How did DrupalCon Europe 2020 compare to an in-person event?
As many of you know, DrupalCon Barcelona 2020 became DrupalCon Europe because of CoViD-19, turning what was supposed to be Europe’s annual Drupal get-together into a remote experience. Right off the bat I want to state that the effort that went into organizing this was stellar and the result truly showed. Having said that, one cannot deny that the remote experience was not the same as seeing everyone in person. Here’s my take on it, as a frequent DrupalCon visitor.
A small note on my past and current DrupalCon experience
I’ve been going to European DrupalCons since 2012 in Munich, marking this year’s edition as my ninth attendance. Over the first three years, I was amazed by the awesome speakers, their presentational skills and how much there was still to learn. I went to as many sessions as I could and significantly improved my own knowledge of Drupal along the way.
Towards my 4th year, I started to feel that I had pretty much seen most topics already and while I still attended many sessions in Barcelona, my focus started to shift towards meeting up with the people I had come to know over the years and working on code together. The year after, for DrupalCon Dublin, I gathered all of my courage and got up on the stage myself to give back some of that knowledge that I’d been so eagerly accumulating.
In the coming years, I was lucky enough to continue being invited as a speaker and hardly attended any sessions myself anymore as my focus kept shifting more and more towards meeting up to interact, rather than sitting back and learning. The only sessions I still attend are the ones that truly strike a personal chord with me or that are presented by people I enjoy watching up on stage.
With that out of the way, how did this DrupalCon go down?
The sessions were excellent
Disregarding everything I wrote above, to many DrupalCon is still all about the sessions and in that aspect it was a nearly immaculate, frictionless experience. The OnAir platform worked great, bar a few minor hiccups left and right, and the message definitely managed to get across. I’d even dare to say that some of the tools for discussion and Q&A were an actual improvement over what we are regularly used to.
Although a personal disappointment was that, as a presenter, you could not see your audience and therefore not gauge the room at all. Similarly, as an audience member who loves to see people present, it felt a bit jarring to watch a session without seeing the presenter’s body language.
The meeting up aspect was below par
There’s no way around it and I want to make clear that this is in no way a jab at the people who put so much effort into organizing this, but as someone who works remotely all year long, my DrupalCon week is usually a nice change of scenery and that just wasn’t in the cards this year. Seeing everyone through Zoom just feels like more of the same and the replacement for im-promptu meetings called Hallway Tracks was but the world’s tiniest nail to scratch that itch.
In a similar fashion, the exhibitions were also digital and instead of being able to stroll through an exhibition hall and having a gander, you had to manually dial into every individual exhibition at a time. Something I can imagine being very off-putting for the more introverted among us.
The attendance seemed (far) lower
The OnAir platform allows you to see exactly how many people are watching a session or keynote and it kind of bummed me out to see only 10 to 20 people in “the audience” during the sessions I watched as well as only roughly 450 people during the Driesnote.
I can imagine many people simply had no interest in joining a remote conference as still being at home could easily lead to the logical trap that “if you’re still here, you can still work, pick up the kids, etc.” and that just doesn’t seem like a good deal to pay full price for.
If you’re attending DrupalCon for the sessions, then you might actually get more out of a remote DrupalCon than an in-person event. Financial, logistical and personal barriers are lowered, making sessions and BoFs more accessible to a wider range of people.
If you “came for the code and stayed for the people”, however, then you might not get what you hoped for: The exhibition hall is but a shell of what a physical version can offer and there’s no actual running into each other or having drinks at night.
My hope is that, next year, CoViD-19 will be less of a party pooper and we can have an in-person conference again. The benefits of the session audience tools should not go to waste, though, as we can look for ways to carry those over to get the best of both worlds.