Confronting The Challenges Of Today’s Participatory Culture In Conferences And Events

This post is my contribution to the free eBook, What’s Next In Events 2011: 9 Event Experts Weigh In compiled and created by Lara McCullouch-Carter.

Free eBook compiled by Lara McCullouch-Carter.

We are witnessing the emergency of a cultural phenomenon that supports widespread participation in the production and distribution of content, information and media.

Sociologists call it the new participatory culture.

We Want To Participate


  • More than 50% of the population has uploaded and shared content, information or media on the Internet.
  • More than two-third of adult users of the internet have created and shared content on the Web.
  • More than 57% of adult users of the Internet write, post and share content, information or media on social networks.
  • More than one-half of adult Internet users are considered media creators. Media creators are those who created a blog, web page, posted original artwork, photograph, stories or videos or remixed online content into their own new creations.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, these activities are not limited to white suburban males or teenagers. Pew Internet researchers found no significant differences in participation by race-ethnicity.

For many adults, the Internet primarily means the web. For Gen Y, Gen X and Gen Z it means chat, connecting with friends, email, games, movies, social networks, text, video–all of which means they are content producers. Each of these groups is involved in individual expression and community involvement via the Internet. They are today’s new participatory networked citizens.

The Participatory Culture Impacts Conferences And Events

In the participatory culture, every person deserves the chance to express him- or herself through words, sounds and images. Not every person must contribute but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready. And that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

The participatory culture is impacting traditional conferences and events. People want to participate. They are looking for ways to get involved in all aspects of the conference or event from the planning stages to active engagement onsite to post-event participation. Traditional conference strategies of attendees sitting passively, listening to a talking head is out. Seeing conference attendees as participants, co-creators, experts and advocates is in.

Research from MIT, Duke University and the University of California illustrates that the participatory culture has also impacted learning. Technology has not created this shift. The ability for people to engage in shared and interactive learning that is built within the structure, organization and model of the Internet has created this societal change.

Six Principles For Today’s Conference Education

Here are six principles for designing education sessions for today’s conferences based on the research from MIT, Duke University and the University of California.

1. Conference education should transition from passive listening to participatory learning.

It relies on collaborative practices. Small group discussion, peer learning, person to person interaction, not just listening to talking heads is important. Some savvy organizers transition from monologues and dialogues to polylogues allowing many people to have several conversations with several others at the same time. (Think face-to-face integrated with online chats.)

2. Conference education must transition from presumed authority to collective credibility.

Reliance on the knowledge authorities or certified experts is no longer acceptable amid the growing complexities of experienced professionals. Experts may not have experience implementing their advice. Also, the knowledge gap between the presenter and attendee has shrunk. Sometimes attendees know more than presenters. Conference education needs to move to democratic, communal type formats with affirmation of social equality and that everyone’s experience counts.

3. Conference education must transition from vertical, authoritative to horizontal structures.

The corporate world is emphasizing collaborative, teamwork, multitasking and problem solving.  Standardized, one size-education presentations don’t address current corporate world’s needs. Focus is on peer to peer sharing and dissecting of presenters’ main points.

4. Conference education should provide a variety of formal and informal learning opportunities.

Adult education has moved from push, broadcast of information to pull methods. Industry novices do better with traditional conference formats of spoon-feeding information. Industry veterans prefer self-directed, collaborative, reflective education methods. Providing informal seating in pre-convene areas where adults can engage in peer sharing and learning is one way to meet both novice and veteran needs.

5. Conference education should transition to networked learning.

Learning is social. It is about mobilizing networks and enabling them to meet others who can help them meet their needs.  It emphasizes flexibility and outcomes and less facts and figures, which can change fast. It’s about conversations and partnering with others.

6. Conference education should be interactive and without walls.

Information is best shared with everyone and not just those within the conference walls. It’s about moving information from many that are present to the multitudes that are not present. “We serve our members best when we serve our industry first,” is a slogan many will adopt as the provide content and messages to the masses outside of the conference four walls.

Ultimately, the participatory culture shifts the focus from individual passive listening to community involvement. We are moving away from a world in which some produce and others consume towards one in which everyone has an active stake. This means conference and event organizers must begin to think about engaging participants in all aspects of the conference. After all, empowerment is connected at the hip with engagement.

How is today’s participatory culture affecting your meetings and events? How can event organizers transition from creating content for consumption to co-creating content together with their attendees?

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  2. Inge Hafkemeyer says:

    I agree with attendees wanting and needing to participate. My question is concerning CEUs and how or if they are going to accept these types of educational sessions as certified credit hours???

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      CEUs are not dependent upon a lecture or a monologue. Receiving CEUs are dependent upon somone learning information. As long as learning still occurs, whether its from an expert or peer, CEUs can still be given. If the presentation list learner outcomes and the attendees attain those outcomes through participation, then everything is fine.

      I my 20+ years of event and education planning for nonprofits, I’ve never had any of my programming, which is primarily participatory, declined for CEUs. Oh, and BTW, just because someone is quiet in a room sitting forward watching a teacher does not mean they are learning. 😉

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