Realtime Conference, the Imagination Platform

Last year, if you recall, I was a bit upset about some specification I participated in… I wrote a blog post, followed by another post, then went silent. I felt very strongly that everything I had to say was right there in the posts and that an ongoing online feud will only weaken the points I was trying to make. For a couple of months I received weekly requests to come speak at conferences about it. These were all security, platform, or API conferences where this topic would be a perfect match. I turned them all down.

What bothered me was the feeling that if I were to do a talk about it, it has to be to a completely different audience. I would have to break out of the echo chamber and turn a very technical and procedural set of arguments into something more culturally and emotionally meaningful. And it must be funny, which none of the people my posts were aimed at found amusing.

So when the invitation from the Realtime Conference team showed up in my inbox, my first reaction was to turn it down like all the others. But then when I read it, something clicked. For the first time, I wasn’t invited to explain why the protocol sucked. I was asked if I was interested in “sharing some of what [I] feel are [my] ‘lessons learned’ from that experience”. Here was an invitation to engage in a meaningful, emotional exercise that wasn’t trying to recreate my posts. It was about moving on. I immediately replied “sure!”.

That talk turned out to be my most popular talk yet (and not just because of the angry crazy person cursing on stage). But more importantly, I felt an emotional bond with the audience both at the event and later online. Leading up to the event, I found myself putting a lot more effort into this talk than on any of my previous talks. I commissioned an elaborate set of artwork for the slides, designed and printed limited-edition t-shirts, and produced more unused slides as raw material than ever before. I probably spent over $1000 of my own money preparing for this talk.

Why? Because something about the setup made me feel like it will all pay off in a big way. There was a steady buildup of anticipation coming from the event team. From email hints, tweets, and rumors, it sounded like something fantastical. When I asked which day I am speaking, the response was that it doesn’t matter because I’ll really should not miss the full experience. The team kept all their secrets but could not hide the pure unadulterated thrill they were having building up the magic.

And boy, did it all pay off big time!

The opening act alone included fake country flags and a flag waving practice, yellow school bus ride from the hotel to a town square, a full high school marching band leading a parade of geeks through the streets of Portland with people cheering us from the street and from balconies. It included individualized passports and stamps with our Twitter handle and a mock protest outside the location with people holding signs. My face hurt from a permanent grin that lasted an hour.

And that was just the opening act.

All the talks were good. Many were great. Amber Case was brilliant (I got up to pee when she went on stage and had to hold it in for 30 minutes because I just could not miss a second). But that’s beside the point. This was the first conference that as a whole, delivered a powerful emotional punch. It is too easy to focus on the little moments and there were plenty of those. What this team created is much more than a conference, but a platform for imagination. Good talks got automatically elevated to great talks because the undercurrent of creativity and energy lifted them up and created a subconscious motivation to go and build stuff.

This year’s event looks to be even better and the team is clearly set to beat their own insanely high expectations. In case you don’t know, Realtime is not a conference about websockets and XMPP. It’s about the now and the future, about a community, about moving the web forward, but most importantly, it is about a unique experience that is very hard to describe. You just need to be there.