The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Being Together

– October 19th, 2011 –

A few weeks ago, I attended the Do Lectures. Luckily, for me, it’s a quick trip from Cardiff to Cardigan in West Wales. I’d been looking forward to it for months.

As I was soon to find out, Do is a magical place. Nestled in the woods, it is an intimate affair: thirty speakers and eighty attendees. You sleep in tents, share your meals seated on benches, and pack into a twin-roofed teepee to listen to the talks. You think big thoughts, whilst quietly reflecting on a wooden deck overlooking natural meadows supping freshly brewed tea.

Do is also unlike every conference I’ve been to. I wouldn’t even describe it as such. It’s more like a retreat. The content of the lectures was also a wonderful mix of big things from small ideas and small beginnings from big ideas. Personal highlights for me was an emotional talk from a Midwife about maternal care in the developed world, and a rousing final lecture from Mickey Smith: a surf photographer who had never spoken before in public, yet his raw passion for his work made every stumbled word a vital part of his delivery, ending the lectures with a superb film. The Internets Frank Chimero also spoke. For those of you who haven’t heard Frank speak before, he’s like a poet. Like an American version of Richard Burton reciting ‘Under Milk Wood’. I could listen to him all day.

For me, Do was nourishing in a way I’ve not felt for a long time.

We all individually have to ask ourselves: ‘what nourishes us’? How do we grow? Is it grass-roots bar camps, or skipping from one web conference to another listening to the same people say similar things. Or is it just hanging out with your friends and peers discussing our work.

I’ve asked myself a question over the past few years: are there too many web design conferences; what value are we *really* getting from them? For a long while, I thought the market was getting too saturated, and we’ve seen signs of this ripple through the industry consciousness. People see the same people say similar things time and again. For conference organisers, it’s hard to find the right mix of experienced speakers – who will sell tickets – and people who are doing smart, interesting work, but don’t have the speaking experience. Andy Budd wrote a great blog post on this subject a few weeks ago going into great detail on the challenges organisers face.

Yet, more conferences appear throughout the world and more sell out. Our thirst for all getting together under one roof to share, collaborate, listen and grow is an overpowering need that will not go away. But, let’s ask ourselves: do we get the nourishment from the conference, or from simply being with our tribe. And if your answer is the latter, then are big, expensive web conferences the best place to just be together. If this is all really about community, then how can we do this better?

Since I began working with the Drupal community in 2008, I’ve attended – and spoken at – five DrupalCon events in Europe and the US. DrupalCon is different to other web conferences. It acknowledges that its primary purpose is for people who are working with Drupal to get together. And the result is infectious.

DrupalCon is managed by one of Mark Boulton Design’s clients, the not-for-profit association: The Drupal Association. They are independent of the software and work to market Drupal, in addition to arranging and planning the bi-annual DrupalCons. They receive donations and membership from all over the world to pay for such events, and because one of their core remits is to nurture and grow the Drupal community, they keep the ticket prices down and focus on community collaboration over big-name speakers (except the keynotes) and venues. And it works. In DrupalCon Chicago earlier this year, over 4000 people packed a downtown hotel for a week. A big, collaborative soup of all kinds of people. And as a direct result of DrupalCon, every year, Drupal gets better. It’s about the people, not the speakers or the glitzy conference. People speak for free. Give workshops for free. Not because they’re being nice, but because they are giving back to the community and furthering a common goal.

Remember SXSW in 2006? Remember how that felt? Right?

So what if…

What if there was a web design association? A not-for-profit organisation that was small - with elected members, funded by donation and membership - set up and operated in exactly the same way that the Drupal Assocation is run - whose core remit was to provide a twice yearly event: one in the US and one in Europe for people to attend to be and work together. Now, of course, there wouldn’t be the central goal of ‘making Drupal better’; our efforts are not open source and largely commercial (read: secretive), but there is much we share. When people get together things happen. We find common problems and solutions; ideas are born; approaches simmer and products are created.

This would not be about profit. It would be about providing a place for us to be together. It wouldn’t be expensive to attend. It would be about being inclusive, where people from all disciplines could gather round and share their work.

Now, I’m not sure this would be at all achievable, or in fact if it’s really a good idea. It would be hard work. It would be political. But what we could gain from this would be the type of nourishment I got from Do…

Nourishment that is slowly being eroded in the web industry as the volume of conferences reduce variety…

Nourishment that is lacking by speakers under pressure to give quick, practical info-talks rather than to inspire, challenge, provoke, debate or collaborate…

Nourishment that is increasingly lacking in polished, high price, high cost (for the organisers), high risk (for the organisers) professional web conferences….

Nourishment that we get from being together.

What if we could do that?

During the Do Lectures, speakers are encouraged to communicate a Big Do – a big idea, that may take a lot of hard thinking and hard graft, and a Little Do – something you can do right now. They also encouraged attendees to think of the same. So here’s my Big Do: how can we create a place or a gathering for our community that isn’t motivated by profit, but by nourishment? And my Little Do: make a conscious effort to reach outside of the community and industry to help me learn and grow as a designer. Yes, even Midwifery. Or surfing.

What are yours?

Filed in: conferences, personal.

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