Perspectives On Virtual Meet-ups

Perspectives On Virtual Meet-ups

category: meet-ups

I want to spend  a moment here to share some thoughts about the four months of virtual meet-ups I've co-produced for the three tech meet-up groups I co-organize.

I co-organize the York Region PHP meet-up group, the GTA PHP meet-up group, and the Laravel Toronto meet-up group. Since March 2020 we've been actively engaged in bringing the meet-ups online, in an effort to cope with the shutdowns. We've tried various formats to see what each was like. Prior to March we have not sought any online meet-ups so this is our first go at it. For the most part, the mechanics of going online went smoothly given that online engagement is par for the course for developers. 

In all the years I've organized tech meet-ups I've been vigorously against doing online meet-ups, as well as against recording meet-ups. The entire purpose of local meet-ups is to meet up locally. That means getting together physically, not virtually. Recording meet-up presentations so people can view them at home, in my eyes, incentivizes people to stay at home. 

 Another aspect underlying our tech meet-ups, at least the way I see it, is that the tech we use is free and open source. One of the strengths of the PHP language, and other vital technologies we use in conjunction with PHP, is the community of developers around PHP. Those of us using and benefitting from PHP should "give back" to PHP. There are many ways to give back, one of which is actively participating in the local PHP community. 

After four months of exclusive virtual meet-ups, I can confidently conclude that as an exclusive medium with which to engage for our meet-ups, virtual meet-ups suck shit. The essential interaction cannot be replicated online. 

However, adding a couple of virtual meet-ups to the annual meet-up schedule is something we should adopt. The primary reason is that people who are not able to attend the physical meet-ups should have an opportunity to connect with the meet-up groups online, in the hopes that they will be inspired to make it out to the physical meet-ups. Toronto and York Region are huge land areas so this makes sense. As January and/or February meet-ups tend to get cancelled due to weather, we should consider scheduling one of these months for the virtual meet-up. Another month to do a virtual meet-up is a drop-in meet-up in August. 

It looks like the only meet-ups we can host are virtual for the foreseeable future. So I will continue with organizing online meet-ups for as long as necessary, because the only alternative to hosting is to abandon the meet-ups, which is not acceptable to me. 

In organizing the virtual meet-ups, I have come to the conclusion that they should not be recorded. For the same reason as physical meet-ups should not be recorded, I do not want to record online meet-ups because it incentivizes people to "consume" the presentations instead of participating in the meet-ups. Participation is a critical aspect of the meet-ups! 

Anyone anywhere can attend an online meet-up. But hold on! I consider myself a local meet-up co-organizer who is forced to do meet-ups online for the sheer purpose of having meet-ups. The way I see it, the regular physical meet-ups are just held in abeyance, with the online meet-ups a temporary measure until regular meet-ups resume. The essential nature of the meet-ups I co-organize have not changed simply by virtue of the necessity of holding the exclusively online. 

It seems that there is a point where interaction at these online meet-ups goes down exponentially. The magic number seems to be a dozen participants. When people who know each other attend, that magic number goes up. So I am less inclined than I was initially to organize big online events, because without the interaction the meet-ups get stale fast. 

The tendency with online presentations over the last four months is to not interrupt the presenter, which I find to be a huge negative. I always say that the meet-ups are decidedly not conferences, and are by definition quite casual. Presentations should always inspire discussion, especially during the presentation! Which may sound like an invitation to chaos, but I find that these things tend to be self-regulating. These last few months, I've observed a hesitation to interrupt the presenter that is absent at the regular meet-ups. In future online meet-ups I want to unlock more spontaneity.

There's been much discussion about what software to use for the virtual meet-ups. I will continue to use Google Meet for the meet-ups I host. It's not perfect, but it's ok. With a manageable number of attendees, and with attendees RSVP'g on meetup.com first so I can accept their request to attend with the RSVP list, we've had no issues with rogue attendees. Do we need "webinar" features in our online meeting software? No, absolutely not. The money for this feature is not worth it. These are not online conferences, these are meet-ups!

There will be no July online meet-ups, but probably will be an August York Region PHP meet-up.