A List Apart

Rachel Andrew on the Business of Web Dev

Does Our Industry Have a Drinking Problem?

At a conference recently, I had to leave for part of the afternoon to take care of some technical support for our product. When I returned to the venue, at about half-past five in the afternoon, everyone was holding plastic glasses of whiskey and cups of wine or beer.

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At an event where I spoke earlier this year, some wondered whether one of the other speakers would be able to make their talk after having drunk so much the night before.

Almost every conference’s second day opens with attendees being asked how their hangovers are. Second day early-slot speakers joke that no one will turn up anyway, or they’ll all just be staring into their coffee. It has become normal, in fact expected, that drinking and staying out late is what we do while at conferences.

I can’t deny that when I’m invited to a conference in Germany or Belgium, the chance to have a few nice local beers is definitely a plus point. However, I can’t treat every event as if it were a holiday. Staying healthy is important to me, and to my ability to run my business. The alcohol-fueled nature of our industry events therefore raises an issue. As a speaker, I want to be available to people who have bought tickets and attended the event I’m speaking at, and if the parties are the place to do so, then I need to be at the parties. For me this doesn’t raise any moral or personal quandary, although I’d sometimes rather be in bed so I can go for an early run before day two begins. Some speakers or participants, however, may find it hard to attend social events where alcohol is the main theme. Of course it’s possible to attend these events and not drink, but being the sober person at a party gets tiresome.

The parties are often the only way for attendees to get to talk to speakers or network with each other. We’re told that events are much more than the talks or workshops; they’re all about the networking and socializing. So how can someone uncomfortable with this particular type of socializing benefit from this side of an event?

We’re also underlining that our events are for over-18s, maybe even over-21s, by holding them in licensed premises. Most of us know students or even those who are working professionally in our field long before they are “adult.” Should they be excluded?

Making drinks the center of social events can also tend to exclude people who don’t choose to be “one of the guys.” I’ve spent most of my working life in male-dominated careers. The lifestyle around web conferences has nothing on the lifestyle of theater technical crews. To be accepted as a woman in that industry meant being able to lift stuff as heavy as they could, and drink as much as they did. I’ve tended to find it easy to be accepted because I’m happy to be treated as one of the boys. Not being a girly girl has made my life in male-dominated industries easier, and in some ways that is a concern. We don’t have equality if the only women we welcome in our industry are those who are happy to act like men, and sometimes drinking and trying to fit in can have darker repercussions. I believe that by providing a range of social activities we become more inclusive to all types of people.

We’ve discovered, as we start to organize meetups for our product, that a bar is often the easiest way to have a free meeting space. By choosing to meet in a bar, unless you expect a really large group, you can be flexible about the numbers. If you pick a quiet night, then whether 5 or 50 people show up, it will be fine. The alternatives of booking a room somewhere may not only mean paying a hire charge, but a few people in a large room makes a small meetup look unsuccessful, whereas a few people round a pub table is cozy. But there are some great and creative examples of alternatives to the party for socializing at events.

I attended Monitorama EU recently, where one attendee had proposed a 5K run around the Tiergarten in Berlin on the morning of the second day. This was publicized on the website and a small group of us headed out in the rain for an easy jog and a chat. Like many in our industry I can be a little socially awkward when meeting new people, but for some reason I never have a problem making small talk while running with someone. I found the run a really nice way to chat to conference attendees with whom I shared something additional in common.

Photo or history walks around cities can be attractive to a lot of people in our industry and need no more organizing than someone who knows the area and can take attendees around local landmarks and interesting spots for photographs. New Adventures earlier this year had a photo walk, and a typography walk round Brighton was organized around Ampersand conference.

These are all good examples of simple things that can be organized around conferences to create alternatives or additions to the parties. They don’t even need to be organized by the conferences themselves, although it is helpful if the conference organizers help promote the things that are happening so that attendees can find out about them without needing to search hashtags on Twitter.

That said, I am still struggling to find good alternatives to the pub meetup, particularly in the UK. Other than taking over the corner of a larger coffee shop for a daytime meet, what kind of things are possible and inexpensive for small groups? In particular I find it hard to organize alternatives for the type of meeting where the numbers that might turn up are hard to predict.

Meeting up in pubs and attending conference parties will always be part of our industry, and an enjoyable part for many of us at one time or another. If the conference you attend is your only one that year, then having the chance to let your hair down with peers you rarely meet in person is not a bad thing at all. However, I’d like for drinking not to be what defines these events and those of us who attend them. We become more inclusive the less we look like only a certain type of person is part of “us.”

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