A Linux Conference as a Ritual

Sociological Images has an interesting post by Jay Livingston PhD about a tennis final as a ritual [1]. The main point is that you can get a much better view of the match on your TV at home with more comfort and less inconvenience, so what you get for the price of the ticket (and all the effort of getting there) is participating in the event as a spectator.

It seems to me that the same idea applies to community Linux conferences (such as LCA) and some Linux users group meetings. In terms of watching a lecture there are real benefits to downloading it after the conference so that you can pause it and study related web sites or repeat sections that you didn’t understand. Also wherever you might sit at home to watch a video of a conference lecture you will be a lot more comfortable than a university lecture hall. Some people don’t attend conferences and users’ group meetings because they would rather watch a video at home.

Benefits of Attending (Apart from a Ritual)

One of the benefits of attending a lecture is the ability to ask questions. But that seems to mostly apply to the high status people who ask most questions. I’ve previously written about speaking stacks and my observations about who asks questions vs the number that can reasonably be asked [2].

I expect that most delegates ask no questions for the entire conference. I created a SurveyMonkey survey to discover how many questions people ask [3]. I count LCA as a 3 day conference because I am only counting the days where there are presentations that have been directly approved by the papers committee, approving a mini-conf (and thus delegating the ability to approve speeches) is different.

Another benefit of attending is the so-called “hallway track” where people talk to random other people. But that seems to be of most benefit to people who have some combination of high status in the community and good social skills. In the past I’ve attended the “Professional Delegates Networking Session” which is an event for speakers and people who pay the “Professional” registration fee. Sometimes at such events there has seemed to be a great divide between speakers (who mostly knew each other before the conference) and “Professional Delegates” which diminishes the value of the event to anyone who couldn’t achieve similar benefits without it.

How to Optimise a Conference as a Ritual

To get involvement of people who have the ritualistic approach one could emphasise the issue of being part of the event. For example to get people to attend the morning keynote speeches (which are sometimes poorly attended due to partying the night before) one could emphasise that anyone who doesn’t attend the keynote isn’t really attending the conference.

Conference shirts seem to be strongly correlated with the ritual aspect of conferences, the more “corporate” conferences don’t seem to offer branded clothing to delegates. If an item of branded schwag was given out before each keynote then that would increase the attendance by everyone who follows the ritual aspect (as well as everyone who just likes free stuff).

Note that I’m not suggesting that organisers of LCA or other conferences go to the effort of giving everyone schwag before the morning keynote, that would be a lot of work. Just telling people that anyone who misses the keynote isn’t really attending the conference would probably do.

I’ve always wondered why conference organisers want people to attend the keynotes and award prizes to random delegates who attend them. Is a keynote lecture a ritual that is incomplete if the attendance isn’t good enough?

3 comments to A Linux Conference as a Ritual

  • Miche Campbell

    Another question that needs to be asked is: if conference organisers want people to attend the keynotes, why are they scheduled for a time that the organisers know is likely to be poorly attended?

    Should they not be scheduled for a timeslot when people will actually be around and interested in paying attention, rather than people dragging themselves in for the ritual and not hearing a damn thing the speaker is saying until the caffeine kicks in?

    What is the value to the organisers and/or to the speakers of the morning timeslot, that they consistently schedule keynotes for that time rather than a better-attended one?

  • Miche: It would be possible to schedule the “keynote” lectures at the end of the afternoon when everyone is there. But then I guess attendance would drop for the lectures who had the first time slot.

    I don’t understand why anyone other than the speaker is too bothered about attendance. It sucks to give a lecture to an almost empty hall, but apart from that I don’t think there’s a problem with people not attending. School rigorously enforces attendance, university lightly enforces attendance, conferences could be regarded as just providing the possibility of attending and allowing delegates to do what they wish.

  • Miche Campbell

    etbe: It just strikes me that if something is important enough to be a “keynote” as opposed to a regular session, you’d think organisers would make an effort to put it on at a more heavily-populated time.