I was there, man. There, right at the very start. I was there when Manolis Kelaidis, a designer from the Royal College of Art, delivered a stunning and genuinely awe inspiring keynote talk on how to hack a book with electrically conductive ink.
To this day, it’s the only genuine standing ovation I have seen and indeed enthusiastically participated in. If you were there, dear reader (and I know that at least one of you was), you’ll know exactly what that moment felt like.
Sometimes, it seems like a lifetime ago; other times, like it was only yesterday. The Fairmont Hotel, San Jose California, June 18-20 2007. This was the very first Tools of Change (TOC) Conference from O’Reilly Publishing. It’s fair to say, it was a signature event in the world of publishing. I made the pilgrimage from dear old Blighty, sitting on the train from SFO down to San Jose, through mystical names that made the future — Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View. Truth is, when I booked the airline ticket, I wasn’t exactly sure where San Jose was . . . and back then, one had to work a little harder to figure out the location of something.
Anyway, I made it there along with a few hundred like minded pilgrims in search of . . . well, back then, we weren’t really sure I think. I was trying to see something other than the usual in terms of what was on offer at the publishing conferences. I’d always wanted to attend the Web 2.0 Conference (now deceased: 2004–2012), and this was from the same place with a similar mindset, but y’know, it had publishing in the title so it was an easier sell to my bosses. And readers, yes, it really was awesome. Tim O’Reilly was there — he did “the brief history of publishing” routine and birthed a cliché since repeated in conferences too numerous to count. So was Jimmy from Wikipedia, Chris Anderson from Wired, beta testing his arguments on marginal cost (later to become the underwhelming Free!), Bruce Chizen, and many more. But Manolis, man, that dude utterly stole the show.
And now it’s over.
I’m not surprised. See, I attended the second TOC, in New York in February 2008. And the third in 2009. And having eulogised to anyone who would listen about how great TOC was, I was actually a little disappointed with the third one. Don’t get me wrong, there were still some fantastic talks and keynotes, but by now I was really starting to feel like I was getting a handle on this whole disruptive wave of publishing business and perhaps my increased knowledge was enabling me to be more discerning about the arguments and viewpoints I was witnessing.
About the same time as TOC, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) asked myself and Leigh Dodds to put together a training course on Web 2.0. We did, and introduced a steady stream of scholarly publishing types to the wonders of blogging, mash-ups (I know, how quaint!), and wikis. Thing is, we kept having to rework the course every six months. Leigh left, and I continued with a colleague from the Royal Society of Chemistry (Will Russell, take a bow). The Web 2.0 course morphed into “social media and communities” and then we added in big data (well, little data, really). And then this year, it ended. I’m not sad. Its time was over. People had mostly got to grips with how to think about all this stuff. Looking back on the feedback in the pre-course survey, one can see a progression from wide-eyed and borderline panic-stricken, to calm, rational, and professionally skeptical.
So when the announcement arrived via the TOC mailing list, I read it, thought, “fair enough” and moved on. A short while later, Twitter did what Twitter does so well, and started to disgorge various mutterings of discontent with this decision. OK, fair enough, some people get too attached to things, and I guess if you had gotten into the habit of rocking up to the Big Apple in February, then you might be a bit upset not to have an excuse to carry on. But then it all got a bit strange. Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media, wrote a rather aggressive post decrying O’Reilly’s decision to close the conference. Then there was this one from Publishing Perspectives. The quote “O’Reilly’s article is easily one of the most reviled publishing statements in recent memory” stands out as being particularly hyperbolic.
There’ve been a few of these things happening recently. Google announced it was going to close Reader. Cue uproar as people were enraged over the ceasing of a utility they paid not one single penny or cent for. Mendeley takes one of the two available routes for companies funded by investment vehicles, and the “community” erupts in outrage as “company and investors seek financially attractive outcome for all their hardwork/investment gamble.” What exactly did “disgusted of teh interwebs” expect was going to happen? And now Tim. Tim, the high priest of all things Internet, has taken the holy tablets of Meme and unceremoniously dashed them upon the rocks of reality. He’s closed something down. Taken a business decision. Hold the sentiment, heavy on the pragmatism.
Here’s the thing. If this “outrage” is going to erupt every time something like this happens, we’re going to need a better filter. Because Mendeley has two million users, and my count of the unique Twitter users who troubled themselves to #mendelete on Twitter was an infinitesimal proportion of that. But they were the loud ones who always have an opinion to share (not criticising, just observing). Same with Google and Reader no doubt. I can’t do numbers for the O’Reilly “outrage,” but seriously opinionistas — you are publishers. You’ve all had to kill something that no longer was performing. We all have. It’s not nice. But absent a mythical patron with bottomless pockets, this happens.
Frankly, I expect better from those who attended TOC. One of the best lessons I learned from Tools of Change, was this:
Fail Fast, Fail Often, and Fail Cheaply.
Buried in that statement is a simple message about measuring what you are doing and whether it’s (still) working. And if it isn’t, then you have some decisions to take. O’Reilly has been there before. Google ate half the O’Reilly book business between 2000 and 2003. Hard decisions had to be taken. You can read about that here in an account of his visit to talk to Nature. That was the genesis of the O’Reilly conference business. Agility isn’t always about doing the new stuff, the cool stuff, the meme-worthy, and the rest. Even when you are distributing the future, you still have to clean up after yourself or you’ll end up in a mess. Personally I’m glad TOC is over. It tells me that behind the many and influential thoughts that spill out of Sebastopol, CA, there is a businessman doing the thinking. He’ll be talking to us at the SSP Annual Meeting. I’ve always found him to be good value for money, even when I’ve disagreed with what he had to say.
TOC is done. What’s next?