Conferences are an art form. Introducing &yetConf’s textcapade: an event preceded by an adventure

Conferences are an art form.

I didn’t always believe this, but I certainly have since I started going to exceptionally and intentionally designed events.

In an information dense world, connection and meaning are things we hunger for—and those are what the majority of people are really looking for in a conference.

It’s not the content. It’s the people. It's the connections between them and inspiration and personal reflection that the content makes possible. It’s the new direction in their life that attendees choose because of one long conversation in a corner. It’s the idea they are exposed to alongside meeting the person it originated from that sets their future trajectory.

I have never known anything more inspiring or transformational in my life than great people with whom I resonated.

And if you want to gather a diverse mix of exceptional people, you must create a unique event. (It also sure as hell better be safe and inclusive of all kinds of people, too.)

The magic of thinking of a conference as an art form and not an information exchange is how it unlocks the possibility of breaking all the rules. There are no art rules. For the artist, art is about conveying a message or an ideal or a feeling but doing so in a way that’s completely respectful to their counterparts who will interact with it.

“Music and art have a way of getting inside you without having to be invited.” In that one sentence, an artist I respect named Natalie Closner (of the band Joseph) summed up why we do &yetConf the way we do.

Talking about values in and of themselves is usually boring at best and preachy at worst. And unless people already share your values, it’s like inviting someone to your house for dinner and making them put on your clothes—it’s just weird and uncomfortable.

There is no more emphatic and inviting way to invoke very real questions about our values than artistic presentation.

At RealtimeConf 2013, we created a world and a story and experience that allowed people to interact with real-world tensions and idealistic values in an allegorical world that burst into the conference.

We’re doing the same this year with &yetConf.

Novels are a powerful medium for exploring philosophical perspectives. An author is able to communicate multiple viewpoints about a topic through several characters, and the reader is invited to participate in the discussion, to try on philosophies and play with them.

I have numerous passages from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot” and “Brothers Karamazov” underlined—passages that forced me to think about deep topics dear to me like idealism, kindness, faith, morality, and justice. In Nick Harkaway’s “Gone Away World”, I found a series of powerful illustrations which perfectly and dramatically sum up my distrust for organizational hierarchy that removes moral accountability.

In Mike Speegle’s Kirkus award-winning novel, Something Greater than Artifice (written for RealtimeConf), we were able to address themes like power, centralization, diversity, security, privacy, and broken tech culture and its inhumane values.

But one element of releasing a novel (and graphic novel) before RealtimeConf was our ability to send it out in advance—to begin the conference well before it actually started.

As I learned many years ago from my friend Paul Campbell, one of the most powerful methods for invoking circumstances which connect people is to create shared experiences—particularly effective when they are surprises. They allow people to have something to talk about. They’re a genuine ice-breaker—one so much better than default small talk, which some people are uncomfortable with (myself included). Conference talks can do this—but not all talks can and not everyone will be interested in discussing them, and often people may feel fearful they’re not good enough or smart enough to discuss them publicly.

There’s another angle. By the end of most conferences, people usually make a few friends and feel part of a group. But one thing that I’ve learned from my own observations is that for the first half of any conference, there is a level of hesitance and “walls up” feeling from many people, and a question of “Am I part of them? Do I belong?” After about a day, that goes away.

One of the great things about being able to release a story that leads up to a conference is to be able to create a shared experience not just during the conference but in advance of it as well. All people walk in with something to excitedly talk about—and they’ve had to endure weeks of eagerly waiting to talk about it.

But let’s face it: not everyone's gonna read a novel. (A decent percentage of 2013 attendees did, and the majority did read the graphic novel.)

But we started thinking: what if we could create an experience that was more interactive? And less “work” than reading a novel?

Thus was born our first Textcapade.

Today, &yetConf attendees will be getting the first of approximately 9 episodes of an interactive text-based choose-your-own-adventure story written by Mike Speegle that will lead into the rest of the story that will unfold during the conference.

Each episode takes a total of between 15 and 30 minutes to play, but can be played at whatever pace.

The amazing Heather Seaman, Michael Garvin, Terry Carter, Philip Roberts, Nathan LaFreniere, and Bear are responsible for the hard work on the application that powers the story. If you see them on Twitter, please give the the team props for their hard work.

This experience is sponsored by Tropo and powered by Tropo’s SMS API. We are unbelievably grateful for them believing in us and the vision of this event and helping in a huge way to make it a reality.

We have a TON more surprises coming as a part of &yetConf, a diverse set of wonderful artists involved, and some speakers who I can't wait to hear from.

If you haven't already caught it via other means, &yetConf is a conference focused on the intersections of technology with humanity, meaning, and ethics.

If the theme of &yetConf resonates with you, we’d love to have you involved. Tickets are $1399 (they include 3 nights hotel and 7 meals). We also have diversity scholarships available. (And, yes, we’re accepting donations toward diversity scholarships.)

You can request an &yetConf ticket here.

One last note. So far, all we’ve managed to scrape together is one and only one sponsor. Literally one! We almost can’t even. (Thanks, Tropo!) Obviously, we have room for a lot more and a tons of cool things worth sponsoring.

If you’re interested in sponsoring &yetConf, I can guarantee you’ll get your money's worth. We’ll do much better than put your logo on a website—you’ll be part of a truly unforgettable experience. Reach out to us at if you’re interested.

You might also enjoy reading:

Blog Archives: