The proverbial lunchroom

Conferences have a way of feeling a lot like the first day of middle school. You register, look at the schedule (secretly geek out about some of the cool things you’ll be learning), pick out what you’re going to wear the first day, pack your favorite pen, and thennnnn… you show up.

Maybe you know some people, but you’re not sure if they’ll remember you, so you decide to avoid eye contact just to be safe. Maybe you don’t know anyone, and you have to enter the proverbial lunchroom and try to figure out which table to sit at. Better go sit at the empty table, and try not to look too awkwardly hopeful that someone, anyone, will come sit with you.

Let’s make it weird

If you know much about &yet, you know we have a history of creating conferences that are very weird. If you don’t know much about &yet, HI WELCOME WE’RE GLAD YOU’RE HERE WE LIKE WEIRD THINGS DO YOU LIKE WEIRD THINGS LET’S BE FRIENDS. Just kidding. Kind of.

We encourage you to read more about us and our weird conferences here and here and here and here. (Let’s totally be friends too.)

Baaaaack to the lunchroom. When &yet went about creating a vision for &yetConf in 2015, the ideas were big: It was to be a conference about the intersections of technology with humanity, meaning and ethics for people who believe the world should be better and are determined to make it so.

It was clear that this could not be accomplished in a lunchroom.

Ditching the lunchroom

In order to effectively accomplish the vision of the conference, we needed to abandon the idea that a group of people showing up in a room cold, hearing some talks, then leaving at the end of the week, could promote the level of depth, connection, and discussion that was necessary—no matter how incredible the group of people were. &yetConf needed to be truly immersive.

This is what we mean by immersive

The event itself was a presentation—a performance, an adventure. We thought of the conference as a transformative art form beginning with a dramatic and mysterious buildup prior to the event. Our team collaborated with novelist and playwright Mike Speegle to create:

  • 9 episodes of an original choose-your-own-adventure story over text messages (beginning weeks before the conference)
  • An original play embedded in the conference
  • Original Conference Soundtrack performed live by Ben Michel and His Post-Post-Apocalyptic All-Stars
  • Philosophically reflective music and spoken word performances by numerous guest artists
  • Visual immersion in a new world of art commissioned for this moment by local artists

Say what?

Yes. That did say “choose-your-own-adventure story over text messages”. Imagine signing up for a conference…that’s also a performance…and in the weeks prior to the conference, you start to receive mysterious messages. There are plots to figure out, multiple characters to meet, and decisions to be made. Before you even arrive to the conference, you are a vital part of the narrative. This, my friend, is Textcapades.

The underlying principle is something &yet learned in large part from Paul Campbell and Eamon Leonard. Their three-event Ireland trilogy, Funconf, was shrouded in mystery but included random things like castles, helicopters, islands, chartered trains, and DeLoreans (all on a reasonably affordable conference and three-night lodging price, no less!) By creating one-of-a-kind shared experiences, the playing field was leveled. Everyone had something in common and something to talk about.

Back to the lunchroom…but not.

We loved what Funconf did at the event and wanted to use creative technology to infuse that same spirit into the pre-event experience.

While Textcapades served numerous purposes—it introduced a meaningful narrative that was woven throughout the conference, it sorted participants stealthily into groups of facilitated activities based on their choices—one of its side effects was that it introduced some universal weirdness for people to bond over and made people feel like they were not walking cold into a middle school lunchroom, but that they were walking into a universe in which they already existed and their choices mattered.

Textcapades brought everyone to the conference with a shared experience—some weirdness to bond over. Instead of starting the conference with the dreaded “Hey…can I sit with you?” It was: “Did you get that message about the such-and-such?” “Oh, look! Another message is coming through right now!” (which did happen throughout the conference) “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?” And the adventure continued from there, comrades in tow.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How could we infuse our earliest communications with our community with a little more weirdness?
  • Are there opportunities for us to begin learning about some of their preferences, interests, and leanings in playful ways?
  • How might we help our community members feel like when they first “walk on campus”, they already know a couple of people, and have a sense of what to expect?
  • What unexpected, tools could we use to connect with our community in ways that feel generous and low pressure — and that could give them something unusual to discuss amongst themselves?