Ephemerisle 2011 Summary

Enki 6/18/2011
I spent last weekend at Ephemerisle 2011, the third year of the floating festival on the Sacramento River Delta. Lots of people asked me how it was, and the short answer is: awesome - it keeps getting better every year.

The long answer comes with history: I've spent years organizing and thinking about conferences and events and what makes them amazing, back in Europe. When you're regularly taking a few hundred thousand Euros in hand to make a conference, every detail starts to matter to you. How many tracks does the conference have, which speakers do you invite, where do you put the buffet, which rooms do you use for the talks. When I first started DeepSec (disclosure: I'm not longer involved), I spent two months looking at every single hotel in Vienna to find the perfect location.

It's easy to get things wrong too. Most people think conferences are about talks and speakers, but really they are not. It's all about giving the audience the opportunity to connect. Your job as an organizer isn't to connect them, but to remove the obstacles and optimize the connection funnel.

You can imagine that connection funnel as:

  1. Image: What's your events' public image? Which audience does that attract? Who'd come if they could?
  2. Filter: Who really gets there? Many events are too expensive for many that are interested. That filters, but not for awesomeness. Other events have an application process or are invitation only, but that's very prone to missing awesome people who aren't established yet. Some events like Burning Man have natural filters: They filter for dedication and persistence. Being in the desert with only the food and water you bring yourself is a pretty good way to filter for dedication and self-reliance.
  3. Event: Layout of the location and event structure. Once you've got the people there, you still need to give them excuses and opportunities to connect. We all want connection, but we're all a bit shy. Density is an important factor in enabling connection. Have a space with lots of nooks and crannies, and give people a reason to walk through the hallway. Put your conference tracks at opposite ends of the hallway. Have competitions or just events people can observe or participate in. If the location is too big, put up walls to make it smaller and more dense.

If you get all of those right you'll have an amazing event, and your event will have an impact. Not directly, but by connecting people that will go on and work on projects together.

So back to Ephemerisle. What's great about it?

  1. It has an amazing core audience: Since year one, it has had some of the nicest, smartest and most talented people I know in attendance. And every year they bring more of their friends.
  2. It's hard to get there. You first need to hear about it, and then convince someone to host you on their boat. And someone to ferry you to the actual event. There's no central authority who keeps people away, but it's still pretty damn hard to get there.
  3. Once you're there, you have all these amazing people, but it's really dense and intense. There's little space on the water. Only the land you bring yourself, but it's got lots of nooks and crannies. There's a reason all the best conversations at parties happen in the kitchen or pantry. This year we had about 17 boats tied together. On each of these boats a whole bunch of people feel like they are the hosts, and are hospitable and inviting. Also there's lots of activities for people to actually do something useful together and connect. Building a temporary floating city isn't easy, and by contributing you get accepted into the community

So here's why Ephemerisle is amazing. It's got all the important basics right. From here on out, it's just making it better every year. And it seems we're right on track.

Look at some more pictures from Ephemerisle 2011 on Flickr.