David Weinberger Nails Mesh07

Right. After a weekend of recharging, cycling out on the Leslie Street Spit with the kids, and noodling on the mass of interwoven themes and threads from two and a half days of Mesh Conference fun - it's about time I posted some thoughts on the whole shebang.

It was, first of all, an immensely enjoyable conference in many, many ways. The Gang of Five organizers – Stuart, Mark, Mathew, Mike and Rob - did an outstanding job. Great speakers, practically flawless organization, terrific buzz. I had, and still have, some quiet reservations - but more on that in a moment.

I took a lot of notes, but it would take too long to sort through and transcribe them into some kind of coherent post. My conference note-taking is often a kind of displacement activity anyway, if that's the right expression. By taking notes, I find I recall things better – but I don't actually have to go back and read the notes in order to remember stuff. It's the simple act of writing something down that helps commit it to memory.

No - in lieu of my personal notes, if you want a good idea of what the conference is like you could do worse than to check out the masses of posts, photos, and videos already tagged 'mesh07' out there.

Some of the session highlights for me were:

- Mike Arrington's keynote conversation – funny, snarky, and entertainingly direct;
- Richard Edelman – smart, candid, level-headed, charming;
- Jim Buckmaster – deliciously dry, insightful, and almost criminally relaxed (even in the face of endless repetitious questions from the audience on "what's the business model" and "where do you see Craigslist in 5 years time". There were so many variants of that last one, in fact, I was sorely tempted to ask: "where do you think Craigslist will be in 3 years, 4 months, 2 days and 17 minutes from now". Sheesh. Instead I asked a cheeky tabloid question about the freakiest thing Jim's ever seen posted to the site.)

Outside of the sessions, it was fun getting to hang out with Dell's "Chief Blogger" Lionel Menchaca – a terrific bloke in every way. And getting to drink with Loren Feldman, who is just naturally, effortlessly hilarious, plus stacks of other fine folk: Mary Hodder, Alexa Clark, Sandy Ward, Raymond Ludwin, Cynthia Brumfield, Rachel Clarke, and of course lots of old friends – the list could go on and on...

Beyond the keynotes and panels, though, the real joy of Mesh – this year as much as last – was to be found in the white space on the schedule; the mixing, mingling, muttering and...um...meshing in the open spaces and hallways around and alongside the main events. The conferring going on all around this conference had the feel of a love-in. Like a big group of friends swapping stories and URLs in a warm, open, collegial atmosphere.

Yet in the heart of that thought is one of the things that I've been worrying over for the last few days. It was great, and I really did enjoy it all, but I had this troubling sensation in the run up to the event and all through the two main days of the conference that I wasn't really gaining anything new from it all.

OK, so I did come away with a decent handful of new business leads, at least one of which is really solid. But beyond the genuinely enjoyable huggyfest of the social media jeunesse dorée at play, what did we actually gain from attending Mesh?

When you fill a selection of rooms with a crowd of people who have already achieved social media consensus, who all agree on The Five Precepts of bloggisyana, the potential for real creative tension is kind of limited. And you need that tension for the really juicy stuff to happen – from conflict comes real insight.

One of the people I bumped into at Mesh, Alexa Clark from the CheapEats restaurant guides summed it up in email: "It's got to be hard running a conference where the audience is often packed with experts with as much hands on experience as the speakers." Indeed.

That's the kind of thing that was nagging at me all throughout Mesh. Much as I enjoy gatherings of the blogosphere clan, I've been fretting that all this jolly consensus isn't really getting us anywhere.

We meet, we chew over the same thoughts of authenticity, transparency, clarity; we agree on where the business models are, feel confident that we're changing the world, generally concur that there's AND logic happening here (i.e. we're not necessarily killing or replacing old media - AND as opposed to OR, or NOT). Then we go back to our day jobs until the next social schmooze.

And yet even though I was vaguely disappointed that I came away without any hard-edged slices of tangibly new knowledge – I still left the conference feeling energized, stimulated, my head buzzing with ideas. How did that happen?

It's at this point that David Weinberger comes to the rescue, as he so often does. David wasn't actually at Mesh, but his ideas and that of his Cluetrain Manifesto co-authors were an ambient, omnipresent undercurrent informing almost every session and hallway conversation.

It was entirely appropriate that my reading matter for the streetcar commute to the two days of Mesh was the last few pages of David's latest book, Everything Is Miscellaneous. It's a wonderful, deeply thoughtful, finely wrought book – one that deserves a post of its own (at the very, very least), which I'll get to in due course.

In the closing sections of the book, David addresses the "echo chamber" gripe that so often surfaces in bloggy contexts. When I read these thoughts of his, the penny dropped for me with a an almost audible clang. I read the passage twice, closed the book, and sat back with a comfortable smile on my face.

Now I know what it is that we're doing at Mesh, and why it's worth doing. Here's the relevant excerpt:
Web conversations have looked to many like echo chambers because of the nature of conversation itself. Conversation always occurs on a ground of agreement. If we don’t first tacitly agree that sugar is an edible substance, we can’t then talk about whether eating sugar makes kids crazy. From that basis of agreement, we then iterate on differences. Where the ground of agreement is more controversial – “Howard Dean should be president” at the Dean site or “Aromatherapy works!” at a New Age healing site – outsiders may think that a bunch of people who agree have gotten together to reinforce one another. But that mistakes the ground of conversation for the conversation itself. By discussing differences while standing on a shared ground, we work toward understanding.

Understanding, not knowledge, is what we’re aiming at in most conversations … In a conversation’s shared ground there are things we know – or assume we know – but they’re precisely what’s not interesting to talk about. In conversation we think out loud together, trying to understand.
-- David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous, Times Books, 2007

And that's the heart of it, right there.

What the Mesh organizers have done is to foster the ideal environment for a crowd of interesting people to gather and "think out loud together, trying to understand". That's why it works so well, and why I'll do all I can to get back there for the third year running at Mesh '08.