Alt.conference – more social than media

About 45 people came together in two locations for the inaugural alt.conference events held simultaneously in Cape Town and Johannesburg on 4 July. I came up with the idea for alt.conference a couple months ago during a conversation with Hunter of Genius, Max Kaizen. It was an experiment in a few ways. On one hand I had never organised something quite like alt.conference before and my regular schedule made for an interesting few months. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, alt.conference was an experiment in how to arrange something a little different from the the usual conference many of us are accustomed to and, at the same time an event that was appealing to people who were already involved in the social media space.

When it came to briefing our fantastic speakers, I asked the speakers to speak about something relevant to social media and to keep it relevant and engaging for people already in the biz, so to speak. Beyond that I left it up to them to decide what to speak about. I was really curious what they would talk about. I also came up with the idea what I loosely called the “ideastorm” session (not my term although it did seem to fit quite nicely). I asked Gaby Rosario, Allan Kent and Max Kaizen to facilitate these sessions (Gaby and Allan in Cape Town and Max in Joburg). The idea I had for this session was to treat the audience as a panel and stimulate discussions about social media related topics. Aside from that I similarly left it up to them to decide how to run that session.

I ran the Joburg event which was hosted at Vox Telecom (thanks to Lantz Mattinson who helped get the venue connected and set up for us). After a series of small technical hitches (for a change our MacBooks gave us hassles!) were off to a terrific start. I won’t go into the various sessions in any real detail here because I hope to publish videos from the sessions soon (well, as soon as I can get the video off the tapes, edit it, export and publish it … you know, soon!) but there were a couple things about the event which a couple people commented on and which I believe were significant.

For one thing we were all inspired as South Africans working in our respective fields. Between Justin Spratt and Nic Haralambous, we realised (or even confirmed our feelings and thoughts on the matter) that doing what we do here in South Africa gives us a number of advantages. Despite the global economic crisis, we are well placed to succeed in South Africa for a variety of reasons, not least of which a renewal of faith and interest in South Africa as an innovation hub. I have had this growing sense for a while now that nations we usually look to as leaders in tech and on the Web like the United States are, in fact, almost primitive in some respects when compared to South Africa. We are also not as exposed to the world’s financial woes and may even begin to recover a lot sooner. Add increased bandwidth in the years to come and South Africa could well become an even better place to be as a Web professional.

Another important realisation that we came to was that despite a powerful obsession with the tech we use to engage with each other online (whether that tech be Twitter, Facebook, Twitter apps, mobile devices or browsers), when it comes right down to it, social media is more about being social than it is about the media we use to achieve that. Carl Spies and Walter Pike spoke passionately, reminding us that this social media revolution we participate in daily is a hi-tech return to a very human form of interaction that we forgot about. Social media is a celebration of our humanity and of our relationships with each other. The tools we use are just that, tools.

By the time we reached the end of the Joburg session it was clear that there is a need for these sorts of gatherings. They are a terrific opportunity to get together and talk. Max commented to me that there was quite a bit of conversation taking place in the kitchen during the breaks as people went through there to make tea, coffee or grab something cold to drink. This wasn’t at all intended but worked out well nonetheless!

I was also watching tweets coming out of the Cape Town event and everyone there seemed to have a fantastic time thanks, in no small part, to Paul Cartmel and the New Media Labs team who hosted the Cape Town event (and who I hope will host it again in future). If you’d like to get an idea what happened in Cape Town, be sure to check out Allan Kent’s post. Allan was kind enough to MC the Cape Town event as well as facilitate the ideastorm session with Gaby.

My thinking behind having the two events occur at the same time was to encourage a flow of feedback and information between the two events via Twitter and FriendFeed and I think that worked pretty well. There seemed to be a lag with the Twitter stream into the FriendFeed channel but there was a pretty strong flow of comments, reports and feedback throughout the day which left a pretty rich record on FriendFeed. You can find pretty much all mentions of the event which used either “altconf” or “alt.conference”, certainly on Twitter.

While this post really doesn’t do the events and the people who attended/spoke/facilitated justice, I enjoyed being part of it tremendously. I am constantly reminded that we are surrounded with such smart, savvy and compassionate people who do amazing work. We have access to incredible talent and we saw some of that talent on display at alt.conference.


Once again I would like to thank all our sponsors and all the people who helped make this possible in their way. No contribution was too small and without them all, alt.conference may not have been the success it was.

Alt.conference crew in Cape Town

We have already started talking about the next alt.conference later this year. There are still so many things we would like to explore and experiment with. I’d like you to be part of that so head over to the alt.conference site and sign up. Participate in the ongoing conversation.



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  1. Wrap-up of Alt.conference Cape avatar

    […] Paul Jacobson’s view of the Johannesburg conference […]

  2. What I said back then | avatar

    […] looked back at what I wrote about alt.conference v1 back in 2009 and I found a post which I wrote in an effort to sum up what happened on the day. About 45 people […]

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