Connecting Worlds at Supernova 2005

by Tom Coates

A conference on community, search, telephony, play, business, government policy, media distribution, and building ships for the US Navy? It would be easy—and cheap—to characterize Supernova as the conference about decentralization that's lacking a heart. Certainly, this is a conference that attracts a lot of very different types of people (both to listen and to speak). And some of these people represent cultures that don't always play well together. So alongside the business people and the alpha geeks are groups from telephony, packs of legislators and policy people, representatives from the military and the academy, and everyone in between.

From Self-Expression to Mainstream Media

The breadth of the Supernova mission can be seen most clearly in the sheer range of panels. A panel on self-expression and community online (featuring Ev Williams from Odeo, Caterina Fake from Flickr, Mena Trott from Six Apart, and Lili Cheng from Microsoft) was followed by a discussion of the impact of VoIP. This, in turn, was followed by a panel on connected gaming. The following day handled, in turn, distributed business, distributed attention, and an astonishingly dense lunch seminar on public policy. The conference ended with a light panel on decentralized media distribution.

But in all of this diversity, recurrent themes still appeared. From the first onstage interview between Kevin Werbach and Jonathan Schwartz, issues of authenticity and trust emerged—in this context, about the trust that weblogs can foster between manager and staff. Mena Trott and Caterina Fake took these issues further, discussing what it means to hold the public's memories with services like Typepad and Flickr.

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Similar issues also reappeared in the panel on distributed business, where Philip Evans of the Boston Consulting Group talked about how the visibility, transparency, and frequency of communications that new technologies allowed built trust and lowered transaction costs.

Another significant theme was the impact of decentralizing technologies on business, and the various ways in which businesses could react. The two panels ("Applications for a Mobile, Connected World" and the Dan Gillmore-moderated "Reinventing Media" panel) that bookended the conference talked about the democratizing pressures on media. Ev Williams's Odeo, Mike Homer's Open Media Network, and Marc Canter's each showing how content creation and distribution is being pushed in radical new directions. One positive response from business was represented by Chris Anderson's now-ubiquitous conference crowd-pleaser on The Long Tail, but the policy and VoIP panels revealed a more neurotic side to business—a side quite happy to turn to government to stop emerging technologies from eradicating their business models.

Again, these differences seemed to represent divides between the various groups that attended the conference. And these divides sometimes took on a life of their own, with the gaming group talking in terms of generation differences. At one point, Raph Koster described many of the assembled audience as dinosaurs, a statement later picked up by Ross Mayfield of SocialText, who wondered whether gaming represented a generational shift beyond the social software, networked working environment of weblogs and wikis. Perhaps Supernova could be characterized not as being a collision of cultures but instead a collision of generations—with successive strata of technologies (broadcast, communications, networked, and play) all forced to come to terms with implications of decentralization at the same time.

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