Chris Brogan- How do you maintain "commmunity" when an "unconference" grows to over 800 participants? Some thoughts of my own...
Chris Brogan wrote a great piece today, "Maintaining Community Spirit In Larger Communities", that addresses the fact that the Podcamp movement has become so much bigger than the original organizers really imagined that it would be. He points to the fact that the upcoming Podcamp NYC will now have over 800 participants! How do you maintain the "community" feel when an event starts to be so large.
His post is a good one and I'd encourage folks to read it and respond with their thoughts.
Having not (yet!) attended a Podcamp, but having attended far more conferences than I can list (including numerous VON events by Chris' employer) and being rather passionate about the whole "community" thing (comes from my many years in the free software/open source community as well as political organizing), I'll list a couple of my own thoughts (beyond what Chris has said, with which I agree) of what I've seen working best:
- Make it easy for people to identify each other - it's a small thing, but nametags with prominent names are a great thing. Don't make me squint. But the first name in big print, even. Company name... URL... all is good stuff. I've seen some events where people have put color-coded stickers or symbols on nametags that identify you as from a certain area or interested in a particular topic. Great ways to identify others you might like to chat with. (In the Podcamp world, perhaps stickers for being a podcast producer, a blogger, etc.)
- Have a wide open central gathering place - make sure there's a place where people can gather and meet people. Maybe near the registration desk.... preferably with comfy chairs, couches or tables. Make it so that I can say "Great, I'll meet you at 2pm by the registration desk" and they'll: a) know what I'm talking about; and b) be able to opportunistically meet others.
- Have a noticeboard or other place for postings - make it easy for people to post notices of events or meetings or just notes for people.
- Provide communication backchannels - assuming there's decent WiFi access, plan for some kind of backchannel... IRC, Jabber, Skype groupchat... whatever (or all of the above). Make it so that people can connect and meet.
- Encourage spontaneous BOF sessions - in the geek world we have a tradition of "Birds of a Feather" (BOF) sessions which are usually just spontaneously organized gatherings for groups of people. Set aside some blocks of time, maybe even late at night, when people can create these sessions.
- Give plenty of time for breaks (and include food) - Chris mentioned this a bit, and it's definitely a great way to get people together... make sure there are breaks... preferably with food and drink... and provide enough time for people to mingle.
- Provide organized social events - On at least one of the nights, provide an organized social event that is just that... a social event. This may need a sponsor, but it can be a great focal point. It could be as (relatively) cheap as a shared meal brought in or it could be a dinner cruise on a local river or renting a club or restaurant.
- Publicize a common "tag" for use in social media - encourage everyone posting about the event to use a common tag for blog posts, flickr, youtube, del.icio.us, etc. so that info about the event can be easily found.
I could probably go on at some length... but that's all I have time for right now. What have you seen that has helped build "community" at a conference? You can comment here... but I'd also encourage you to leave the comments over on Chris' post.