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You Can Go Your Own Way

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You Can Go Your Own Way I just finished my latest book, a list of 10 simple rules for contending with digital technology. While it may be my most mainstream and accessible title yet, I decided to go with an indie publisher. And as I review that decision, I realize the pull toward going independent isn't just a publishing trend, but one that affects everyone in media, entertainment and, yes, events.

For me, going with an independent publisher right now was a no-brainer: I'm writing about the Net, which is almost impossible to predict. With a traditional publisher, I wait at least a year from the moment I finish my manuscript to the moment the book hits the shelves. An independent publisher, on the other hand, gets a book, improves it as much as possible and releases it immediately. No committees watering down my message, and no mainstream branding to worry about. Just the ideas, please. Thanks to Internet distribution, and the ability to reach my core audience directly, I have the same chance of success—maybe more—plus everyone gets to keep the profits instead of paying for offices, bloated staffs and shareholders' dividends.

I suppose I expected myself to go down this route as an author sooner or later. The writing has been on the wall, or the computer monitor, for a while. But I didn't see the events business following the same path, and certainly not for the same reasons.

Events have always been centralized affairs involving airplanes, hotels, nametags and distant, appealing locales. We gather to see a dozen or more big names do their things on stage, with a few dozen of our colleagues on panels in between them. Then maybe some golf, a sightseeing trip or a former Top 40 act pushing for a revival.

We all knew that the interactive communications revolution would change this, but not many of us understood quite how. It seemed as if decentralizing technologies would simply allow people to meet online instead of off, but it has tended to work in reverse: Now that we have so many colleagues and clients with whom we interact solely over e-mail, we value conferences even more. These are our main opportunities to meet real people.

And so conference fever trickles down from the world of industry conventions through the realm of single-subject conferences and down to the land of real people. After all, real people are just as disconnected from one another as the contacts in any industry. Just because you live in the same city with someone doesn't mean you interact with a peer through anything more tangible than text messages.

So that same urge to collaborate—stimulated but never quite satisfied by the Net—motivates a whole new range of conferences: indie events, announced on Facebook, held on a friendly campus or in a bar and entirely more exciting than most of what comes from the professional conference industry.

The TED conference's new local offshoots, the TEDx franchises, might be the best examples so far. Instead of saving, spending and flying to attend a giant conference for which all the content can be streamed online, people create their own conferences. They invite local experts and celebrities, choose more specific themes and then make all the video available to the rest of the world online. And TED is just the biggest name in the local conference business—a counter-example, really, in that it's an international brand hopping onto the localism trend.

Meetings are starting to feel more like MeetUps, those gatherings of pug-lovers or tea partiers organized through MeetUp.com. Most of us are having a hard enough time meeting people in our immediate communities, much less those from around the world. And as the economy continues to contract, taking a good portion of central banking and the larger corporate sphere along with it, local business contacts are beginning to matter more than ever. Like politics, economics is turning out to be local, too.

Meanwhile, as a speaker, if I've got an idea I really want to get out into the thought space, I've now got a choice of how and where I want to do it. I can wait for a big conference invitation from a sponsor willing to let me say the thing it is I want to say—and an audience open-minded enough to get it and then spread it. Or, I can bring it to the home crowd at a local conference, deliver the talk to a friendly audience ready to hear whatever I've got to say and then post it online for the world. This might work better for a speaker based in New York than one in North Dakota, but you'd be surprised how many former “second cities” are producing first-rate intellectual content at local events. This is happening because the speakers are coming for the love of it.

Why go to a big conference at all anymore? For most speakers, it's the same reason writers go to a big publisher: the money. Most local conferences, like most indie publishing houses, are run by friends on a shoestring budget. In the short run, anyway, they don't pay the rent. We also travel for our reputations and, hopefully, exposure. From the perspective of intellectual growth, it's about meeting people from a new industry—people who think in a different way than we've seen before and who force us to wrap our heads around new worlds and ideas. Finally, it's an opportunity to influence an industry directly by engaging face to face with some of its key players.

Attendees have reasons to go, too. It's the only way to get direct exposure to some of those nationally recognized authors and thinkers who are doing fewer such gigs every year. And for people in smaller industries, a highly centralized conference far away may be the only way to get enough people together who have a real stake and something significant to say.

But we shouldn't deny the power and quality available to us in our own backyards, particularly today when the Net takes care of so much of our non-local activity. These days, I'm watching more giant conventions online, and saving my powder—and my money—for the local stuff.

This indie world is, after all, where we all actually live. One+
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