#media140 – the wifi thing

I don't need your steenkin hairdryersI want to be clear that I think that anyone who has a go at running an event in central London for a couple of hundred people to try to understand something about how this real-time web stuff changes the way the world works deserves our admiration and gratitude, so salutes to Ande, Kate and the rest of the media140 team.

Now about the wifi – and it’s probably not what you think.

In my view, wireless connectivity to the internet for the modern conference is up there with electricity and hot and cold running water as an essential utility that guests should just expect to be there and working. Its lack is not as immediate a physical risk as for those other utilities, where we’d be bumbling around in the dark or stepping gingerly through each other’s waste products but it is a major inconvenience in a world where participants in events have come to expect the ability to upload content, see what others have uploaded, reference material that’s being talked about on stage and talk to each other in backchannels.

No wifi means we can’t play in a big part of the game. It’s as if we’d had a power cut and tried to carry on with candlelight. It also has consequences for quality reporting of what’s going on to those who couldn’t make it along and longer term for people trying to understand something that they heard in the middle of someone’s speech but can’t quite remember what it was or how it was nuanced.

So surely it’s the conference organizer’s fault when it goes wrong. I don’t think so. I think that if we’d turned up at RIBA and there happened to be a power cut in that part of W1 and no prospect of electricity for the rest of the day, we certainly wouldn’t have taken a swipe at the production team, instead a couple of things might have happened – firstly, I would expect insurance to have been taken out for such a thing to cover the costs of refunding participants and the costs of the conference on the day. Secondly, we’d (well some of us would) have probably nipped over to Regents Park and held an impromptu conversation along the lines that we’d previously intended.

I’d also expect RIBA as a conference centre to be dealing with it, not dumping it on the organizer.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Let’s assume that there’s a great supply, with reserves and generators in the basement to make sure failure of the national grid doesn’t kill the ability to host something.

The trouble is, to the wifi supplier, a conference like media140 is the 21st Century equivalent of a hair-dryer salesman’s convention in the 1930s to the fledgling electricity companies – all sorts of nutcases march in with power-hungry devices, all wanting to show off what their gadget can do and scrambling for the power sockets as soon as they get into the room. Even worse than that (and I suspect this is the real culprit) they bring hair-drying devices that automatically grab hold of power as soon as they come into the building – even if they’re in the owner’s pocket or briefcase. Can you imagine?!

There was a time when conference organizers were constantly reminding people to turn off their mobile phones. Perhaps we should be asking people now to just make sure that you keep your wifi-enabled device on 3G only until you really need to connect quickly and that all automatically wifi-grabbing applications are killed before you enter the building.

So iPhones are the new Handy Hannah – that’s what I learned at #media140

Photo by Paul Clarke

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4 thoughts on “#media140 – the wifi thing”

  1. Actually networking is potentially still hard, as there are not enough people who understand all of the subtleties of how to configure good WiFi for conferences.
    Many conferences seem to rely on the venues WiFi network, which is *never* of a sufficient standard to support many active users.

    Here is a post were it is explained how to configure networking for an event so that it does not suck.
    I have also spoken with one of the network team of Assembly.org (a gamer conference here in Finland), and he pointed out that they use an expensive Cisco system to ensure that there is a working network.

    So, for a conference organiser, they need to do the equivalent of the 1930′s Hair-Dryer conference and ensure they is sufficient power (which means ignoring the Venues normal power system and laying a (temporary) more capable one in it’s place). By the way, the expertise to do this correctly is not free ;)

  2. I never made it to Media140 in the end (too much actual work to do), but watching the streams flow through the deck of tweets, I remarked at the time:

    “Gee, you’d think they’d be more prepared by now.”

    A statement that not only reflects your comments above about RIBA/Media140′s wifi capabilities etc… but also, to that of the delegates.

    You’d think, after who knows how many months upon months of these kind of events where the wifi *never* works, there would be those who’d got smart and gone down the dongle route.

    I like the ‘switch your wifi to 3G’ comment, that might work – but overall, you’ve got to wonder how the so-called connected-generation get by outside of event-based free wifi.

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