There are a number of different conference formats going on such as camps, unconferences, geek dinners etc which are trying to tap into the whole wisdom of the crowds meme. I have been to a number of these and some are definitely more successful than others. At the last one I went to I classified the types of people in the crowd to see how the whole wisdom thing works.
First of all there is the vast majority who say nothing, they are the lurkers, so it is difficult to categorize what they are however I suspect they are the same types as the more vociferous.
Next are the noisemakers, the ones who like to hear their own voices. These can be split into the egocentrics who are doing it for themselves and the salesmen who are doing it for money. The salesmen are well known, recognized and disliked by all conference goers.
Above the noisemakers are the randomizers. These people just say random things. I have to admit I have no idea how they come up with the things they say, it just seems random to me.
Finally at the top of the pyramid are the experts. These can be split into two groups, the pontificators who just keep repeating the same old mantra's no matter what (eg Open source is good) and the real thinkers, alas the smallest group.
When I go to a conference what I really want to hear is the 5-10 real thinkers generating real signals not all the other people making noise. The problem with the standard conference format is all too often you get the pontificators or salesmen as presenters. The problem with the crowd based conferences is you sit through an hour of rubbish for the 2-3 minutes of gems when one of the real thinkers speaks out. What I really want is not a conference of experts or a conference of crowds but a conference of thinkers.
Actually the same is true of the blogosphere too…..
Mike, I don't think it's as predictable as you say. The best thoughts don't always come from the best thinkers. Expertise has an incredibly short shelf-life, and even the greatest experts start repeating themselves sometimes.
I learn a lot from the interaction between the participants. For example, whether the salesman addresses or sidesteps a dumb question from a self-appointed expert. Even the best salesman (perhaps especially the best) often reveals more about his product than he intends.
And I try to learn from the things that were not said. Why isn't anyone talking about X? Why is everyone assuming Y?
Ultimately, the expert and the salesman and the bore are (or should be) reacting to the audience, the crowd. A given audience may relish technical details or prefer snide jokes and anti-Microsoft rhetoric. A good crowd produces a good meeting.
All good points Richard and there is always serindipity too. Actually thinking about your comments I realise that I get most value from smart people (thinkers) who are not experts, the experts are normally stuck in a particular way of thinking which is not very valuable to me (the pontificators) so my naming was bad.
I also agree about what is missed. I guess I was trying to come up with a more efficient method rather that the present rather hit and miss system