Jul 27 2009

#BlogHer09 Wrapup – On Experts, or Lack Thereof

I’m on the plane now headed back to San Francisco, after a fun few days in Chicago for BlogHer. I have mixed feelings about the conference, which I will get into, but I do want to make sure I say this up front:

I had a wonderful time, met some amazing people, am glad that I went, and have already bought my ticket for BlogHer ’10 in NYC next year.

We only criticize that which we love, right?

So, onto the critiquing. I think this is going to end up split into a couple of posts, since as usual, I got rambly.

Where were the actual experts?

BlogHer had lots of panels run by various women, but very few actual “experts” to speak of. Seeing people who’ve been blogging or twittering for a year being elevated as ‘expert women in technology’ really gets to me. It’s just like being able to drive a car and claiming you are an expert working in the automotive industry.

The real expert, respected female bloggers weren’t at the conference. Where was Kathy Sierra – who knows better than anyone what can happen when you become too exposed as a blogger. Where was Sarah Lacy, who’s published one (second one is on the way, I think) book on the industry, and is now a regular blogger at TechCrunch. Gina Tripani from Lifehacker. Kara Swisher from All Things D. Megan McCarthy, Molly Wood, Natalie DelConte.  They don’t blog about Pampers, but they are very widely read female bloggers. What about Veronica Belmont, Amber Mac, you could call them video bloggers.

It does a lot of harm to hold people up as experts when they’re not, or at least, not without very explicitly narrowing down the field they are experts in. “This person is an expert at talking to 50k people on twitter about random stuff,” is very different than “this person is a technology expert.”

And it is, unfortunately, a gender thing. Men would never put up with it. If some article came out in the New York Times calling a guy who wrote a couple of blog entries over the last year a technology expert, Michael Arrington and others would have their hides. Men, understandably, don’t consider someone an expert until they’ve proven themselves. Women, for some reason, are a bit more loose with that, and will sometimes consider a woman an expert because the woman themselves said that they were.

When we allow the media to elevate women with no practical industry experience as technology experts we leave the impression that there aren’t any better experts out there. And THAT is terrible.

If there are going to be expert panels, they should be run by actual experts. Not someone who has 10,000 followers, and therefore thinks they know all about Twitter. Want to do an expert panel on Twitter? Get someone from Twitter on the panel. Panel on WordPress? Get someone from Automattic. Most of the panels at BlogHer would never fly at any other kind of conference. Harsh to say but, well, assuming the panels even got started because of the sponsorships (which I’ll cover in another entry), the panelists would have been laughed off the stage.

What are these non-experts teaching people anyway?

Teaching someone how to download Tweetie is helpful, but only touches the surface of what a lesson on Twitter should be.

A session on privacy and identity that tells people to use the privacy features on Facebook to protect themselves is misleading and dangerous.

This is what happens when people are running sessions on technology they don’t fully understand themselves, and why you really do need “real” experts to do the teaching.

Thank god for the geek lab!

The vast majority of sessions I went to were what were called “Geek Lab” sessions, held in one side of one little conference room. I learned PHP, Apache, htaccess, and CSS. Of course, I didn’t have time to learn much…while other sessions were 1-2 hrs and held in a large room, ours were 1/2 hr each and competing for attention with another session on the other side of the room.

It very much left the impression that these “women in technology” didn’t actually care about the technology part, and that’s a horrible thing.

Please guys, don’t see this as typical.

My biggest fear is that men will look at BlogHer, and assume that all women online want to write about hand cream, be paid to go to conferences, pitch air freshener, and couldn’t care less about the technology running the tools they’re using. It’s NOT TRUE.

BlogHer has to change to be a bit more accurate. Merge with Mom 2.0 or something (which really is a conference for ALL mommy bloggers) – or make a concerted effort to be what they claim to be…an open conference for all women bloggers. Merge with She’s Geeky or work with the Webgrrls to give the tech bloggers some sort of presence there.

They also need to pay more attention to their “expert panels,” and who’s on them. Expertise aside, a panelist who was sponsored by some company to go to BlogHer is obviously going to promote that company. If that’s not disclosed (as it so often isn’t), the credibility of the panel is shot.

It’s all fixable.

And that’s the good thing. These are all things that can be changed. None of the current content needs to be excluded, it just needs to be promoted more realistically for what it is. “Learn about Twitter from someone who has tons of followers,” instead of “Meet a Twitter expert.” Get someone from Twitter to do the actual Twitter expert panel. Learn about privacy from Parry Aftab instead of someone who thinks Facebook’s privacy controls are the end all and be all of content management.

BlogHer just needs to use the same quality control for their panels that other conferences use and ensure that their panelists have the credentials, experience, and knowledge necessary for whatever their panel topic is.

As I said above, I will totally be at BlogHer next year. And I would love to do whatever I can to get the right people into the right panels, to get more actual technology content into the technology conference, and make this next BlogHer a bit more inclusive for ALL female bloggers.

15 Comments

  • By Danielle Friedland, creator of Celebrity Baby Blog, July 27, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    I resisted attending BlogHer for the last few years because I’m a true expert who has been ignored by the BlogHer Powers That Be (one of which blamed ME when I asked why she’s ignored several introductions friends have tried to make). While egalitarian in that it seems that anyone can be on a panel and that the panelists consist of those who offer themselves up to be on them, some can also lack authenticity in that not all of them have the experience you seek and respect.

    I plan to submit proposals for panels next year but mainly suggest a separate track for bloggers who are serious about blogging.

  • By rondata, July 27, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    coming to a couch near you.

  • By myrnatheminx, July 28, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    Actually, I completely disagree with you. Men call themselves experts all the time and are called experts by others with an ease you seldom see with women. Women experts (maybe outside of BlogHer) usually have to work very hard to be called an expert–the threshold is much higher. There is research out there so I’ll try and find but in terms of power structures, newspaper editorials, congress, etc, its men 85%, women 15%. Do you buy that there are 85% more male experts than women? I hope not.

  • By StephanieBamBam, July 28, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    I do believe there are currently more male experts than women, for the reasons I mentioned in the blog post – lack of industry experience. More men are in executive positions in general than women.

    Any meeting I’ve ever had with a man in some sort of “power” starts with one question – what have you done? Its what expected. Even though someone may have come to see me as Director at MySpace, and be sitting in my office, they still wanted to hear what else I’d done and why they should respect me. It’s very rare that a woman expects, or even wants, to hear that straight off the bat – in fact, you’ll see a few blogher summaries that talk about making a personal relationship before starting to pitch.

    I think THAT’s where the problem is. Women don’t get respect as experts because they rely more on personal relationships than resumes to justify that title as an “expert.” Do the work, get the experience, THEN call yourself an expert. We have to conquer the board rooms before we can sit on all the panels.

  • By gray matter matters, July 29, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    After reading dozens of recaps of the events I really liked getting such a unique perspective. I think you make some excellent points and, having only attended the Mini-Conference in Boston, think you’re right about some of the panels and discussions. Guess I’ll see you at BlogHerNYC–I hope. Save me a seat at a Geek Lab.

  • By Lisa, July 29, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    I said the same thing in my post. I was in session that was giving wrong advice out and when I spoke up I was told I was wrong. I really would like to see ‘true’ experts, so I can learn something.

  • By digitalsista, July 29, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    Sorry Stephanie but I disagree. Men have more experience in the board room because many are allowed in even with out some of the credentials of women I know who could be in there place.

    I have personally seen men who have not done anything/experience or any contribution in a particular field and be considered a leader.

    The twitter “expert” only be the founders, is also a bad idea. It is clear by the many times I have heard them talk that they don’t understand how it’s used in certain communities. They can tell you the mechanics but on the rest they are clueless. Many attendees at BlogHer and other conferences want to know how to apply it to topics, issues or community building projects they are working on. The founders have never answered those questions accurately in my opinion which means they are “not” experts on community engagement.

    I have been programming since the age of ten, building BBS boards in the 90′s, HTML when there were no books or classes, worked on every script you can imagine. I am a tech expert because I have the experience but I have not been on a tech company board. There are so many men in tech who can’t claim any of that but are called experts.

    I would say there are more factors going on in the field that is rarely addressed in area of “experts”.

  • By MummyTips, July 30, 2009 @ 1:03 am

    I totally agree with what you have said re the panel ‘experts’. I said the very same thing. It was interesting being one of the Geek labs and being able to answer questions from the audience that the panel leader couldn’t and I would not say that I am in any way an expert.
    I have linked to your post from the BlogHer round up that I am putting together on my site.
    Like you – I also have my tickets for next year!

  • By georgie, July 30, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    I have read a TON of BlogHer recaps-lots of ooohs and ahhhs buttons and bows…this post was refreshing and honest and I enjoyed it! Only thing missing or perhaps another post…I would LOVE to see a breakdown monetary wise…how much seminars cost/keynote,what are suites? after parties were they free,did you have to be invited etc…yes i am tryin to see IF I can make it to BlogHer 2010 and if I need to sell my first born to do it…

  • By Elisa Camahort Page, July 30, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    Hi Stephanie: Thanks for your detailed feedback, and I enjoyed talking with you over the weekend.

    Let’s leave the Geek Lab aside for a moment and talk about a couple of your other perceptions.

    We do not do pay-to-play, so no speaker was on a panel because of sponsorship, period.

    We are about sharing community/user experience and opinion. The word expert appears in our agenda regarding only 3 our of more than 100 speakers. Instead our agenda talks about unique perspectives or experiences people bring to the table. I think that most of our panels are simply not pitched or planned to be what you were expecting, so I can understand why you were disappointed.

    That being said, sounds like a couple of specific panels could have had more meat. I think I can tell which ones you are referring to, and you’ve provided very good food for thought on augmenting our panels with additional specific kinds of expertise when we’re talking about certain topics.

    I will say I disagree completely that hearing from someone within a company about their offering is inherently more valuable than hearing from real-live users about how they use said products. I’ve gone to LOTS of conferences where I can hear from folks like that, and rarely come away impressed. In fact, I rarely come away impressed with *most* of the typical tech conference circuit speakers. There are plenty of regular speakers who are nothing more than power users. Not serious techbical experts. And yet we fall at their feet to listen to their pearls of wisdom.

    Given how frustrating I find that at typical conferences, I’m actually mot sorry you felt that way about some of our panels :( I would just disagree that this is a gender thing. I’ve suffered from some male-speakers-who-shall-not-be-named enough to counter that!

    Finally, I’m glad you enjoyed Geek Lab. We should get you in there next year. This was the first year we tried that format, and we learned a lot. It’s going to be bigger and better next year!

    And I’m glad we’ll see you there :)

  • By Liz Gumbinner, August 1, 2009 @ 6:13 am

    These are really interesting thoughts and I would agree that there were a few speakers who didn’t seem to know what they were talking about as much as they might have. I hope I wasn’t one of them – I have plenty of credentials to be speaking about brands and bloggers (which is why I do it to groups and conferences all over the country) and I was honored to have been on the speaking roster.

    But the reality is, you’re looking at this from a tech perspective – all of your examples are about tech and tech content and tech experts. The problem with that is: This is not a tech community. Kathy Sierra would be the first to say she’s not a woman blogger; yet I’d imagine the majority of BlogHer attendees self-identify as women first. It’s no better or worse, it’s an entirely different perspective.And in this community, a keynote from Heather Armstrong would be far more well-received than one from, say, Ev. It’s who the community is. And that, as my parents would say, is why they make vanilla and chocolate.

    Also, I have to take issue with your assertion (however cheekily it was intended) that if we’re not learning about coding issues, we’re writing about hand cream. For years, women have been diminished and marginalized for writing about things like relationships and family. I love that, as a memoirist (among other things) that I have found my tribe through blogher.

  • By Liz Gumbinner, August 1, 2009 @ 6:15 am

    These are really interesting thoughts and I would agree that there were a few speakers who didn’t seem to know what they were talking about as much as they might have. I hope I wasn’t one of them – I have plenty of credentials to be speaking about brands and bloggers (which is why I do it to groups and conferences all over the country) and I was honored to have been on the speaking roster.

    But the reality is, you’re looking at this from a tech perspective – all of your examples are about tech and tech content and tech experts. The problem with that is: This is not a tech community. Kathy Sierra would be the first to say she’s not a woman blogger; yet I’d imagine the majority of BlogHer attendees self-identify as women first. It’s no better or worse, it’s an entirely different perspective. And in this community, a keynote from Heather Armstrong would be far more well-received than one from, say, Ev. It’s who the community is. And that, as my parents would say, is why they make vanilla and chocolate.

  • By Parry Aftab, August 21, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    Happy to speak on privacy next year. Get me an invite. And help me learn how to have 50,000 followers for our wiredmoms on twitter. :-)
    Thanks for the heads up.
    Parry

Other Links to this Post

  1. My Thoughts on BlogHer09 | SeanBohan.com — July 30, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  2. How and why to get women on stage. « A Web 2.0 Wallflower — August 18, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

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