On the Rise of Community Conferences

The PHP world is exploding with community conferences. In fact, web development technologies in general are seeing a wide range of community-driven conferences springing up around the world. I think there are many reasons for the proliferation of these conferences, and in this post, I present my opinion on how this trend came to be, along with a definition of what I think constitutes a technology-focused community conference.

What is a Community Conference?

In the technology world, a community conference is organized by members of the technology community for which the conference is themed, rather than a corporation that organizes the conference as a product offered to its customers. This appears to be a distinction that is common among community conferences. Many community conferences do have a corporation formed to run the conference. Some of these are set up as non-profit organizations. This is not a requirement for a community conference, however.

There’s nothing wrong with the conference-as-a-product approach, though. In fact, many corporations with conference products run their conferences much like community conferences. The organizers, while usually employees of the corporation, are often active members of the technology community. So, what else puts the “community” in community conferences?

The Unconference Phenomenon

At this point, I think it’s important to mention the unconference phenomenon. “An unconference is a participant-driven meeting” (Wikipedia). According to Wikipedia, the term can be applied to any number of conferences that attempt to “avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as high fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization.” I believe the community conference is the marriage of the attitude of the unconference to the professionalism and structure of the traditional conference.

Unconferences became popular by the middle of the last decade, allowing conference participants the power to drive the agenda of the conference while giving the finger to more traditional conference establishments. While the unconference movement was reactionary and subversive to traditional conferences, community conferences have embraced both the openness of the unconference and the structure of the traditional conference, to varying degrees.

A few years back, traditional conferences took note and began adopting traits of the unconference, including tracks dedicated to open discussion and ad hoc presentations. These alternate tracks were often referred to as “camps” or “unconferences,” and they were implemented at a number of popular technology conferences. OSCON, the largest open source technology conference in the US, hosted OSCamp, while in the PHP world, ZendCon and php|tek both hosted unconference tracks, all run by members of the technology community. I believe it is this trend that led to the birth of the modern community conference.

Putting the “Community” in Community Conferences

So, what puts the “community” in community conferences? I submit that there are three essential elements to a community conference:

  • Community organizers
  • Focus on developers
  • Proper attitude

I think it’s important that the organizers of a community conference be members of the technology community for which they are organizing the conference. While there are many different ways to organize a community conference, its organizers must be from the community. If the conference doesn’t have this, then it will fail to meet the needs of the community for which it is designed. The good news is that most conferences, traditional and community alike, are organized by members of the community.

A focus on developers is also important. A prevalent conception of traditional conferences is that they are too focused on companies. The good news is that this is often resolved by having community organizers. Recently, friends of mine organized CoderFaire, a local developer conference in Nashville, and required that their sponsors send programmers and developer evangelists instead of sales people to meet with attendees and show off their tech. Their focus was on developers, and to enhance the experience of their attendees, they wanted their sponsors to also focus on developers.

Attitude matters. It is crucial. I think this is primarily what sets apart a community conference. It’s also the hardest element to pin down and define. Every community conference is different, but the attitude is a little bit “punk rock” for each one. Attitude encompasses focus, intent, and passion. My friends at Brooklyn Beta have crafted a conference that has a particular attitude, setting them apart from other conferences. It’s embodied in their tagline, “Make Something You Love,” and permeates their talks, events, and even the name badges. Every community conference has a particular attitude that sets it apart from traditional conferences, and it makes all the difference.

What Do You Think?

Defining what it means to be a community conference is not easy. I wrote this post out of my own thoughts and experiences running and organizing the PHP Community Conference. I also have many friends within various technology communities who run community conferences for their favored technologies/regions. As a result, I am no unbiased bystander, and these thoughts are wholly subjective.

How do you define “community conference?” What do you think are important elements of a community conference? Can a corporation run a community conference? (Based on my definition, I think it can.) I welcome your comments.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out two upcoming community conferences you should check out: CodeConnexx in Indianapolis and True North PHP in Toronto. They’re both going to be awesome!