Rather than treating attendees just as an audience for lectures, conferences should be a community gathering that invites people to make it an awesome experience. Here are some thoughts on how to include community in your traditional conference format, starting with a bit of history about unconferences.
The initial rise of unconferences[^1] in the early 2000s was a reaction to several things. One was breaking down the walls of exclusivity. BarCamp (Bay Area Rejects) said to FooCamp (Friends of O’Reilly) that “the crowd” could self organize and everyone was welcome.
The other part of the reaction was that there were seemingly no experts. No one had a degree in blogging or open source, so any audience was at least as knowledgeable as the speaker at the front of the room.
As well, communities ended up building around professional conferences ahead of the ability or size to do their own conferences. The second BarCamp in Amsterdam, which I helped organize, was a reaction to a lack of space at the formal Euro OSCON event. It was so novel in 2005, the BBC sent someone to do a story on it. Using Open Space Technology and related group facilitation techniques[^2], tech-focused Barcamps spread around the world. Later on, the format jumped out of tech and “camp” style events of all kinds were put on. These were typically put on by volunteers with no event professionals involved, with tickets being free or low cost to break even on expenses. Many of them took place on weekends or evenings outside of the regular work week, because the events were not part of the organizers’ day jobs. This also made them accessible to attendees who didn’t have this as their day job.
Inviting Community into Your Conference
I didn't know how a conference was supposed to be organized, and we were the community, so we built it in from the beginning.
I helped found a blogging & social media conference in Vancouver called Northern Voice. It ended up mixing a traditional speaker track with an unconference track (called MooseCamp), The traditional format was good for new attendees looking to learn, and the unconference meant that small groups of experts could talk about what was brand new and relevant to them.
Fast forward to today. Unconferences are not something that a lot of people have ever experienced, and the vast majority of conferences are still organized organized with front of the room, lecture-style presentations by single speakers. Maybe a Q&A session, maybe a panel or two where a moderator lobs questions to the panelists.
And yet, some of the very best part of conferences are the hallway conversations[^3] or a spirited audience Q&A after a formal talk. People will come back to your conference if they had an awesome time connecting with other people, and community is a great way to accomplish this.
Birds of a Feather
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which is a technical organization with a formal process and formal meetings. It's where I first heard the term "birds of a feather" (BoFs), and they describe it as part of the process of how the IETF functions:
Birds of a Feather sessions (BoFs) are initial discussions about a particular topic of interest to the IETF community. BoFs are usually held at IETF meetings, and requests to hold a BoF must be made significantly in advance of the meeting.
As is traditional with the IETF, there are even two Request-for-Comments (RFCs) written in 2009 and 2012 on how to be successful in hosting & running BoFs:
- RFC 5434 - Considerations for Having a Successful Birds-of-a-Feather (BOF) Session
- RFC 6771 - Considerations for Having a Successful "Bar BOF" Side Meeting This should be required reading to understand how to mix formal and informal practices.
Getting to know Greg Colvin @greg_colvin, one of the founders of the Magi, he very much expressed how both the Ethereum EIP process and the Magi meetings are inspired by the IETF process.
Evolving Ethereum Conferences & Community
I was inspired to write this article from my involvement in the Ethereum community. I went to Toronto at the same time as EDCON and ended up participating in a shoulder event, WalletConf. I say "at the same time as EDCON" because I didn't have a ticket -- it was sold out before I could buy one. And, with regular tickets starting at USD$350, I couldn't justify it: I wasn't going for the talks, I was going there for community. And the conference was wall-to-wall talks, with little built in room for community.
WalletConf was a side meeting that was separately organized[^4], but was also overly planned. It was a fantastic event, but the best part of it was meeting everyone, and talks from 10am to 8pm left little time for more ad-hoc meetings. As a follow up to that, I wrote up How to Run a Working Group Event on the Fellowship of Ethereum Magicians forum. Next thing you know, I'm helping to organize the all volunteer Magicians Summer Council in Berlin. The first meeting was at EthCC in Paris, and the next will be at Devcon4, so very much holding to the spirit of connecting with existing conferences.
We are in a strange space where community is just getting started, and yet at the same time there are high ticket cost events around the globe (never mind travel costs for any of these events -- regardless of ticket cost!).
My plea to professional conference organizers is to include space for community alongside your conferences. We really don't want to be in the event organizing business, but we have to be if you don't move beyond lectures.
Tips for Conference Organizers
Professional conferences which involve 100s or 1000s of people take months to plan and often have very large budgets. Work with your community, and build out your process for how you're going to include them. Will you include side meetings or after hours events in your "official" schedule? Will you include links and promotion? Will you have meeting room space that can be scheduled?
- Connect: Reach out to related groups and invite them to help organize a track, invite their community, and help get the word out. Discount codes for community attendees can grow your ticket sales.
- Gather: Direct people to a wiki or sign up form to help share topics of interest and showcase who else is coming, and what they're interested in.
- Space: Set aside one or more rooms, as well as gathering places (a foyer or lobby with couches works great) and include them on the conference map as community spaces. People can meet during networking breaks and before and after formal sessions.
- Communicate: include announcements and updates ahead of the conference and even during the conference as the topics evolve.
There are a number of different ways to officially or unofficially include community in your event. Think about what is easy for you and hard for volunteer organizers (logistics, space, accounting) and which of those you can offer to the community. In turn, the community can offer positive word of mouth and cutting edge content. It can even be an opportunity to have sponsors step up to make space available, cover tickets & travel bursaries, and so on.
Going Beyond Conferences
Is "conference" the right label and format for how we want to meet in person?
An article I keep coming back to describes community in the context of the particular needs of scientists: Moving Beyond Community Engagement for Online Science Collectives. While not scientists, the core community of open source projects seems very aligned with the descriptions.
The organizing points of the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) group that are described are particularly good. Point 3 says "On-line asynchronous collaborations as the norm". We got this one, and we raise you with synchronous Twitter, Telegram, Slack, and Riot messaging rooms[^5]!
Point 4 describes how ESIP designs their two annual in person meetings, "with an emphasis on social interaction and interpersonal time":
These are where ESIPers become friends and learn to laugh together. No papers are presented. Breakouts are for information sharing and learning. Networking is intense at ESIP meetings. With several thousands years of Earth data experience in the room, it’s the best place on the planet to get connected to others who have similar problems or interests. Two meetings a year keep the whole group more active throughout the year. From Working Groups to Summer Councils, we must decide how we want to spend our precious resources of time, energy, and money. As distributed communities, we need to mix strong ties of in-person experiences with the weak ties of online only interactions.
[^1]: Turns out I wrote about unconferences before: What is an unconference?
[^2]: See Open Space Technology wikipedia for a full definition. What is now called an unconference is most directly related to open space organizing principles. Another technique is Fishbowl: a talk format that invites participants to come to the center of a room to speak, and then rotate back out to be a listener. See the Fishbowl wikipedia) for a longer description.
[^3]: the Polyglot Unconference starts the day by suggesting everyone default to Fishbowl-style group discussions. Organizer Kyle Young @ksgyoung shared his Intro to Fishbowl talks & how to hallway -- which also describes how to have better, more inclusive hallway conversations!
[^4]: I helped write the wrap up notes for WalletConf on the Magicians forum
[^5]: I think the rise of Discourse-powered forums in the Ethereum community is a reaction to the short, noisy, and synchronous overload of messaging platforms.