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Conference Homophily is a Problem--Maybe Conference Mashups are the Solution


I'm back from a two-day conference and I think I've discovered one of the reasons conferences are becoming a big waste for me--the homophily problem, otherwise known as "birds of a feather, flock together."

Most professional conferences are made up of people who are in a particular occupation or industry, which means people who tend to look at the world through the same lens. We tend to view problems and solutions within familiar, proscribed frameworks and to see the same enemies and heroes in any given situation. The problem is that this gets boring. It's also dangerous, because it impedes our ability to see and adopt new ideas.

What if we did a different kind of conference though, one designed to specifically address the conference homophily problem? I'm thinking of a conference mash-up, where we combine different groups of professionals or industries into a single conference where the workshops and networking could let us build on each others different frames of reference.

We could start small--maybe combining people in similar occupations who work in different industries. I'm thinking, for example, of a conference for classroom teachers and corporate trainers/educators. We have a lot in common but there are enough differences in what we do and how we do it that we could definitely learn from each other.

A conference mashup could be really radical too--like accountants and graphic artists or the financial services industry and bio-tech. Surely we could learn from each others approaches. If nothing else, we'd probably have some really interesting conversations. 

What do you think? Could this work? Or is it a completely crazy idea?


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It depends on what field you're looking at. I don't mind a conference mashup but there are certain fields you can do this.

Nonprofits are the best to setup since they're mission-driven. The public sector is another good one as well since it's under one roof.

The private sector is tough because there's a lot of competition and talent could be taken away and rivalries can start (which is not a bad thing, but not good for your purpose on this post).

Simply, there needs collaboration and cooperation among organizations. The latter is the biggest selling point.

I think that's a wonderful idea. I've done training in the child welfare world for years and have often benchmarked outside my own field to find training and development ideas.

My perfect mashup right now would bring mhealth professionals together with mlearning professionals and health care social media mavens to innovate patient/physician-centered mobile apps.

Michele -- Love this idea! But my association staffer experience tells me that it's one of those "nice in theory but tricky in practice" ideas. Mostly because of (guess!) money.

When I've heard association execs talk about various conferences they've held in cooperation (and collaboration) with other associations, they've generally ended with a remark such as, "We'll never do that again."

Why not? "We did most of the work, but they got half the revenue." Or: "Most of the attendees were our members, but they got half the revenue." Or: "The logistics of holding a conference are difficult enough without doubling -- or tripling -- or quadrupling -- the number of player groups involved."

So -- great idea. But how to anticipate the very real issues that drive the leaders to say no before the idea gets off the ground?

Your post reminds me of a comment I recently heard by an entrepreneur who said he regularly crashed conferences at hotels wherever he happened to be staying just to see how other professionals thought and what they talked about. What a neat idea!

Hey Michelle

A really interesting idea indeed. I wonder how this would work framed around particular 'problems' and challenges: the literature on open innovation and wide-search innovation - taking problems from one field into completely different fields to find solutions - suggests there is great benefit to be found here.

Two or more fields grappling with similar challenges might benefit from co-hosting a conference around that area.

For radically mashed up conferencing, events like Interesting ( offer an, um, interesting model.

Alternatively, just inviting someone from outside the field to keynote at an event, or people from different fields to take part in key panels, may be a way to at least shake up unquestioned assumption that are often implicit in homiphilous gatherings...

Hi Michelle,

In the digital humanities world, the concept of THATcamp has really taken off. THAT = The Humanities And Technology.

It's an unconference--short, cheap, no papers, no invited speakers. It's about gathering together a small group of varied experience and skills to actually work on problems and issues. The agenda is set during the first hour of the conference, with people suggesting topics for sessions, and then voting on the topics. The ones with the most votes get put on the schedule.
Nobody brings presentations or reads at you; it's about making connections and getting work done.

The mandate for the one I've been lucky enough to attend so far was "Keep it weird," and was attended by academics, librarians, programmers, and admin and tech folks from various non-profit entities.

Great comments everyone--thank you! I think there's definitely another blog post in your follow-up ideas. . .

The Society for Scholarly Publishing ( does this to a degree. I've found their conferences and committees to be refreshing in that regard!

Not only is it a workable idea, but it's already happening. Granted this case isn't a conference, but it is an open workspace where pros of many different stripes can come by and mingle during a workday, or share an activity with strangers on a weekend. And, they are giving back to the community in the process. =)

I like this idea, but I'm surrounded by people from other professions in my daily work. One of the big attractions for attending a conference is being around colleagues. It recharges the batteries.

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