Conferences

By mollydb

I think there are too many conferences.

I conducted this very scientific Twitter poll and out of 52 respondants, only 23% agreed with me. Some people who disagreed with me pointed out specifically what they think is lacking:  more regional events, more in specific countries, and more “generic” FLOSS events.

Many projects have a conference, and then there are “generic” conferences, like FOSDEM, LibrePlanet, LinuxConfAU, and FOSSAsia. Some are more corporate (OSCON), while others more community focused (e.g. SeaGL).

There are just a lot of conferences.

I average a conference a month, with most of them being more general sorts of events, and a few being project specific, like DebConf and GUADEC.

So far in 2019, I went to: FOSDEM, CopyLeft Conf, LibrePlanet, FOSS North, Linux Fest Northwest, OSCON, FrOSCon, GUADEC, and GitLab Commit. I’m going to All Things Open next week. In November I have COSCon scheduled. I’m skipping SeaGL this year. I am not planning on attending 36C3 unless my talk is accepted. I canceled my trip to DebConf19. I did not go to Camp this year. I also had a board meeting in NY, an upcoming one in Berlin, and a Debian meeting in the other Cambridge. I’m skipping LAS and likely going to SFSCon for GNOME.

So 9 so far this year,  and somewhere between 1-4 more, depending on some details.

There are also conferences that don’t happen every year, like HOPE and CubaConf. There are some that I haven’t been to yet, like PyCon, and more regional events like Ohio Linux Fest, SCALE, and FOSSCon in Philadelphia.

I think I travel too much, and plenty of people travel more than I do. This is one of the reasons why we have too many events: the same people are traveling so much.

When you’re nose deep in it, when you think that you’re doing is important, you keep going to them as long as you’re invited. I really believe in the messages I share during my talks, and I know by speaking I am reaching audiences I wouldn’t otherwise. As long as I keep getting invited places, I’ll probably keep going.

Finding sponsors is hard(er).

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find sponsors for conferences. This is my experience, and what I’ve heard from speaking with others about it. Lower response rates to requests and people choosing lower sponsorship levels than they have in past years.

CFP responses are not increasing.

I sort of think the Tweet says it all. Some conferences aren’t having this experiences. Ones I’ve been involved with, or spoken to the organizers of, are needing to extend their deadlines and generally having lower response rates.

Do I think we need fewer conferences?

Yes and no. I think smaller, regional conferences are really important to reaching communities and individuals who don’t have the resources to travel. I think it gives new speakers opportunities to share what they have to say, which is important for the growth and robustness of FOSS.

Project specific conferences are useful for those projects. It gives us a time to have meetings and sprints, to work and plan, and to learn specifically about our project and feel more connected to out collaborators.

On the other hand, I do think we have more conferences than even a global movement can actively support in terms of speakers, organizer energy, and sponsorship dollars.

What do I think we can do?

Not all of these are great ideas, and not all of them would work for every event. However, I think some combination of them might make a difference for the ecosystem of conferences.

More single-track or two-track conferences. All Things Open has 27 sessions occurring concurrently. Twenty-seven! It’s a huge event that caters to many people, but seriously, that’s too much going on at once. More 3-4 track conferences should consider dropping to 1-2 tracks, and conferences with more should consider dropping their numbers down as well. This means fewer speakers at a time.

Stop trying to grow your conference. Growth feels like a sign of success, but it’s not. It’s a sign of getting more people to show up. It helps you make arguments to sponsors, because more attendees means more people being reached when a company sponsors.

Decrease sponsorship levels. I’ve seen conferences increasing their sponsorship levels. I think we should all agree to decrease those numbers. While we’ll all have to try harder to get more sponsors, companies will be able to sponsor more events.

Stop serving meals. I appreciate a free meal. It makes it easier to attend events, but meals are expensive and difficult to logisticate. I know meals make it easier for some people, especially students, to attend. Consider offering special RSVP lunches for students, recent grads, and people looking for work.

Ditch the fancy parties. Okay, I also love a good conference party. They’re loads of fun and can be quite expensive. They also encourage drinking, which I think is bad for the culture.

Ditch the speaker dinners. Okay, I also love a good speaker dinner. It’s fun to relax, see my friends, and have a nice meal that isn’t too loud of overwhelming. These are really expensive. I’ve been trying to donate to local food banks/food insecurity charities an equal amount of the cost of dinner per person, but people are rarely willing to share that information! Paying for a nice dinner out of pocket — with multiple bottles of wine — usually runs $50-80 with tip. I know one dinner I went to was $150 a person. I think the community would be better served if we spent that money on travel grants. If you want to be nice to speakers, I enjoy a box of chocolates I can take home and share with my roommates.

 Give preference to local speakers. One of the things conferences do is bring in speakers from around the world to share their ideas with your community, or with an equally global community. This is cool. By giving preference to local speakers, you’re building expertise in your geography.

Consider combining your community conferences. Rather than having many conferences for smaller communities, consider co-locating conferences and sharing resources (and attendees). This requires even more coordination to organize, but could work out well.

Volunteer for your favorite non-profit or project. A lot of us have booths at conferences, and send people around the world in order to let you know about the work we’re doing. Consider volunteering to staff a booth, so that your favorite non-profits and projects have to send fewer people.

While most of those things are not “have fewer conferences,” I think they would help solve the problems conference saturation is causing: it’s expensive for sponsors, it’s expensive for speakers, it creates a large carbon footprint, and it increases burnout among organizers and speakers.

I must enjoy traveling because I do it so much. I enjoy talking about FOSS, user rights, and digital rights. I like meeting people and sharing with them and learning from them. I think what I have to say is important. At the same time, I think I am part of an unhealthy culture in FOSS, that encourages burnout, excessive travel, and unnecessary spending of money, that could be used for better things.

One last thing you can do, to help me, is submit talks to your local conference(s). This will help with some of these problems as well, can be a great experience, and is good for your conference and your community!