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Before going down to Brighton for my first dConstruct in 2008, I’d been to one, very corporate kind of conference, which gave me a false impression of what these things were about. People walking around in suits ‘networking’ and talking masses of hot air didn’t inspire me for some reason.

That first dConstruct was great, hooking up with people I’d met through Twitter made going to something like that on my own less daunting – truly the power of tools like this!  Straight after, there was a BarCamp in Brighton to I stayed down to see what they were all about – again, not knowing anyone.

I sometimes forget about those first few events I went to.  Since then, I’ve tried to go to a fair number.  The thing for me is only in part about the speakers, so much of it is about the people.  To me there’s nothing better than meeting strangers working in the web and sharing experiences.

Through dConstruct, FOWD, WDC, Build & DIBI and numerous BarCamps, I’ve also been really fortunate to meet many of the speakers, organisers and people that are well known in our industry.  It was great, early on to talk with people whose stuff you’ve read or work you’ve admired and realise – they’re just like everyone else.  A similar experience to when I’d interviewed a few bands for a fanzine and radio show I once did.

It’s not a cheap thing to do, either.  Tickets can range from tens to many hundreds of pounds, then consider travel, a place to stay, eating and drinking (of which there is often a fair amount).  I would still recommend, if you’ve not been to any of these kinds of things – go.  Pick one, commit to it – especially if you’ll be going on your own.  Talk to people.  It doesn’t matter who they are – in so many ways, the people in our industry are inspiring.  Soak it up.

Easier than that, many places have some kind of meet-up now, around web-stuff.  In Manchester, we have loads of these things and are probably quite spoilt.  A few years ago, there were very few.  Geekup was among the first around here, which has grown to encourage other people to use the name and the format all round the North, with a mailing list, job board and friendly attitude.  Northern Digitals was (to me at least) the first to get web folk from agency-types to freelancers in a pub talking – not formal networking but great for contacts, a pint and a sense of camaraderie.  Social Media Cafe does a great job of being really inclusive and having talks from within it’s membership and encouraging discussions and debate beyond people that are designers or developers.

Not every place has stuff like this but I’d urge you, if there’s not – do it yourself.  Start a meet-up of some kind.  Figure out what you’d like to see if your area, get on Twitter, pass the word around and get people from your local area together.  Step beyond the ways we interact online and go to the pub and meet with these people!

Rich Clark and I met through going to Northern Digitals and ended up doing a few little non-profit events called Speak the Web.  The fact that these actually worked out was way beyond our expectations and really demonstrated not only how anyone can make something happen and that the speakers are often really approachable and good people but that there was such interest and enthusiasm out there that people traveled a fair way for some of these, which blew our minds.

I’ve been very fortunate to meet so many great people.  I probably over did going to these events for a while, going to everything I could within the time and budget I had.  Every event is different and there’s a place for them all.  Some are really smoothly organised, some are nicely ramshackle; some are on a grand scale, some just a handful of people in a bar.  There’s a place for so many kinds of events and every event has a different feel to it and will have people you’ve not met before you can enthuse with the web with.

Do it.

I’ve come back from Build in Belfast, where Andy turned it into a week of fringe activities to make it truly unique. I’m hitting Simon Collison‘s New Adventure in Web Design in Nottingham, which should be fantastic and looking forward to the 2nd DIBI conf in June.  If I can I’ll hit FOWD and Build next year too.

Speaking

There are a lot of events and that throws up it’s own problems.  There are a finite number of speakers from this country whose names would help sell tickets, which is an important consideration.  It’s not an easy balance for these events to get in new blood at the same time as getting established names on the bill.  As someone who has only dabbled in speaking, I wouldn’t know how to get more involved – or if I’d want to.  I’ll do it because I enjoy it and because I have a bee in my bonnet I want to share – maybe people might want to listen.

I’d encourage anyone with the chance to give it a go.  The first BarCamp I did in Brighton, because of the nature of the format, gave me the chance to speak in front of a small room or 15-20 people.  I was nervous and shaking but too that step.  Since then, I’ve done more BarCamps – some went well, some not so well and had the opportunity to try out a bigger crowd through WDC in Bristol.  The first year I was a part of a panel, the 2nd actually doing a full talk of my own, sharing the stage with names everyone would know.  A very surreal experience.  Who was I to be sharing a stage with these people?

This year, I was lucky enough to do it again and while I’d certainly change some of what I did, it was the first where I actually enjoyed being up on stage.   That’s not what it’s about but it certainly helps when you’re trying to talk to a room full of people for 30+ minutes!

If you get the chance – speak.  In a room full of developers or designers, we all have different experiences, passions and ideas.  Give it a go.  You won’t be a master at it like Andy Clarke straight away (or ever) but that’s OK.  Share what you’re passionate about and we all benefit.

Community

Maybe it’s post Drumbeat and Build but I’m really pleased to be a part of the web industry.  There is a sense of community beyond sharing common elements in our jobs and tools like Twitter help.  It could be perceived that there’s back-slapping and cliques – maybe that’s true.  I actually think we all just care about doing good stuff and in my (limited) experience, although we disagree  and sometimes have bitching and controversial rants – it’s generally a really positive place to be.

If you’re new to the web or just not really engaged with any of this stuff – give it a go.  If you’ve been doing it since the dawn of time and know it all, maybe some of the content in some of the talks will be really familiar, then make the most of the other opportunities, to connect with other people.

Just a few thoughts.  I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences and views.  I’m sure some people might have had really negative experiences – it’d be good to figure out why and what could be done to address them.

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12th November, 2010