Ruby Manor is not an Unconference

Written on November 03 2011 at 23:35

It was great to see Tom’s brilliant presentation mentioned today:

The striking slidedeck from ‘Programming With Nothing’, a talk given by Tom Stuart at last week’s Ruby Manor unconference. It demonstrates how to implement FizzBuzz solely by creating and calling Proc objects, all thanks to the lambda calculus. (from Ruby Weekly 66)

I don’t want to distract from the sentiment – Peter is absolutely right to draw attention to this presentation, and I really can’t wait to get the video out there – but attaching the word “unconference” to Ruby Manor makes me itch, and I’d like to scratch with two slightly different but ultimately complimentary points.

Ruby Manor is not an “Unconference”

Ruby Manor is a conference. We may not get hundreds of attendees like RubyConf, we may not cost hundreds of pounds or dollars like RailsConf, and we may not have parties sponsored by Engine Yard or GitHub like pretty much every other conference you hear about, but we’re every bit as “conference” as any of them.

Ruby Manor is a conference that is trying to explore what being a conference really means, by stripping away all of the cruft that’s become part of the “experience”. Do we really need:

… or is this just what we’ve come to expect from a conference?

Ruby Manor is an effort to strip away anything that doesn’t actually improve the conference, and try to improve the other aspects. That’s why we don’t provide food, or swag. That’s why we plan our conference program completely transparently, and encourage all the attendees to engage directly with the proposals and presenters.

And it turns out that when you don’t need to hire a huge conference venue and deal with their catering, or fly in big-name speakers, or print a bunch of schedules and badges, then you don’t actually need to charge a huge amount of money.

Unconferences: better than conferences?

It could be that we’re too late, and conferences will always be the grand, multi-track swag-fests that they have become. I suspect this might be true. And if it is true, then I’m not interested in conferences.

At least “unconferences” are pushing boundaries, exploring structures that deliver really great and valuable experiences for attendees without any need to pay homage to the pomp and ceremony of “real” conferences. They’re trying to turn attendees into participants, making the whole experience more valuable for everyone.

Maybe people think that any event which only costs £14 can’t be a conference. And maybe people think that any event where the attendees can directly shape the content, well, that can’t be a conference either. If conferences will always be, in people’s minds, expensive festivals to which they can simply buy a ticket and turn up to consume, rather than participate, then by all means keep going. But I’m not interested.

However, there’s a growing bunch of smart, turned on people who are becoming less and less satisfied with that experience.

Who cares?

We started Ruby Manor with a manifesto, but I think this hasn’t really stuck in people’s minds as much as I’d hoped. Some people do get it though; Ben Griffiths summed it up nicely in his motivations entry on vestibule:

Once upon a time, I guess, before the internet, conferences were one of the best ways to spread ideas. Not sure that holds any more.

Now there are keynotes from famous folk who’ll talk down to you or try to rally you or blame you for something or just bore the hell out of you. Can do without those.

Or the dreaded sponsor-talk.

Or that odd speakers-lounge separation between speakers and the mere mortals.

And you’ve paid hundreds of pounds to be in this faceless hotel with shitty wifi, before travel costs.

And you need the wifi because the information coming at you is only occupying 10% of your brain because the slides are very nice but say nothing, shoutily.

And you’re just not taken in by that racket any more…

I love Ruby Manor for being different from all these - engaging, haphazard, quirky, honest, cheap and near to home and organised by friends.

I like unconferences – they are great – but the reason why I am involved in Ruby Manor is that I’m trying to make a point about conferences. Not unconferences. Conferences.

I’m really keen that Ruby Manor be understood as delivering just as good an experience as any other “conference” that you might attend. It’s just that we believe that it’s possible to make conferences simpler and better and cheaper at the same time.

By demonstrating that it’s possible, I hope Ruby Manor encourages more people to start thinking a bit more about their conference experience, and start asking the organisers to get out of the tired rut of swag, pointless expense and closed processes.

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