I think there are some fairly basic reasons most of us are there in the first place. They are:
- To meet new people, either to expand your own network or for your organization
- To renew acquaintances, for me this usually involves alcohol, For others it involves golf or distance running. For all of us in involves skipping the aforementioned panels
- To share new ideas, new products with potential collaborators
- To debate the big issues(this almost never happens, although I include it because many many panels are advertised like this has a high chance of happening. It doesn’t)
- To gather information on what other organizations are doing in your industry
- To be seen. The simple fact is often your company/non-profit/agency needs you at that conference simply so that they have a presence and everyone remembers that you/they are an important player in whatever field you are in.
OK, but I know this isn’t realistic, at least in the short term. Setting up panels is easy and low risk for organizers. People’s expectations are so low, you rarely hear someone say “Boy, that was a bad panel.” It requires almost no preparation. So, let’s talk about #6, the only things panels are good for. The point of panels is to be seen. We use panels to signify who is important in our corners of the world, who is worth talking to. It’s not about what those people actually say (which is usually very little). Often if I am trying to understand a new space, I find a panel listing for a conference I didn’t even attend and call the three panelists because I assume those are the three best people to talk to to understand what is going on in that space. And those three people are almost always look like me.
The standard argument for why 3 white guys on a panel suck is that different people bring different perspectives. I guess I hate panels enough to say that 3 people with 3 genuinely different points of view assembled into a panel will still suck, but it can’t hurt. More importantly, panels are how we signal to the audience “These are the people worth talking to”, and more often than not we are signaling “the most important people in this space are all white dudes” That stinks. Its almost never true, and even if it is temporarily true in some tiny niche topic, it’s worth forcing some new voices in before they have anything interesting to say. After all, no one ever says anything interesting anyway.
So, for what it’s worth, no more all white dude panels for me. Not as a participant, not as an audience member. And for any conference I actually help organize, no panels. They stink.