More pontification on alcohol at conferences

This post started off as a reply to a comment (by “Alan”) on my previous post on this topic, but it got a bit long-winded, and raised a few clarifications of my own viewpoints on this matter. So it’s turned into a post of its own.

So, before I start this, nothing against the organisers or team surrounding OSCON. I loved my experience speaking, and attending the main conference event, and I’m coming back to OSCON to speak again this year. The reason why I pick on it is because it’s the one large American conference that I’ve been to, and it provides a nice contrast to the grassroots-style conferences that I’ve been involved with back home. It also exhibits some very specific examples of fostering that “culture of exclusion” that could be fixed with a few minor policy changes.

So, without further ado, here’s me addressing the points in Alan’s comment.

Could it be that this and the “brogrammer” culture is a problem that is more present at JSConf and Ruby conferences than Python?

I certainly agree that this culture does peak around various types of communities — for instance, Ryan’s post on the “Culture of Exclusion” speaks very specifically of JSConf and various Ruby groups, and in my own experience this sort of culture doesn’t seem to be prevalent at PyCons. However, to say that it’s attached to a small subset of communities is probably quite unfair — OSCON is very much a multi-community conference, but there’s still quite the drinking culture attached to it. Likewise, it seems to me that the Ruby community in Australia isn’t quite as drinking-centric as the examples that Ryan put forward.

You don’t hear anything about sexist COBOL programmers or late night binging at Java conferences from what I can tell. Even PHP seems to have grown up.

I think the likelihood of these sorts of things to occur really does depend on the level of “community” that is attached to a given language or technology. As an example here, people doing Java coding are almost certainly doing so because they work for in a corporate environment. Ruby and JS people are doing so because they work in a “startup” environment, or they’re doing it for fun. The companies that form the founding groups around a conference will often bring their culture along with them. It’s interesting to consider why this doesn’t happen so much at Python conferences. I don’t have any particular answers here — indeed, it’s quite the paradox, because I’d have considered Python to be more of a “startup” type language, and one would assume that would bring the “startup” culture into it. Perhaps it speaks of the values of those who started gatherings for Python coders?

Are these excesses a problem at conferences in general? Is this an American thing? Or even a Ruby/JS thing?

Is it a problem with conferences or communities, or is it a much more widespread cultural issue (as in e.g. American youth culture) that has just become more visible for us recently?

Excess is something that needs to be managed — it’s very easy for a conference organiser to say “yes, you can provide an open bar at this event” to a sponsor, and sponsors get quite an amount of good will from it (free alcohol doesn’t upset people, non-drinkers won’t speak up). It’s also pretty clear to me that if an open bar is offered, there’ll be a group of people who will take it up, regardless of the community that centres around the conference.

So the conferences that suffer from this sort of problem are the ones which either don’t have a policy of limitation of alcohol sponsorship, or those that actively encourage a culture of drinking (the sort of things that Ryan Funduk talks about in his article). I doubt there’d be open bars at any conference if there weren’t sponsors who were willing to fund them.

The onus is therefore on conference organisers to make sure that they don’t encourage binge drinking. In particular, this involves limiting the amount of alcohol sponsorship a conference is willing to accept — we at PyCon Australia are doing this by only providing tokens for drinks at our alcohol sponsored events (with the exception of at the dinner, where the open bar is time-limited, and comes with food and other entertainment).

What distinguishes conferences and communities that have this problem from those that do not?

Conferences can send out a message about this culture: For example, offering OSCON offers free attendance to the drinking events, but not to the main content of the conference; this can be compared with Linux.conf.au, where you have to pay extra to attend the drinking session. The contrasts between these arrangements provide quite the subtext between the values of the two conferences — intentional or not. In my view, OSCON providing such a ticket says that the “base level” experience of the conference is one where you go to all the parties, and the talks and tutorials are the “added extras”. For LCA, it’s the other way around.

So in summary, there are plenty of factors that surround the discussion of alcohol at conferences. I think it’s an important discussion to have, not least because it presents as a diversity argument in very much the same way as the gender diversity argument has presented itself over the last few years — conferences should always be looking at the messages they send out about the communities they wish to foster, and ensuring that they’re inclusive towards everyone in that culture.

3 thoughts on “More pontification on alcohol at conferences

  1. I’m glad our conference organisers are thinking about this kind of stuff. If you think this might be relevant to more LA conferences, please push your policy changes to us.

    cheers,

    Linux Australia ordinary council member.

    1. Hi Clinton,

      Thanks for your reply! The best way to summarise the policy is as follows:

      1) Limit what is served
      2) Make drinking a secondary focus to the event (by providing food and other activities)
      3) Ensure that the conference is the base-level experience of the conference

      LCA does all of these pretty well, with the exception of #2 — the PDNS can often be primarily a drinking-first session, which is something that should be sought to be avoided.

      –Chris

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