Come together


What do rock festivals and scientific conferences have in common?

August 2019 marked 50 years since Woodstock. To those who weren’t around at the time, Woodstock tends to get held up as the prototypical rock festival – Hendrix, Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, hundreds of thousands of people in the open air. And mud. Lots of mud. Just like Glastonbury decades later, some of the most iconic images of Woodstock look less like a music festival and more like a refugee camp in a deluge.

With all that remembering focused on the music and the physical experience of being there, it’s easy to forget that for many of the attendees, the most important element of the festival was not physical but psychological. It was the counterculture made flesh, it was a community of young people finding common cause and common sentiment. Watch the documentaries and archive material, and what you see and hear over and over again from the youthful attendees is the jolt and the joy of recognition, realising that the things they cared about and the the way they felt was shared by not just a few but by many of their contemporaries. The festival galvanised a generation. 

In this age of Skype and online chatrooms, it might seem as though such elements are quaint or outdated. But that is to overlook that no matter how helpful technology might be, there still really is no substitute for sustained face-to-face contact. What festivals are capable of doing – in theory – is bringing together groups of like-minded people to generate or reinforce a sense of belonging.

Ironically, given how commercialised many rock festivals have become, one of the purer expressions of this same sentiment can be found today in the normally distinctly unmusical arena of academic conferences. Modern festivals are focused on the music and the mud, while conferences have better retained an echo of those countercultural impulses of community-building. 

In fact, look at a conference poster and you’ll see how similar the two can be. The banner headline, the dreamy visuals, the promoters, the headline acts, and the support. The main attractions may be speakers rather than guitarists, but the setup and the dynamics are the same. Nobody wants to play the morning set on the last day, the big names are the most likely to run over time, and there’s bound to at least one food item that everyone tells you to be careful about.

But in a sense, the main action takes place away from the stage. Conferences represent an unparalleled opportunity to put faces to names, and personalities to reputations. They’re a chance to forge new partnerships, renew old ties, get feedback, and cultivate future opportunities. The 21st century business jargon may term this “networking” but what that really means is “social”.

This shows how the talks and the speakers may be the main attractions, but they’re ultimately not the purpose – the purpose is bringing a community together. And it’s also why conferences tend to be most fun when they’re smaller. In a small meeting you have a realistic, though often unattained, chance to interact either directly or indirectly with everyone else present.

Academic conferences are hardly at risk of becoming over-commercialised in the way that rock festivals are, but they do face an existential conflict in this age of hypercompetition. Talk to older academics and they’ll lament the fact that nobody shares unpublished work at meetings any more, but that’s less damaging in and of itself than the environment it suggests – tribalism, hostility, and distrust. In other words, anti-social impulses. 

If the openness and sharing that underpin trust-building, and which forges and strengthens the bonds that hold a community together, are used against a community’s members by unscrupulous actors, then the community’s whole health is at risk. People returned from Woodstock with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose, and it’s those ideals which can be put to best use by the community itself. Embrace the magic.

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