money to the difference.

The SWIFT platform might seem to be a more obvious investment for ITI, at least from an Olde Worlde perspective. Eyeballs! Ad revenue! Bada-bing, baby! However, I’d suggest that free wifi (which we’ll use here to mean “or discount wifi”) has its charms from a stuff-costs-money perspective.

Free wifi is a “special tool” that could result in more people blogging and Twittering and chit-chatting about their marvelous, marvelous CiL conference experiences — right there at the point of service, when people are full of vim and vigor, before they get home and lose airspeed and focus. Free wifi also stops the grumbling about a “technology” conference that pushes its users off the grid for the duration. (If the answer is that ITI can’t charge enough for a library conference to underwrite free or discount wifi, then I circle back to my earlier point: money crossed palms for the SWIFT platform; somebody’s got cash somewhere.)

Free wifi is to us, the conference attendees, free like free beer — we use it, we enjoy it, we go home — but in terms of getting us to write about a conference in the moment, before we get home and face trip reports and overdue work assignments, it’s money in ITI’s bank. Give us widgets and badges to put on our sites that link back to ITI, put up a wiki and a blog for everything that doesn’t have a home, then wind us up and let us go.

(You see, the “SWIFT” model already exists; it’s just decentralized. It makes old-schoolers nutty to contemplate this, but they need to reverse the eyeball model from drawing people to a single site to tapping the diffuse honeypot on the Web. It’s as hard to get this across as explaining how the “many eyes” model for open source results in far better, more economically sound software than the old model where a bunch of dudes go into a room, swing their you-know-whats around, write a few checks, and sign NDAs.)

Engage us

It could be that the deal with SWIFT means that ITI is at a point with its conferences where ensuring overflow crowds and high-traffic exhibits isn’t enough any more.

I know that within ALA there is quite legitimate concern about the narrowing profit margins from conferences (a significant source of revenue for ALA). Not only does stuff cost money, but some stuff is getting very expensive, and in the next couple of years, people are going to have less money to buy it with. That’s problematic, and I empathize. Conferences such as Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries have to make money to survive.

But I would suggest that if ITI is experimenting with revenue streams, and if it observes, quite reasonably, that conference content can attract eyeballs, that it talk to us about how to make that happen within the framework of our existing conference economy. After all, we want to make money, too.

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