Glastonbury for geeks? We can see why they’d call it that…
Before the Web Summit’s opening night, all attendees had been warned repeatedly via email that there would be extra security checks before entering the arena. The event’s organisers, Paddy Cosgrave and his team, had also warned people that if they hadn’t booked a ticket they could not simply turn up on the night.
They weren’t kidding. Looking around from a seat a few rows back from the Center Stage, hosted at the Altice arena, the room of 15,000 seats was at capacity – at least, for the beginning of the show.
People had begun arriving for the 6.30pm start at just after 4, and so within the interim the crowd was entertained with promo films cut from previous events – last year’s Web Summit, alongside films from Cosgrave’s MoneyConf, Collision and the Surf Summit. These were theatrical-style trailers: booming dubstep shuddered from the speakers, overaid with testimonials from some of tech’s biggest names.
It was undeniably impressive in parts, but also gimmicky. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes each time Gary Vaynerchuk’s voice rang out over the speakers:
‘If you’re sitting in this conference right now, at this kind of scale, and this is not your religion? You’re in deep shit.’
The event has been described as ‘Glastonbury for Geeks’ – and boy, have the team tried to live up to it. The entire setup was performative: from the dark stadium, to the wholly Instagrammable set.
The event opened with Cosgrave delivering a halting speech which referenced his humble beginnings, and welcoming his family to the event for the first time. Perhaps it was the size of the room, or the mix of people in the crowd, but applause was delivered all too slowly and not without encouragement from Paddy himself – I found myself wincing. People around me were buried in their phones.
There wasn’t much improvement with Paddy’s first speaker, Nuno Sebastião, one of Portugal’s most revered Start Up founders. He was clearly nervous and speaking in his second language – I can’t fault that at all – but there was incredibly little audience involvement throughout his entire 10-minute address.
I was about to settle down for a lacklustre evening, when Professor Stephen Hawking took to the screen – a great surprise. If Web Summit truly is a tech Glastonbury, Stephen Hawking was undoubtedly the Beyoncé. The majority of the audience was standing to record his entire address on phones and cameras, and not for the first time that evening, I couldn’t help but cringe (full disclosure, I did snap a quick photo of him for my own Instagram feed).
Sadly, this was the peak of most people’s interest – after all, it’s not easy to follow Beyoncé. Despite big names greeting the stage, every time I looked behind me I would see row after row of downturned, blue-lit faces, scrolling through newsfeeds. People soon started to talk about leaving for The Pub Summit – notoriously popular, the shortage of transport and nearby closed-off roads were giving people some concern.
My own personal highlight of the evening, was Kara Swisher’s fireside chat with Margrethe Vestager of the European Commission. The two were incredibly charismatic, with Kara managing to pull back the audience’s attention immediately with her opening line:
‘So, Margrethe, how fucked is Silicon Valley?’
I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, someone who wasn’t taking to the stage to simply revere technology, and warn of the potential future complications – someone was exposing the issues with the hierarchy in tech right now.
By the time the President of Portugal was addressing the audience, sadly, people were haemorrhaging from the arena to hunt for taxis and beer. The closing event was underwhelming, with confetti streaming down over an emptying stadium.
If you were looking for Glastonbury, you got it. Superstars, surprises, disarray and a very Instagram-feed-friendly show. I have to say, festivals were never my thing.
Will you be attending Web Summit next year? Let us know!
Still not sure? Part 2 of Web Summit Review coming next…
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @HalfLifeWriter