The good and the bad of #AAA2016 or, THE AAA MUST NEVER USE THAT SCHEDULING APP AGAIN

The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association is now over, as is Thanksgiving. Now that we are over the hump and have a bit of perspective, we can ask: How well did the AAA handle the meetings?

#tweetup #aaa2016
The Spaghetti Factory-turned Irish Bar named The Local hosted 8 events by anthropologists a day, 6 days a week in November, including the #tweetup. I’ve added a filter to this image to give you a sense of what it looked like after two pints.

The Good
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was too tired to go to the opening plenary and hear Melissa Harris Perry speak, but I didn’t need to. Her foot literally came out of my twitter feed and kicked my ass. MHP’s speech galvanized the meetings and set the overall tone. Many people came to the AAAs still processing the implications of the Trump victory. To be blunt, they were mourning. MHP’s speech was a key moment when attendees began moving from sympathy and solidarity to anger and resolution. Carole often remarked on twitter that she had never seen such a politicized AAA. I feel the same way. There are lots of reasons that that happened. But a key one was MHP.

The Asian Artist Awards: I learned a ton about K-Pop this year as our hashtag collided with the Asian Artist Awards, resulting in a twitter feed dedicated to stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline and glamorous fashion pics (gratz to EXO on best singer award, btw). The anthropologists quickly jumped from #aaa2016 to #amanth2016, demonstrating a new level of social media sophistication.

The Bad
Plastic Conference Bags: My god people, do we not already have enough plastic in the world? In the past, I’ve balked at throwing AAA conference bags over my arm because I didn’t want to become a walking advertisement for whichever for profit publisher had sponsored them. But, I have to admit, they were actually pretty decent bags and I still use them at the grocery store, where few people will understand what shilling for Elsevier means. This year was infinitely worse. Given the monumental difficulties posed by coping with climate change, it seems like handing out 5,000 plastic bags is a drop in the ocean. But it’s a drop we can control. AAA: Never again. No plastic conference bags.

If it turns out those suckers were actually made out of textured soy or something, let me know and I’ll take it all back. But honestly: … .

The Scheduling App: I’ve saved the worst for last. This years AAA felt very fragmented and isolated to me: Small pockets of strangers wandering around, disconnected from one another. Partially this was because we are too small for a convention center but too big for our old venues in hotels. It could also be that I’m just a profoundly alienated person, though I doubt that. No, the real problem was THE RIDICULOUS SCHEDULING APP.

Over the years I’ve seen the AAAs go through various redesigns of its websites, and along the way I and other bloggers have commented in a critical but constructive way on how unusable each of them are. When the most recent design appeared, it was so bad that no one said anything. We basically gave up. Have you ever tried to find anything on the AAAs website? It is a nightmare. But whatever — I rarely need to use it, so whatever.

But the online conference program? That is incredibly important. As important as it was unusable. Search functionality, full display of session information, pop up windows — not only could you not use it to learn about the conference, it actually hides enough information about sessions from you that it makes reimbursement difficult. When you have a tool that screws over the tenured and adjunct alike, one which is useless even to the powerful, you know you’ve struck out.

Now, imagine taking that and wrapping it in one of the crappiest mobile applications you’ve ever run across, and you will be able to vicariously experience AAA 2016. While outright crashes were relatively rare (I had three people who said they couldn’t get the app to work on their ipad) the app might as well have been broken for most other people. It requested access to the files on my android phone, because apparently it would be too complicated to just put the text file containing the conference schedule into the app itself. The font size could not be increased or decreased. It spammed you with meaningless notifications. And this was on top of all the other problems we saw in the web version. Frankly, I was ready to kill a tree and pony up for the spine-bending paper schedule after just a few minutes of trying to use the app.

I have no idea who built this application, or how much the AAA paid for it, but they should be ashamed of themselves. It was a total joke which actively kept people apart and decreased the quality of the meetings. The AAA needs to switch vendors. This just cannot happen again. Shame shame shame.

The OK
Minneapolis: Global Climate Change smiled on us as the AAA this year experienced a relatively mild midwestern fall. And although it wasn’t Denver or Montreal, Minneapolis was still easy to navigate and it wasn’t too hard to catch a drink and a bit without too much trouble. The city was precisely as advertised in the promotional film shown at the business meeting of #AAA2015: A perfectly Normal place ready, willing, and eager to welcome large numbers of dentists or accountants to the convention center. As such, it did a decent job of hosting anthropologists. I even managed to find a place with an absinthe tasting. But I am looking forward to Washington DC next year, and the familiar halls of Mariot and Omni.

What are some of your more memorable AAA experiences? Let us know in the comments.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

5 thoughts on “The good and the bad of #AAA2016 or, THE AAA MUST NEVER USE THAT SCHEDULING APP AGAIN

  1. Great round-up, thanks! Any thoughts on the overwhelming number of sessions at the conference? I’m fairly new to attending AAAs so perhaps this is standard. I feel torn about it – I understand the impulse to offer a platform for as many scholars as possible, but is it worthwhile when they’re presenting 2-3 people? Maybe I was picking unpopular sessions, but there were so many things happening at all times that despite being very well-attended the event felt sparse…I wonder this is a part of why the event felt fragmented and isolated?

  2. Who specifically was the app provider? This was the first year for a meeting app at the American Folklore Society meetings, which were held this year together with the International Society for Folk Narrative Research (thus a somewhat bigger meeting). Everyone who used it seemed to really love it. The provider was atanto.com, whose website says that the product can be used for a flat rate of $1500 per meeting. It handled a program that often had about sixteen concurrent sessions and did lots of useful things without being buggy. It even provided a easy way for non Twitter users could follow the Twitter stream.

  3. Amy: The AAA has always had too many sessions/presentations, and only a handful of hot topics or well-known anthropologists draw more than a few people in the audience. (I attended the department chair’s breakfast on Saturday, at which the institutional research guy from the AAA mentioned, humorously, that the wisdom in the association world is that, while practitioners go to conferences to hear papers, anthropologists go to conference to present papers.) I’ve always assumed that this is partly because most of us don’t get any travel support unless we deliver a paper, so the AAA accommodates this by accepting a lot of papers and sessions, but one of the interesting shifts that I’ve seen in my professional lifetime is that graduate students are now organizing a lot of sessions — that was extremely rare when I first started many years ago, but is routine today, and since there are a lot more graduate students than faculty or professionals I suspect that part of the proliferation of sessions comes from this large resource of students.

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