Talking the talk: Web Summit 2014
Last year, OTR gave the Web Summit organisers a bunch of unasked for advice. We head back to Dublin 4 to see if they took any notice of what we said
Let’s start where we left off last time around. That was this post after last year’s Web Summit offering some pieces of unasked for advice to the event organisers. We can categorically state that they definitely invested in more signs. You’d signs for miles at the RDS during last week’s three day beano meaning you could actually find your way around with ease. They also definitely added more side-stages to bring more dimensions to the event – indeed, the Sports Summit, Marketing Stage and (for a second year in a row) the Library Stage provided all the top-level conference eating and drinking you could possibly need.
If you wanted some real eating and drinking, you headed to Herbert Park for the Food Summit. Last year, this gathering of Irish food producers was thrown together in 10 days and was fairly chaotic as a result. This year, with the benefit of a full year to get things right, you’d a flawless system in place with three large marquees at full pelt to feed the multitudes.
That kind of planning was clearly evident throughout the event. We did hear some quibbles about certain elements – you’d want to have been living on the moon not to know about the Summit’s wi-fi problems, which are as now as much a part of the event as big kahoona Paddy Cosgrave in a t-shirt on the main stage – but, by and large, the super-sized Summit seemed to work.
The reason for the “by and large” and “seemed to” qualifications is because it really comes down to what you want from this massive coming together of tech and tech-related people in Dublin 4. If you’re a start-up, you want to find funders and investors. If you’re selling something, you want buyers to buy something. If you’re there to network, you want to go home with a clutch of business cards and contacts. If you’re there to see Bono, you want to see Bono (who, it turned, repeled as many people as his last album). If you’re a local totally peeved at the amount of attention which the Summit attracts – attention which no other Irish tech event ever attracts from non-tech media – you just want it all over as fast as possible.
In my case, I’m always keen to hear interesting speakers talk the talk on a wide range of topics and I had that within 10 minutes of stepping off the DART in Sandymount. David Epstein provided the opening talking on the Sports Summit stage and his fantastic presentation rolled from the 0.5 per cent difference between legendary and needing an off-season job to the power of small data to debunking the 10,000 hours principle.
Over the two days I was there (I couldn’t make it on Thursday so unfortunately missed all the Music Summit programming), I heard a rake of fantastic talks, panel discussions and presentations. Be it Robert Muggah’s on how crime cartels are using social media, Gary Marcus on artificial intelligence, a surprisingly self-aware Rio Ferdinand on footballers and Twitter and a score of fascinating discussions on sports agents and data, the Summit delivered for me in this regard. Like many, I hope all the panels were recorded for future podcast or broadcast and that’s certainly another revenue stream which could be tapped by the organisers.
Such was the size of Web Summit 2014, there was absolutely no way you could get to everything. With stages running simultaneously in two different locations and not one tech start-up offering bi-location or cloning services, you just couldn’t get to everything. I made a decision to largely ignore all the main stage stuff because there was way too much boring guff there last year. Judging on the stuff I did catch there, there was just as much guff in 2014. We really don’t need David Carr and co talking yet again about the future of the media when the future of the media is actually happening right now. Time to perhaps address the present of the media than pick some belly fluff about what may never happen.
No, the real discussions and insights, as is often the case, could be found off-Broadway and away from the main drag. Those smaller stages, which were evidently carefully curated and programmed, worked like gangbusters and gave those who wanted something other than webtrepreneurs pitching their wares something to dig. Of course, they didn’t have any of the big bells and whistles which many people associate with the Web Summit – you didn’t get Enda Kenny spending any time at the Library Stage and more’s the pity – but they provided some very important elements nonetheless. Indeed, if you stayed away from the main stage area in the Simmonscourt pavilion, you also got decent wi-fi all during the event, if that was what you were after.
But the Web Summit for the mainstream is all about the big hitters, like sight of Eva Longoria walking, tweeting and eating her weight in crisps around Dublin. That’s the shorthand about the Summit for many, a couple of days of distractions, some celebrities, media outlets which rarely cover tech in any indepth or insightful way falling over themselves to do the Summit, social media snarking and occasional discombobulation when a few pubs or streets are taken over by tech lads in their blazers and carefully pressed jeans. By and large, the Summit sticks to its RDS acres and, while there is a commendable intention to bring the Summit around the city, most Dubliners could – and probably did – have avoided the whole thing last week. That’s where it differs with a bona-fide monster event like SXSW which totally takes over Austin, Texas for 10 days.
Yet you got the sense this year that the Summit is still only getting started. While it may have seemed that it jumped the shark in 2013, we really had seen nothing yet. It’s a massive achievement to have reached 20,000 delegates after five years, but Cosgrave’s comments in the closing press conference about the event getting bigger should not be dismissed out of hand. You could easily envisage several new strands next year. What a Farm Summit to go beyond just the artisan producers feted in the Food Summit? The after-hours’ Students Summit was a huge success so there’s scope for growth there. A Creative Summit? A Design Summit? A Fashion Summit? A Summit Summit for those who organise summits? There are plenty of sheds and empty buildings in the RDS which could yet be pressed into service.
One small request would be a greater tie-in between the event and the city. Despite all the wi-fi problems and posturing over same (Ireland is not yet the best small country in the world to connect to the internet in), it’s highly unlikely that the Summit is leaving the capital any time soon, given how difficult it would be to get a similar range of government agency support and funding elsewhere. It would make sense for the Summit to get a little closer to the city they call home.
The Summit made a clever move by ensuring that the Summit Fringe events are under their umbrella, but there’s plenty of scope for much more city-wide programming than was the case this year. After all, most of the speakers who’ve had their transport and hotel costs covered would be more than willing to do more than one 20 minute panel or talk. If the organisers don’t do it or are worried about diluting the main offering, expect much more guerilla events to pop up in 2015 as independent organisers tap those speakers already in town. A Web Summit ticket is expensive for a reason because you’re getting access to all those speakers and talks, but that doesn’t mean the Summit shouldn’t and couldn’t do more for the city with fringe programming. Call it a goodwill gesture.
Overall, then, it’s thumbs up from this quarter. Sure, there are still problems and issues to be addressed – all of which, from the connectivity to the gender ratio of the speakers to the lack of really strong discussions on the main stage, are within the control of the organisers – but they got so much right this year that it would be churlish not to acknowledge what they’ve done. Growing a festival from zero to 20,000 within five years is a significant achievement which deserves a round of appluase. Putting on an event like this in Dublin and drawing that sort and size of crowd also calls for an ovation. It will be fascinating to see where Cosgrave and Web Summit go from here because they’ve set the bar very high after this year’s fandango.