rmurphey Adventures in JavaScript

Community Conferences

8 Mar 2012 edit

In 2010, I helped put on the first TXJS. We sold our first tickets for $29, and I think the most expensive tickets went for something like $129. We had about 200 people buy tickets, we had speakers like Douglas Crockford, Paul Irish, and John Resig, and we had sponsors like Facebook and Google. Our total budget was something like $30,000, and every out-of-town speaker had their travel and accommodations paid for.

In May, O'Reilly Media is holding another JavaScript conference in San Francisco, called FluentConf. I recently came to know that they are charging $100,000 for top-tier sponsorships, and that they are offering a 10-minute keynote as part of the package.

This turned my stomach, and not just because I believe it cheapens the experience of attendees, who will pay hundreds of dollars themselves. What really upset me was that a few weeks ago, I was approached to be on the speaker selection committee of FluentConf, and that conversation led me to discover that FluentConf would not be paying for speaker travel and accommodations. And so the other day, I tweeted:

conference #protip: save your money -- and your speaking skills -- for events that don't sell their keynotes for $100k

Last night, I was at the Ginger Man in Austin, and I checked the Twitters, discovering that Peter Cooper, one of the chairs of FluentConf, had replied to a conversation that arose from that tweet:

@rmurphey @tomdale If you're referring to Fluent, that is news to me.

I will accept the weird fact that the co-chair of a conference didn't know its speaking slots were for sale -- I gather that it is essentially a volunteer role, and the co-chairs aren't necessarily in the driver's seat when it comes to decisions like this. I let Peter know that, indeed, I had a PDF that outlined all the sponsorship options.

This is the part where, in some alternate reality, a mutual understanding of the offensiveness of this fact would have been achieved. What happened instead was a whole lot of name-calling, misquoting, and general weirdness.

Here's the deal. Conferences can run their event however they want, and they can make money hand over fist. They can even claim they are the giving JavaScript developers "an event of their own," ignoring the existence of the actual community-run JavaScript events that have been around for years now. I probably won't go to or speak at an event that makes money hand over fist, but I don't have any problem with the existence of such events, or with people's involvement with them. However, when a conference is making money hand over fist -- my back of the napkin calculations would suggest that FluentConf stands to have revenues of well over a million dollars -- then that conference has no excuse not to pay the relatively paltry costs associated with speaker travel and accommodations.

A conference does not exist without its speakers. Those who speak at an event -- the good ones, anyway -- spend countless hours preparing and rehearsing, and they are away from home and work for days. While I do not discount the benefits that accrue to good speakers, the costs of being a speaker are non-trivial -- and that's before you get into the dollar costs of travel and accommodations.

When an event is unwilling to cover even those hard costs -- nevermind the preparation time and time away from work and home -- it materially affects the selection of speakers. It's even worse when those same conferences claim to desire diversity; the people they claim to want so badly are the very people most likely to be discouraged when they find out they have to pay their own way to the stage.

In the conversation last night, I made this point:

when only the people who can afford to speak can speak, then only the people who can afford to speak will speak.

Amy Hoy responded with a criticism of community-run conferences:

and when only ppl who can order a ticket in 3 seconds can afford to come, only ppl who can order a ticket in 3 seconds can come

I know that getting tickets to the actual community-run events is hard, but that is because the community-run events flat-out ignore the economics of supply and demand, choosing instead to sell tickets at affordable prices even if it means they will sell out in a heartbeat, leaving a boatload of potential profit on the table. And yet those events -- JSConf, TXJS, and the like -- have still figured out how to cover speaker costs and provide attendees and sponsors with unforgettable experiences.

When an event with revenues exceeding a million dollars is unwilling to cover those costs, while simultaneously selling speaking slots, I do not hesitate for a moment to call that event out, and I do not hesitate to call on respected members of the community to sever their ties with the event. I'm not embarrassed about it, and you can call me all the names you want.