Participate, Don’t Preach

Last week, tickets went on sale for dConstruct 2011 and sold out within an impressive 7 hours. Having attended in 2010 and 2008 and judging it to be filled with the highest calibre web celebs from across the globe, I coughed up the entrance fee as part of the excited gold-rush. The cost of £150 includes access to the pre and after parties and the conference itself.

These type of events are stuffed to the brim with amazing, intelligent web professionals, many of whom I would consider to be colleagues. I’ve followed their progress, listened to them speak, bought their publications and hacked on code with them at many other previous events.

It’s often quoted within tech circles that the best parts of these events are not the talks themselves, but the networking parties that surround them. I really struggle in these environments, nervously trying to find a crowd I feel comfortable chatting with, introducing myself and trying to strike up some cutting edge debate on the topics of the day. I’m a developer who usually lurks behind a computer screen for 8 hours a day, so why wouldn’t I find it awkward? It feels like uncharted territory every time I find myself there. Although meeting some great, interesting people, I have ultimately never forged any new lasting relations in this way, where the interaction is somewhat forced and artificial. Maybe it’s just me, but given the com mon nature of everyones work, you’d think it might be easier. As a friend once observed – it’s like everyone turns up to sell their product, but there are no buyers.

It’s also great to be able to chat within the inner circle of the celebrities who attend. You’ve heard from them all year round and now have a brief opportunity to chat. I guess really I’d love to bounce questions and thoughts off of these guys all evening, but often I get the feeling I’m being evaluated against the rest of the attendees in the room in terms of worthiness. Until you’re edging
into such circles yourself, I’m not entirely sure what they would get from these conversations either.

In fact, what I have found is that my most fruitful and long lasting relations have been founded at events when in a participatory nature. Most of these have been Hack Days (where you’re invited to quickly hack together software as an exemplar of new apis from a number of vendors) and some of them have been at Bar Camps (where all attendees have to speak on a subject close to their heart). I feel closer to these people than I could ever do with someone I spoke with briefly in a noisy bar. I’ll also remember faces and names of people even if I never had the chance to interact with them.

This year, a new variety of geek meet has arisen, which flip these more traditional events on their heads and instead focus on providing environments that focus on “the best bits”. They allow everyone to participate on level pegging rather than follow a traditional conference structure. Earlier this month there was Geek Karting, The Insites Tour is kicking off next week and later this year there’s Activate. I really like the idea of these as a way of sparking interesting relationships and I’m hopefully going to head to Insites next week to see what Elliot and Keir have been able to cook up. I’d hope to see more of these unusual types of event and ultimately participate in more of them.

I still feel that conferences have their place, otherwise I wouldn’t have coughed up the fee for dConstruct. I enjoy hearing what these illustrious speakers have to say. That part of the event is still important for sparking debate and learning from for months and years afterward. However, I just don’t find surrounding parties as valuable to me as I first would have thought.

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