On the eve of perhaps the biggest conference we security folks have (RSA Conference), we wanted to bait the echo chamber a bit, and wonder what the future of conferences is – especially given the amount and depth of information that is available via blogs and social media. Interestingly enough, we don’t necessarily have a consistent opinion here, but we want to hear what the community has to say.

Hypothesis: Security conferences continue to decrease in importance because the events don’t really help customers do their jobs any better.

The Bad and the Ugly

  • Weak sessions: In general, most sessions at any big conference are weak. Either poor content, poor speaking skills, or the double whammy of both, make most sessions intolerable – unless you dig making fun of the speaker on Twitter throughout the entire session.
  • Vendor Shiny Objects: The expo floors have degraded to a combination of booth babes and bandwagon-jumping exhibitors who are just trying to capitalize on whatever the buzzword or attack du jour happens to be.

The Good

  • Relationship building: All the folks I talk to continue to value the networking and relationship building opportunities that can only be accomplished in a face to face environment. These shows provide an opportunity to compare notes and figure out if you are missing something. Personally, this is the #1 reason I go to RSA and Black Hat and other conferences.
  • Trend watching: Clearly the “hallway track”, the show floor, and the conversations after hours provide guys like me with a good idea of what is hot and happening. Not necessarily what is working in the real world, but tracking trends is important too – especially for end users trying to make sure they aren’t losing too much ground to the bad guys.
  • Getting out of the office: With the number of directions the typical practitioner is pulled when they’re setting at their desk, sometimes they need to get out to have a chance to focus. Going to a nice locale is only part of this, but also the ability to do a lot of research in a short time.

Social Media Impact

So the real question is: can you replicate the relationship building and trend-spotting aspects of great conferences via social media? If you Twitter, can you build relationships and stay in tune with what is happening out there? The answer is yes, but not entirely. Personally, interacting with folks via Twitter allows me to stay in touch much more frequently and interact on a less superficial level than grabbing a beer at the W during RSA. And via blogs, online media, and forums, focused end users can do the kind of research typically possible only at a big show in the past, with a level of objective commentary which was simply not available before. So overall, social media certainly has the basis to largely supplant conferences over the next few years.

But as Rich pointed out during his review of this post, in a lot of cases social media can add impact to a conference. There is nothing like actually meeting someone you interact with through the ether, but the electronic interactions eliminates a lot of the “getting to know you” phase, because through social media you can familiarize yourself with the folks in your networks. And as Adrian mentioned, social media brings us back to an another advantage of attendance – conversations amongst small groups of folks, which gets lost in a crowd of 10,000 of your closest friends.

Not So Fast

Before we start shoveling the dirt on big security conferences, we need to look at the dark side of social media. Adrian actually calls it “anti-social media”, and he’s right. It seems vendors are working hard to screw up social media and make it basically an always-on trade show. Unfortunately, without the booth babes to make it tolerable.

For example, many bloggers got hammered with LinkedIn spam in the now-infamous Rapid7 incident a few weeks ago. My Twitter stream is polluted by PR types basically just linking to press releases and other press coverage notes. I won’t friend work contacts on Facebook (for the most part) because it’s hard enough keeping up with all the folks from high school I don’t want to hear from.

Unless folks figure out how to increase the signal to noise ratio, many of the social media networks will become as fun and as well attended as CSI. Yeah, I know that’s a low blow.

Conference 2.0

So what should the organizers be doing to change this trend? Here are a couple ideas, which may or may not be interesting. At least they should get the conversation going.

  • Get Small(er)
  • Kill Keynotes (will you miss the hot air?)
  • Community-driven content (like B-sides)
  • More pragmatism and tactics, less pontificating in sessions

The good news (for RSAC anyway) is that the show organizers recognize some of these issues and are working to address them. RSA specifically has been very welcoming to blogger types, and is experimenting with programs like the ESPP and Innovation Sandbox to add value. Over the past few years, there has also been a focus on improving the sessions through greater reviews and more oversight of presentation materials. This includes sending speaker scores from previous conferences to selection committee members in an attempt to eliminate crappy speakers from subsequent shows. But is it enough?

What do you think? At some point will you bypass the big cons for the warm confines of social media?