Conferencess and Community
In the last two weeks I’ve attended two conferences hosted by organisations based in North America. The experiences I had as an Australian in Sydney were vastly difference. One conference - I’m going to refer to it as Conf1 - leveraged technology to create opportunities for community and serendipity. The other - Conf2 - seemed to be optimised for marketing metrics.
Timezones & Videos
Both conferences did take time zones into consideration, Conf1 by allowing all videos except the plenary sessions to be streamed at any time from the event platform (plenary sessions could be streamed on demand after they aired). Conf2 split the conference into to blocks. A block that worked for Europe in the evening and the US in the morning, and a block that was US evening and APAC mornings with different sessions in each block. Both used Vimeo to embed the conference videos to maintain some control over viewing until post conference releases. ConfA keeps the videos on Vimeo and allows viewing a handful free each month but requires a subscription to view them all while ConfB uploads the videos to YouTube usually a few weeks after the conference, but this year did it immediately post talk.
Practically everyone I know who goes to a conference will tell you the hallway track is the best track. Those serendipitous moments when you stumble into a conversation about a hot button topic and realise you can contribute are amazing. Even more so when you tell someone they are doing ABC wrong only to find out they literally wrote the book on ABC (No, I never do this, honest…). And this is where the two conferences diverge significantly.
Both Conf1 and Conf2 had a Slack server setup. Conf1 had channels for each track and during the scheduled times of the talks the presenters would be in the Slack channel for their track answering (and asking) questions, clarifying things and generally engaging with the communities. Conf2 directed all discussion and questions to the conference platform, and only answered questions from there. Slack was basically dead during talks. The conference platform didn’t support threads so quickly become a jumble of conversations.
Conf1 also setup a Gather and this was my first time using the platform. Though as an old school computer gamer it felt like returning home. The platform is simple to use and allowed the conference to create a place that felt as close to a real conference hall as possible with vendor booths, private chat spaces and large community areas that encouraged group chat using video and voice. It was here that I met up with some people I’d met in person at previous conferences but hadn’t thought to message on Slack, and it was here that the Minimum CD Manifesto started to take shape.
Gather didn’t detract from Slack, rather it enhanced it. Slack was great for threaded conversations on multiple topics with attendees and speakers, while Gather was great for smaller groups to meet and discuss interests. Birds-of-a-Feather sessions were hosted there with great success.
The Slack for Conf1 is still active with a post or two a day for community events, jobs postings and more. Conf2’s slack has gone radio silent since the closing of the conference. Next year when I attend Conf1 again the slack history (well 10,000 lines of it) will be there, a body of knowledge I can tap into at anytime. I know I can access the Conf2 chat from the platform after the event, but as it isn’t threaded I have to weed through, and there is a big difference between clicking into one of the dozens of Slack servers I’m on that is always visible if I have Slack open and going to a specific website and finding the right bit.
I really do feel like the Conf1 experience was vastly superior to Conf2. I had deeper discussions, felt more connected to both the talks and the speakers and left the conference charged with a new enthusiasm for the immediate future. I had no such feeling after the second conference where I felt like I had just binged 12 hours of talks on YouTube and suddenly fallen back into a 1000 person IRC channel in the late 90s.
I know there are other considerations that I haven’t covered on, accessibility, ease of use for non-technical people etc, but frankly I feel they were largely irrelevant as all the platforms used met those in my view. It doe feel like it came down to one conference wanting to really deliver the feeling of attending a conference in person, and the other conference wanting to justify the high price sponsors had paid for eyes on talks that couldn’t be quantified using the other platforms. I’m not saying that is the reason, I’m just saying that’s the impression that I - and several others I’ve spoken with - left the conference with.
I can see a lot of value in using Gather or similar tools in the workplace to allow remote employees to walk the halls or tap someone on the proverbial shoulder in a way that Slack or Teams just doesn’t offer. There are definitely times when you need that written record of the conversation, but there are plenty of times when you don’t and a 2 minute chat in Gather will be much more valuable that looking for a gap in someone’s calendar and booking a meeting which is what many have fallen back on now.