Even if you are not attending #AAA2017 in Washington, D.C. you have probably already heard about how much it sucked to try to register for it. The stories of frustration and anger on social media were, frankly, pretty epic. Over the past few years, I’ve felt a grudging respect for AAA staff, who have tried to modernize the office and make the AAA into a respectable organization. But it’s hard to find a bright side in the #AAA2017 registration sage. Let’s face it: As the AAA gets more corporate, it begins to suck the way a corporation sucks.
I haven’t investigated any of the complaints about the AAA in detail, so I can’t confirm what precisely went wrong or how fair the criticisms are. But even if only half of them are true, the situation was pretty grim. The interface was, I’m told, impenetrable. One person I know claims the app locked her out of her phone. Several others organizing panels had their participants replaced by other random people, which led to the idea of perhaps doing some sort of LARP at AAAs where you could pretend to be other anthropologists and give papers as if you were them. At one point passwords were changed unexpectedly. It seemed the only way to figure out what went wrong was to call AAA staff and harass them, which of course no one wanted to do. The entire thing was enough of a debacle that the AAA even extended the deadline to register.
I’m sure that these issues were not the AAA’s fault and people report that AAA staff were very helpful. It’s the contractors, I’ve been told — the people who sold the AAA the web portal they use. Given how poor the AAA’s web app was at #AAA2016, I have no doubt that the AAA was able to once again hire the wrong people. But but but… who really believed that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill wasn’t BPs fault, but their contractors? The diffusion of responsibility in this way is a classical technique of corporations, and the AAA should not take this route, no matter how tempting. The buck stops with them.
And since the AAA is acting like a corporation, let’s examine its product. The AAA meetings are a profit center for the AAA. In 2015, the association made over US$460,000 from it. Are we, as consumers, getting value for money out of the association? I’d say no. The registration system has always been a pain. But now it is getting worse. Most of the new additions to the conference are not very valuable (like the app) or turn us into advertisements (the sponsored bags). And the total cost of attending these events is extremely high — particularly for people who are not wealthy tenured professors. This is true despite the discounts the AAA has very thoughtfully made for the underemployed.
I’d urge the AAA to step up and run a great #AAA2017, and it still had plenty of time to make corrections and do that. But it needs to take these meetings seriously, because so far the AAA is giving us less and less for more and more. From my perspective, it makes more sense these days to small, stimulating, cheap meetings closer to home than it does to splash out for big, expensive events which the AAA — to judge from its registration system — doesn’t actually want us to attend anyway.