Dec 17, 2007
Last week, I went to Le Web 3 in Paris with my boss (who was participating in an onstage recreation of this debate and m’colleague Neil. It was a good event, mostly, and great to connect with a variety of people I like and admire both personally and professionally. I go to a lot of conferences – both as speaker and participant – through my work at The Guardian (and previously at AOL) and in a personal capacity, so it’s always interesting to get another perspective on the industry we work in. This time, it was with a distinctly European flavour.
We stayed in a rather odd hotel (but that’s another story), and since I got back there’s been a series of festive parties to attend, so it’s taken until now to catch up on sleep and distill my reflections on the event into any kind of order. So here goes.
- Great to have a spacious event with plenty of different areas, all with a lot of space for talking during breaks
- The food was awesome with impressive attention to detail. It was like being catered for at a wedding!
- The seats were comfortable and the stacked area at the back of the main hall meant that even people at the back of the room had a great view
- Production values – the sound quality was great, the projection of live video onto big screens meant it was easy to feel closer to what was going on onstage
- A good and eclectic selection of stimulating talks from interesting people, and only a few bits that felt like “we’ve heard this before”. I took copious notes and was delighted to hear some really challenging and inspiring points from the stage.
- Powerplugs. Hallelujah – finally a conference where I can recharge :)
The less good (and could be improved on next year without too much effort, I’m sure):
- The lighting in the main hall – too dark to see the keyboard/notepad during the talks (which has meant my conference notes are going to require some deciphering….)
- The location. Great space once you got there, but try finding a Parisian cab driver who’d heard of it! Lots of shrugs and baffled looks. Maybe it’s a new venue? In the end, we wound up getting a cab to Porte de la Chapelle and then the shuttle bus to the event and vice versa, which worked out ok, but that – combined with the shocked “Oh! Don’t walk around there with your laptop bag!” from people in the hotel – meant it felt a bit out of the way.
- The party. Too loud, too crowded – couldn’t talk, couldn’t find anyone…
- I was rather frustrated that the questions from the audience seemed to come from the same 4-5 people after each session. I don’t know whether this was down to the questioners (for hogging the mic a bit and not letting other voices be heard!), the rest of the audience members (for not putting their hands up!) or the onstage moderators (for repeatedly picking the same people to speak from the crowd!) but the net result was that at times it felt like Robert Scoble was the official mouthpiece of the conference attendees, giving live reaction to the onstage speakers directly after they’d finished. Liveblogging, out loud? I think Scoble’s got a lot to say, but others should have a voice too.
- On a related note, I think it’s worth thinking about why certain people are involved in the programme, and what they can bring to the event. Are they there because of their name, job title or company profile? Or because they can form opinions, present, construct arguments and so on? You need a good slug of both.
- Timing. Lunch was too long at 2 hours, and the days were very very long indeed. In fact, by the end of the first day, most people I spoke to were suffering from presentation-fatigue, emerging blinking into the Paris night like moles, having seen no daylight! By the time the afternoon session started on a lot of people had obviously decided to call it a day, which was a shame because there was still a lot on the programme. Perhaps it might be worth having more different tracks on a future occasion, while keeping the conference stimulating but with less overall must-pack-it-in length.
- There was rather poor representation of women in the programme. I know there are way, way more men in technology than women, and I know that there are far, far, far more high profile crowd-pulling men’s names in that space than women’s names. I get that, and it’s a shame, but there it is. But to have only
seveneight women on the stage out of 110 speakers over the two days, one of whom was the program director of the event and three of whom were in panel discussions? That seems a little under-representative to me! This is something that I know Loic has heard loud and clear from the blog feedback about the event and hopefully taken note of – in fact, he mentions it in his roundup of the feedback here.
And finally, the ugly – or rather, the just plain weird:
I spotted a video called Girls of Le Web posted on the blog of Loic Le Meur, who organised the event. Even though he didn’t make the video, he links to it saying “bravo!” and later another link to it under the heading “very cool videos”. [Update: link removed]
I guess it’s potentially funny to a particular audience – you know, it’s a typical youtube fodder montage of conference footage played over a song. Except this video highlights – nay, lingers on – the physical merits of the female participants in the conference, and the song is about sexy girls. Shots of women who don’t know they’re being filmed walking away, talking on the phone, eating, scowling at the camera, plus giggling and reading out cue cards with the name of the startup which made it, with voyeuristic zoom shots of bums and so on. There are men in it too, mostly being interviewed and wearing suits.
I don’t particularly care about the video itself – I mean, I don’t think it’s big or clever or funny, but I’m not particularly shocked about it because I know there are people in the world who get kicks from making bizarre voyeuristic videos of women on the tube or on escalators or smoking or whatever. It’s weird and leaves a bad taste in the mouth and I’m glad I wasn’t in it (though if you were, and you don’t mind, then great. If you were in it and you DID mind, then I’m very sorry), but it’s largely irrelevant, puerile, and decidedly not cool.
I appreciate that I’m completely opening the door to accusations of being a lefty-media humourless feminist whinger by saying this, and that someone will no doubt take this as some sort of warped opportunity to comment on my own physical shortcomings or riposte that I’m only jealous because I didn’t make it into the video (I’m really, really not) but this needs to be said.
I think linking to this video as if it provides coverage of the conference, or provides some sort of perspective on Le Web 3 which is condoned by the organisers is inappropriate, actually. It’s crass. It undermines the event.
I think it sends a very strange message to women working on the web and passionate about technology when the creator of a great conference like Le Web 3 seems to be saying that he wants more women to be on stage and in the room and asks for suggestions on how to make that happen, and yet at the same time giving the impression that objectifying female participants by secretly filming their bums (tee-hee-hee) and/or reducing female participation to being attractive is “very cool”.
It really isn’t.
Actually, it’s a bit offputting. Maybe because I’m a woman, or because I’m British, or because I go to a lot of conferences like this – and speak at a bunch, too. It might be for one or all of these reasons that I feel uncomfortable about this whole thing.
It makes me think that the participants and organisers of Le Web are more interested in putting on a Miss World Wide Web contest than addressing the topics which demand debate and discussion and sharing of knowledge around technology and design and the future of information.
It makes me feel like any woman who is asked to participate in the event next year might think twice about how they are likely to be portrayed – or perceived – at the event, if videos like that are perceived as being “very cool” by the organisers, if that is the way they see “the women of Le Web”.
It makes me sad to think that despite all the talk about wanting to increase female participation in technology events like Le Web, when they do show up, women are still being judged and referred to by their physical assets and not by the quality, quantity or insightfulness of their contributions, which is a real shame.
Let’s talk instead about Emily Bell – my boss, but I’d say it anyway – for being insightful and intelligent with pantomime villain Andrew Keen during their onstage discussion. Or June Cohen from TED, who got excited about the potential of using video as a way of distributing the inspiring talks from the TED events. Or Lisa Sounio, co-founder of Dopplr for asking some really good questions. Or Cathy Brooks, for doing an awesome job as content curator of the conference.
Those are just some of the real women of Le Web 3. I hope we get to see more of them in future, along with anyone else who brings intelligence and ideas to such an event, not just a video camera and an outdated attitude.
UPDATE: Loic has apologised for linking to the video, and the creators of it have removed it from the web. Thank you.