Or Into And
Plus Other Thoughts on Conference Going
I recently caught a Mastodon post by Jeff Triplett where he muses on the possibility of enhancing in-person conferences by placing more emphasis on their online component.
I know that there are a variety of opinions on the subject, and I decided to chime in with my own 2 cents. This led to a further conversation with Jeff on Discord, and ultimately—to this here blog post. I'll try to keep it brief.
Speaking broadly, I know I have a tendency to look at opinions on the Internet and make up my mind about them right away. (Maybe you have the same tendency?)
Content on the web is often presented in opposition to something else. For example, when I was first starting to learn what web framework to learn, I saw plenty of content talking about Django vs Flask, or Flask vs FastAPI (yes, I contributed to that).
And it sort of makes sense. When we are looking to understand something, it's often done in relation to something else.
But as a result, we then tend to see these things in opposition to one another, instead of as complementary subjects.
The first few years of the pandemic forced many of us to drastically alter the ways that we work, the ways that we communicate, the ways that we play. It has not been easy.
But we've done our best to adapt.
I, for one, have learned that I can be as productive, or more productive with my work than when I was required to be in an office. In contrast, others may long to return to normalcy, whatever that means to the individual. I, however, am clutching on to my new normal as tightly as I can.
Regardless of where you land on the spectrum in that conversation, it is hard to see a future that looks identical to our recent past.
Which brings me back to Jeff's post (and consequent conversations) on Mastodon about the desire to have better online experiences for our in-person conferences.
I think the topic begs the question—why should we care?
Some people may argue that online conferences (or the online component of hybrid conferences) do not provide enough value compared to the in-person event. If you're attending an online conference, the argument goes, your sense of community is scattered about disjointed social networks, and you'd likely be better off with a well-curated YouTube playlist of engaging videos, and relegating your sense of community to asynchronous social network conversations.
Needless to say, emulating the wonder of a serendipitous conversation happening during the "hallway track" of an in-person event is nigh impossible on Slack/Discord/et al. You won't have the pleasure of finding a table of complete strangers during lunch, and leaving thereafter with, at the least, a great dopamine rush, and at best, a new lifelong friend.
So, if online events are poor stand-ins for these experiences, why devote so much time and resources to them?
It's no secret that one of the strengths of Python has nothing to do with the language and everything to do with the people.
When I started learning Python, it was in a complete vacuum in this corner of the Internet called Python By Night. I was missing out on the best part of it!
Timidly, I jumped into social media and realized that there was much more beyond the screen that I was missing out on, and I gave it the "old college try" and submitted a proposal to this thing called PyCon. While I was floored to be accepted as a presenter, I had no idea what I was getting into.
The experience I had was unlike anything I had experienced before. It felt different than just watching a video online in my own little corner of the web. After most presentations I attended, I stayed afterward for the video chat session with the speakers. I met many of the fine folks from Six Feet Up and felt a real connection with some of the people I talked to in the breakout rooms or on Slack.
By the time I got to PyCon in April, I volunteered to be a session runner for Calvin, whom I had met during PWC (in between his many duties hosting). I also had the chance to hang out in-person with the "sixies" from Six Feet Up at DjangoCon later in the year.
Why am I going through the trouble of dragging you down memory lane?
I hope it illustrates the value of what a great online experience can bring to someone who would otherwise not have had access/means/confidence to engage with the Python community at large.
Since then, I've been a presenter at more than a handful of conferences and had a wonderful time attending both physically and virtually. You see, I don't work in the industry. Python—the language—for me is just a hobby. I don't have corporate sponsors who send me to these awesome events. I have thankfully been able to attend several conferences due to the generosity of the grant programs in conjunction with my hard-earned PTO at work (and the lovely gift of a partner and daughter who may tag along for these makeshift "vacations").
That is why I think it is imperative that we support and engage in the discussion to make our online events even better!
Making online events better is a commitment to inclusivity. Full stop.
(Okay fine, if you want me to spell it out... Not everyone has the means to travel to conferences, even local ones. Some are limited by physical borders/regimes. Others have ongoing health concerns. Some are anxious in crowds. And then there are those with family obligations who cannot be far from home... Do we really want to just set those people up with a fine and dandy YouTube playlist and leave out the best part of Python?)
Okay okay, I'm starting to sound like the same people I complain about. But I want to emphasize that this is not an either/or scenario. There is no reason why we should think that emphasizing a focused, thought-out, and resourced approach to the online model will in someway jeopardize what people already know and love about in-person gatherings.
I get it, it's hard enough to plan and execute a great in-person event, so it's hard to divert attention and resources to a component that has historically been antithetical to a conference's raison d'etre.
But we are in a new world now. We should be looking for novel ways to utilize the inclusive reach of the web. And instead of finding ways to emulate or replace our in-person events, let's create better experiences that may only be possible online.
For PyCon 2023, I had the opportunity to attend in person, as I was presenting a talk and a tutorial. But prior to the conference, I also volunteered to help with their online platform. My contribution felt like a minor one, but I also got the chance to meet a few other volunteers who would not be able to attend in person, and I wanted to do my part to make their experience better.
I would hope others would do the same for me.
So, my challenge to you (and to myself) going forward is to think inclusively. How can we turn the either/or into a both/and?