Stormy Peters asked in a recent blog post why people really go to conferences, and took a very interesting poll.
It’s a good question. Travel is exciting, but rarely comfortable, and neither is getting up at the crack of 8 every morning to drink coffee with strangers. In many cases you get a chance to spend a lot of money (or company money) to have your head pumped so full of information that by the end of the day all you can do is sit in a corner and blurt keywords until a hotel employee shuffles you into an elevator. (At least that is my experience.)
The answers in Stormy’s poll turned out overwhemlingly to be “people”—over 50% of respondents answered that the one single thing that drew them to conferences was meeting other attendees. This is perhaps unsurprising, particularly since the statistical sample was completely made up of open-source folks, who tend to be more outgoing and people-oriented than the average developer. Another answer high on the list was “meeting the speakers”, which I believe is indicative of the very level playing field in which we participate.
But I think the real answer is deeper than that. Other answers high on the list had to do with attending talks, hacking with friends, and learning more about interesting topics (this is based on the published survey responses). I tend to put these things in a blender and look at the whole picture together—people attend conferences to learn about interesting things with their friends, to make new friends at the same time.
So far as I can tell, this is the end goal of Community, with a capital C. Conferences are the physical manifestation of the activities we perform in all of the communities to which we belong. When we talk about being part of a community, whether it is the Linux community or the open-source community or the embedded or real-time, or BitBake or Git or Beagle Board communities, the whole point is that we are part of those communities—we participate, we learn interesting things, and we do it by hanging out with existing friends and making new ones. We contribute to the whole, which would not be complete without us. As Jono Bacon said in his presentation at Collab Summit, we are building a sense of belonging, because belonging to and being part of a larger group resonates deeply with our mental firmware. We are fulfilling our internal destinies as social animals.
(Actually, I really go for the free food and t-shirts, but don’t tell my boss.)