Little community conferences

This last weekend I was at FOSS Talk Live 2018. It was fun. And it led me into various thoughts of how I’d like there to be more of this sort of fun in and around the tech community, and how my feelings on success have changed a bit since the early years.

FOSS Talk Live has about sixty or seventy people at it. It’s a small thing; a relatively close-knit community of people (a) in the UK (b) travelling distance from London (c) who listen to Linux podcasts. It’s not meant to be the FA Cup final. And because of that, it’s a good time. Rather a few conferences these days tend to be big productions: a couple of hundred pounds a ticket, multiple tracks, big stages, important keynotes, world-changing topics. These are good to learn from, and good to speak at, but there’s space for things which are less earth-shattering and more fun, I think. Something smaller than a “conference” but bigger than a “meetup” — here in Birmingham there are loads of tech meetups every week, and they’re good for a local community. FOSS Talk Live is something a little bigger and a little more organised than that, without having to be the high cost, high hassle, and high production values of a real “conference”. It’s similar to Fusion here in Brum, which explains why I like that one too. Big enough that you run into a bunch of people you wouldn’t see otherwise, but small enough that it feels intimate and friendly. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing.

This to some extent ties into how I feel about open source and Linux stuff more generally. In years past I considered myself an evangelist, and my goals for Linux on the desktop were to drive adoption: get more people using it, more software on it, more vendors supporting it. That certainly was important; people who’ve been doing this a long time will remember days when most computers didn’t work right unless you carefully chose the hardware, where projectors and wifi were a complex nightmare of configuration, where there was hardly any software available unless you wanted to write it yourself. But those days are now long in the past. My Ubuntu desktop does everything I need it to (which is admittedly helped by how I’m in the tech industry) and my dad’s does everything he needs it to (relatively simple needs to be sure, but he uses it a lot). Most of the software I want is actually there, now, helped by the rise of web-based systems and Electron — I’ve got Chrome, Skype, Slack, Telegram, Sublime Text, open all the time every day. I’ve got Steam for games and a pretty decent catalogue of games in it. So, did we win? Did we get what I wanted?

Depends on your definition of winning, I suppose. I won, myself, personally. I can do everything I need. What’s changed is that now, for me, that’s enough. We’ve reached a point of sustainability; enough people support and use the desktop I choose to ensure that it will continue to exist. I’m no longer all that bothered about evangelism — when a friend of mine has a problem with their computer my first response is now not “hey, why not try Ubuntu?”, and I suspect I’m nicer to be around because of it. If someone else uses something else… fine, whatever. I use this, and I like it, and that’s perfectly sufficient. Looking at the companies being driven by investment to be bigger, to get more users, to offer “freemium” models… perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m glad I’m not part of that.

It’s a perfectly legitimate business model to have a small but more dedicated userbase. This is what the 1000 True Fans concept is about, or what Maciej writes about on the Pinboard blog. It’s demonstrated by Entroware and Purism. Have a community and work well with them, and it’s possible to make a sustainable business. You don’t get to be Jeff Bezos, but you don’t have to be horrible to everyone either. Striving for growth as far as I can tell basically makes people miserable — you if you fail, and everyone involved with you if you succeed. Being smaller and nicer feels like a better way for the world as a whole.

Philosophical thoughts, admittedly, so how are they relevant? Well, if your goal is to get 50% of people on earth using your choice of OS then everything you do needs to be big, splashy, impressive. There’s not much room left in there for doing stuff just for the joy of it. But if what you have is already good then you’re no longer constrained to change it, just to enjoy it. And that’s what I meant about smaller conferences. Nobody showed up to FOSS Talk Live to hand out business cards, or even to make contacts. None of the podcasts are seeking their break-out into television. It’s done for joy. I like joy. Beethoven wrote music about it. I’d like there to be more joy and less striving in people’s lives, if we can manage it; the actual business of your life is hard and annoying and unpleasant sometimes, or maybe all the time. Having the things we do for fun actually be fun sounds like a good plan. FOSS Talk Live and Fusion feel so welcoming, so friendly; a place where, fine, we can unabashedly talk about tech without embarrassment, but equally there’s no pressure. It’s just nice. I’d like there to be more of that. Let’s work out how.

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