Thoughts after Macworld

Macworld 2012 has started two ongoing discussions, one interesting, the other one less so. The interesting discussion concerns the spike in the presence of booth babe eye candy at the conference, and how that affected both the show and the sensibilities of the attendees. Of course, every male I’ve seen in these discussions vociferously states that they are not interested in such frippery, and that their personal views of these companies decline; I’m no exception. But market research says otherwise: an empty booth repels potential customers, and attractive models at a booth generate enough foot traffic to break the glass wall and allow real customers to stop by.

I’m more interested in what my female colleagues are saying, and surprised to hear that many of them feel denigrated by the practice. I’d prefer to believe that we’re past the point where the presence of a model can somehow reduce the perceived value of a female journalist or technologist. But that’s been somewhat proven wrong by a controversy caused by Violet Blue’s coverage of the conference. A while back she blasted some geek attendees of Macworld for assuming that she herself was an airhead model (and “retaliated” by playing the part and blogging about it). This year she (or her editor) captioned a photo “The Saddest Booth Babe in Existence”, which turned out to be of an independent iOS app developer at her first Macworld.

Long story short, I’ve got nothing against cheap marketing tricks when they’re done well, and I think hiring attractive models for your booth falls into that category. But hanging with Tonya Engst and Kelly Guimont were two of my best times at Macworld this year, and so I’m going to listen carefully when they tell me that something sets them off.

The less interesting discussion is about whether Macworld “isn’t like it used to be.” That’s a common refrain among many of the old-timers at the show. Personally, this is my second “real” Macworld in San Francisco, although I attended several East Coast shows back in the day. I can infer what they’re talking about, though.

First, it used to be that being an Apple guy meant you were a member of a much smaller club. Now you can’t spit in Starbucks without splattering an iPad. I disagree with people who think that we all bought Macs back then because it made us members of an exclusive club; the more accurate analogy is to friends of mine who spend most summer weekends driving around with other owners of Alfa Romeos. We liked Macs because there was something about them that made them better for us; most people didn’t see the distinction; and when it came time for us to gather together in person or online, we naturally became a tribe of affinity.

If we really wanted to keep the door to our treehouse club closed, we wouldn’t be happy about how many folks clog the Apple Stores these days. Most of us are thrilled, especially those of us who make our livings working with Mac owners. And if we pat ourselves on the back once in a while for being on the Apple curve before the rest of you, well, we don’t really expect you to join in.

Second, the old show used to have more big displays, notably including Apple. Personally, I can’t say that I miss their presence; I’m not going to get any news out of them at the show any earlier than anyone else, and the stuff I’m there to see isn’t going to be from Apple anyway. It’s batshit crazy to expect Apple to release new products in January when the Christmas season has just passed. My guess is: the biggest loss to the show is that big companies come with better swag. Used to be that you’d get press bags and free software, now it’s T-shirts and thumb drives.

If you think big shows are necessarily better, then head to the Consumer Electronics Show some year to be proved wrong. I missed this year and I’m looking forward to going again, but it’s exhausting as hell and a relief when everything I need to see takes up only one football field, not twelve.

But the big change is probably cultural, and that’s due to the Internet. I became a Mac guy back when “online” meant a community bulletin board system, and back then, trade shows were where you went for genuine news. Now it’s all on the Internet, and in Apple’s case, it’s news on the Internet long before it’s an actual announcement. This morning’s Twitter feed included a debate over whether Apple would hold an announcement in February or not. How much more meta can you get?

In any case, I don’t much care whether Macworld used to be better — I think it’s great now, and it’s going to be an annual part of my schedule. I go because it’s the one time a year that my online fraternity of Mac journalists and geeks get together, and I’m going to see them again or meet new members; everything else is just the trappings. My guess is that most Mac and iOS users of a tribalist bent will get the same buzz from the show, and can build the same sense of community. So long as that’s going on, Macworld’s a worthwhile trip.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts after Macworld

  1. Interesting! On this point: “I’m more interested in what my female colleagues are saying, and surprised to hear that many of them feel denigrated by the practice. I’d prefer to believe that we’re past the point where the presence of a model can somehow reduce the perceived value of a female journalist or technologist.” I could understand if women who are part of the industry feel dismissed when their male colleagues are more interested in hanging out with “eye candy at the booth” then interacting with them as they might have with male colleagues in previous years. (and you do suggest there is a question about whether the models’ presence impacted the “sensibilities of the attendees.” It suggests that men and women in the field are attending for different purposes.

  2. I think that part of what’s going on is that there are two male demographics: 1) men who are assholes, 2) men who aren’t assholes, but who may be at risk of being clueless.

    I have absolutely no doubt that when I’m participating in a professional scrum, that I’m going to unconsciously pay more attention to a woman who is attractive and possibly available — that’s an overt reason of why I socialize. When I become aware of it, I try to make changes in my behavior to make sure my actions are not overt even if the subtext remains the same.

    So the open questions are: 1) do my actions change when in the presence of a woman who is attractive and *not* available (i.e., someone hired to be professionally attractive), 2) do these actions create a negative environment for others, and 3) what is my responsibility for that environment? I don’t want my female colleagues to feel uncomfortable — but at the same time, the fact of someone of any gender being uncomfortable does not necessarily mean that there’s a social issue.

    Over in Twitter, the debate can be summarized: “Her: the people invited to speak are overwhelmingly male.” “Him: not my fault. If women don’t apply, it’s not my job to find them.”

    I have strong opinions about the issue, but as someone who rarely has to play the role of the excluded minority, I’d much rather hear more of your thoughts first.

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