Monday, October 10, 2005

A tale of one conference panel

Lots of talk, yet again, about conferences and speakers and the lack of diversity. (Two examples are here at Shelley Powers and Sylvia Paull...who wrote this despite swearing she wasn't going to blog anymore.)

In both cases I left what could be considered a cryptic comment, "Conference organizers get the slate of speakers they think it's important to have", and I thought I'd clarify with a little story.

Lisa, Jory and I went to some lengths to make BlogHer a non-partisan conference and organization. Lisa and I have both written extensively about politics, from the left side of the spectrum, and obviously we couldn't hide that, but we also wanted to make sure that it wasn't the point of BlogHer.

BlogHer had only one panel addressing politics overtly, and it was on my pile to populate that panel. (FYI: Lisa, Jory and I split the panels...taking individual stabs at identifying speakers before discussing as a group.) Even with the one Politics panel, the idea was to discuss the role of political blogging, not the politics within those blogs. Now that people are aware of political bloggers, what should their role be? i.e. do they need to get more like journalists? Should they use their power to become advocates? We knew that even if the point wasn't to debate political positions, we needed to get diversity of political viewpoints onto that panel. And we needed people who weren't knee-jerk partisans on either side of the aisle.

Speaking only for myself (Lisa was probably more up on the conservative blogger scene than I) I didn't feel like I had a slew of great conservative women bloggers to choose from. I used to subscribe to some conservatives to know what "the other side" was saying, but I soon realized that I could still just read the lefty bloggers and find out what the righties were saying...the important stuff bubbles to the top. (And when you subscribe to hundreds of feeds, culling is important!) So I wasn't subscribing to a bunch of those folks anymore, which meant I heard only what the top-tier Powerlines, InstaPundits and Little Green Footballs-types were saying. (Hmmm...proving the original point we were making by starting BlogHer right there, no?)

And of all the people sending us ideas for their favorite bloggers that we should get to speak, or from people proposing themselves as speakers, conservative women bloggers weren't coming out of the woodwork that way either. Because no matter how non-partisan we were trying to be, the word-of-mouth ripples about BlogHer were necessarily hitting our own circle first, then their circle and so on...and yes, we were less likely to hit conservative women bloggers by word of mouth alone.

One name, however, get brought up numerous times, LaShawn Barber. I started reading LaShawn and while I couldn't say I agreed with her politics, I respected her writing and her complexity. There didn't seem to be anything knee-jerk about her. So we invited her, and she accepted. Yay, happy ending.

Until a family conflict arose, and LaShawn had to back out.

Now, I could use the same excuses conference organizers always use: no conservative women submitted ideas. It's self-selection. None of my blog buddies knew any great women conservative bloggers to recommend...doesn't that mean there really aren't any out there? I could find a dozen moderate-to-liberal women bloggers who were certainly qualified to speak on the subject. So why should diversity of perspective matter if they can speak competently on the cold, hard facts?

What to do? Here's what I did: I went back to LaShawn and asked her to help me. I asked her to give me names of conservative women bloggers who weren't knee-jerk partisans who could take her place on the panel. She gave me a few names. I checked them out, invited one and ended up with a blogger I had never even heard of before.

It is not the blogger's failing that I had never heard of her. Nor her failing that she wasn't magically aware of BlogHer and our plans and the opportunities there for her.

It is not even, really, my failing that I had never heard of her...we can't expect to know everyone.

But given that we had already decided that diversity of perspectives was important, it would have been my failing, most definitely, if I had not found her.

I hope this little parable illustrates less cryptically, more plainly, what I mean when I say:

"Conference organizers get the slate of speakers they think it's important to have."

These stats (culled from Fred Wilson's A_VC), may offer an explanation for why your search was so difficult.

According to the Center for Media Research:

* Eight states had broadband penetration over 35% - all voted for John Kerry in 2004
* Eleven states had broadband penetration at or below 20% - all voted for George Bush in 2004
* Cumulative broadband penetration in states that voted for Kerry was 33% - compared to 25% in states that voted for Bush

From these statistics it's clear that conservatives, on average, are HUGELY disinterested in online media (relative to liberals) ... I guess that's what they call "living up to your reputation"
Nice piece, thanks for posting it. It's fascinating to read how you, Lisa and Jory operated.

Are you going to re-invite LaShawn Barber to the next Blogher event?
Now sourduck...if we invite LaShawn I hope she finds out about it before my blog readers :)

Hmmm, you've got a point there. :D
Great post - I also read your links to Shelley & Sylvia. I'd read previously Kathy Sierra's post on suggestions on how to be invited to speak. And recently pinged a conference organizer about speaking at their blogging conference (as there was no open call for submissions of proposals.) It seems to me that most organizers have a slate in mind and tap from their network; and aren't looking for fresh voices the way you, Lisa, and Jory did.

Evelyn Rodriguez
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