Why Do We Need Conferences?

Seriously? Why do we need to spend hundreds of pounds, dollars, euros or whatever to attend these events? They are pretty pricey and more often that not they are nowhere near home so you have the added cost of transport and hotel bills and all those meals you’re going to consume out while you’re away. It’s not cheap, and even if you can afford it, why spend it?

The Talks… it’s all about the presentations & sessions!

Is it really though? These people who get on the stage and talk: Yeah OK, they’re great. They do a fantastic presentation, insightful with great slides and funny too! But don’t they put articles on their blogs for free that cover that topic and a wealth of others besides, all year round? If hearing and seeing them actually say the words is so integral to getting their message across, they could very easily record themselves and publish it in a video or audio format right there on their blogs.

In fact, recently some conferences have taken to publishing all the talks that are given right there on the web for all to see. Everyone can watch, even people who didn’t pay to go to the conference itself! I was watching the videos from a conference that I didn’t go to - Build - which was held in Belfast at the end of last year. How nice of them to go to all the effort of filming it, editing it and putting it online, I thought. And the talks are great, I’d encourage you to go and watch them. But I was thinking… how would I feel about this if I actually PAID to go to the conference?

Money talks

If I’d laid down cold hard cash to see the talks, wouldn’t I be unhappy that others who hadn’t could then just browse to a page and see all the content… for free? Maybe a little. But then again I’m all for sharing information and content, especially when it’s of benefit to the community so maybe I’d be a little conflicted about that.

Most people I ask, however, seem not to mind this sort of behaviour. They seem to think that conferences go beyond the talks, and I’d be inclined to agree.

It’s not about what you know

I think that while the talks are nice and all, what most people value the most from conferences is the opportunity to meet other like-minded people. Or to put it in business-speak: networking. Between the talks and in the evening(s), you get to mingle with people who all have their own goals, ideas, methods, questions and accomplishments in the same field as you and are quite willing to share them with you. The more people you talk to and the more conferences you go to (where you’re likely to see these people again) the more contacts and even friends you are likely to make.

Nothing drives this home more clearly than the general chatter I picked up from this years SXSW which I was sadly unable to attend. Essentially, the vast majority of talk I picked up from SXSW was not about the panels and talks (which no doubt were excellent) but they were about the parties, BBQs and the socialising. The Networking.

But this brings me back to my original point. Why do we need conferences? If all we need to make contacts is to get people who are in similar lines of work to talk to each other why don’t we do it all the time? The talks are nice but completely unnecessary to get what people seem to value the most from conferences.

Pub Standards

Pub Standards is something that happens in London on a monthly basis. It also happens in Melbourne, I believe (Wikipedia confirms this so it must be true). What it is is this: a whole bunch of web folk get together and take over a pub for an evening. They sit and drink and talk about whatever they please which may or may not include topics such as:

  • What they are doing at work
  • What they are watching on TV
  • The contents of that controversial blog post that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter
  • The latest CSS tricks that they’ve learned or seen in action
  • Why anyone who uses a Palm Pre should be hugged / pitied / unfollowed / shot on sight
  • Anything and everything else

…you get the idea. It sounds pretty much like the after party at a conference then.

The other night it was in fact my first Pub Standards (for shame) but it certainly won’t be my last. I just can’t imagine why this hasn’t caught on more places than just London and Melbourne!

The reality

While it would be awesome to think that we could all get our conference fix by reading blogs, watching online video and going to Pub Standards the reality is that it’s just not logistically possible.

There are actually people outside of London (and indeed outside of any large city) who are involved in the web industry who just couldn’t make it in to the city on a regular basis. They could start their own group but you really need a large city environment to get a decent sized and varied bunch of people together each month. In addition to that, conferences can provide the chance for people to meet developers from other parts of the country or from the other side of the world which local meet-ups just can’t.

It would be nice to think that we might be able to organise some kind of International Pub Standards where people fly in and join the fun for a few times every year, but that wouldn’t work for so many reasons:

  1. Spouses and significant others often remain unconvinced of the value of developers drinking beer together.
  2. No one’s going to fly in from Amsterdam just for a night out at the pub - it has to be for longer to make it worth it.
  3. Any longer than an evening and you start having to take things like food breaks and accommodation into account… and the conversation could start to need a catalyst of some sort.
  4. No company is going to pay your transatlantic flights for what can only be described as a night down the pub with a bunch of geeks.

The talks that you get at a conference and the information you glean from them, or the questions that arise from them seem to solve all these problems quite neatly. And let’s face it they generally are quite good, otherwise they wouldn’t bother making them available for everyone else on the internet.

Is that your final answer?

Why do we need conferences? It’s so we can meet people and gel as a community on a global level in a way that you can’t do by just using Twitter, Facebook and all of their social contemporaries.

But let’s not underestimate the value of local groups either. I find it astounding that Pub Standards is only happening in London and Melbourne. There must be so many places, large cities, where there are plenty enough web developers interested in Standards and beer to get a regular meet-up going. If you live or work in one of them, why not start one up? I’m sure it would be very rewarding on many levels.