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Dangers of in-person meetings for an existing community

It is inarguable there is a lot of value that we humans get from meeting with people in person. For a free/open source software project, this is often cited as the glue that holds together people whose normal interactions are textual (email, IRC) and lower-resolution than an in-person interaction gives. People who are bound together not by an employment agreement but rather a social agreement.

(I am writing this from the perspective of a person whose ability to travel has wet and dry seasons. Some years I only make one or zero events. Other years I’m on the road for events for six or more months. On more than one occasion I have had to cancel attending, and due to my personal situations I always have to plan as if I may cancel. Often I simply don’t commit until the last few weeks, so I end up making only 50% of what I might attend. Whenever I cannot be at an event, I experience the negative side effects of feeling left out, of knowing I’ll never catch up on the actual conversations that occurred, and being aware of the conversations that never happened because I wasn’t there. I’ve also telecommuted for 15+ years, which has provided many opportunities for me to be affected at being distant from others at in-person work meetings.)

Before I get to the problems (and solutions to the problems), let’s check up on some of the benefits of in-person events:

  • Builds stronger relationships and trust.
  • Increases communication quality.
  • Deepens understanding for people who are even moderately capable at reading body language.
  • Improves friendships through non-work, social interaction and shared experiences, even bonding through negative experiences.
  • Increases empathy and patience.
  • Promotes shared innovation due to a much greater ability to throw around ideas and understand each other’s problems.

However! There are risks to so much emphasis on in-person meetings for an existing free/open source software community.

It is possible to never, ever meet in person and still have a very productive relationship and community. In fact, the odds are that the majority of the members of an online contributor and user community will never be able to meet in person.

One risk is that knowing there will be in-person meetings becomes a disincentive to making remote meetings and other interactions work better. It’s important to put equal amounts of energy into the remote meetings (read below for more ideas on this.)

In person meetings create a two-tiered structure in a community — those who can attend & those who cannot. There is a negative effect to feeling “left out” from all the fun, as the social media and blog posts roll in, and in-jokes for all the people who attended flow across IRC. This drives a further wedge between the tiers of the community that only gets wider as it becomes clear some people are always in the ‘can attend’ and others are in the ‘never can attend’ groups. The ‘can attend’ group gets drawn closer into the decision and leadership circle, which means they tend to make decisions toward in-person meetings — “We’ll talk about this at the conference.” They have less incentive to create and participate in higher quality remote meetings because an in-person meeting is always just around the corner. Another effect of this “wait for the event” is a subset of the whole community is more able or perceived as being the doers. People who cannot attend may withdraw more from the decision and doing process because they don’t feel they can live up to the requirements.

In-person automatically reduces the social and work effectiveness of people who cannot attend because they are not in the clique. It is also a challenge for anyone who is shy or introverted or generally has challenges with social interactions. It is a challenge for people whose capabilities do not include the easy reading of social cues.

In terms of barriers to entry, having to attend in-person is just about the highest barrier we can erect. Due to various life circumstances, a majority of a community will likely never be able to travel to events, even just a single annual one.

And those are just the problems that occurred to me; I’m sure there are others.

But there are solutions! From following the rule that decisions don’t exist unless they are on the mailing list to focusing on the quality of remote interactions:

  • A community can make the remote interactions higher quality – make regular, always-remote meetings rewarding and fun.
    • Have open video meetings where everyone has a cup of tea or coffee, or nice wine or cold beer.
    • If you have a budget, you can order pizza to be delivered to each meeting attendee simultaneously around the globe.
    • Everyone can have the same coffee/tea mug to bring to video meetings.
    • Practice at this improves skills, thinking, and tooling around the remote experience.
  • Enforce the rules about not watercooling decision processes.
    • “If it’s not on the mailing list, it doesn’t exist.”
    • Make having regular online interactions as a community a key part of your processes as well as fun.
  • Do social, fun things together from remote.
    • Play an online game or some other group online activity.
    • Watch a show or movie online, either together or on a schedule, like a book club. Create some common experiences that are not about working on the project directly.
  • Find ways to delight and reward people who cannot attend, etc.
    • Make a t-shirt or other item to send to people who couldn’t attend. Maybe a coffee/tea mug for remote attendees?
    • Chocolate.
    • Include remote attendees in promotional materials (videos, etc.)
    • Figure out some social activities that can be done remotely – would video karaoke work? Playing a game over video chat? (Step one, get everyone a Cards Against Humanity deck …)
  • Have one of the major semi-annual planning sessions entirely remote so people attending are getting 100% of the experience and not just the “camera at the back of the room.”
    • Such a meeting may be a challenge to organize, but no more challenge than an in-person meeting.
    • Send out remote-meeting swag and chocolate.
  • Find meaningful ways to include remote people for otherwise in-person meetings:
    • Have high quality two-way video and use online collaboration tools you can use for short to multi-day meetings.
    • Give remote attendees real jobs to do for the meeting — be an organizer, be the introducing presenter, help take notes & document, present or lead a planning session remotely, etc.
      • I’ve been able to help remotely by running the IRC channel that people at the event come to for information, etc. Similar things can be done with social media. This can be done live as a sort-of transcript of the session (“live blogging”).
      • Interview the remote attendees for broadcasts (audio & video).
    • Make all-day meetings, having remote people block out the time to attend from there.
      • If you have budget, offer to pay for the remote attendee to rent a day or two of meeting room space at a local co-working facility. They will then have a chance to interact with the interesting people at that facility, and gain some cachet for being cool enough that people all together physically in another location are making the effort to include them.
      • Write a letter to an employer, teacher, or family members explaining how valuable it is to have this person attend even remotely, and thanking those people for accommodating the remote attendee’s being in an all-day distance session.
    • Cover the meal(s) of the people attending remotely.
    • Have the people who cannot travel identify some items local to them to have produced as swag and sent to all the other people who are attending remotely or in person. Can’t come down from the mountain to attend? Send down something from the mountain for the people who can.
    • Sponsor a regional meeting location so that multiple people who are close enough to drive are able to get together and attend remotely via video from the same location.
      • For multi-day events, you could pick a single hotel for those people to stay at, pay for them to all have drinks and dinner together in the evening, etc.
  • Increase value of local meetups so people who want to have in-person interactions can do so.
  • Reach out to the people who don’t get to travel at all for 1×1 for discussions with people who do get to travel — chatting over the phone or video every month or so to give a personal interaction.
    • Collect a few stories at the event that you know will be interesting or meaningful for those who cannot be there, then call that person directly and tell them about it. If someone comes by your booth and shares how much they appreciate or even have problems with a part of the project that someone not attending works on, make sure you are the proxy for that story to get right back to the remote person. Try to have a direct conversation instead of resorting to email. Initiating may be hard, some of us hate the phone, but it is a small discomfort if there is a reward of making a connection to what you missed out on.

The key is to realize that you need to put energy into the remote experience, not just save it all for the occasional travel-to event.

(Hat tip to Josh Berkus for some of the points on the benefits list. Thanks to all the people who have made it possible for me to attend something remotely when I couldn’t be there in person.)