Topping off my mini-tour at the end of May, I was invited to Rotterdam to present to a brand new community of developers. I was really interested in attending because my experience with user groups is pretty much limited to the London Java Community, and I knew this would be different due to being a) across a wider range of technologies and b) shiny and new.
It was hosted (rather awesomely) in a brewery, and until then I'd never given a presentation in a pub. Frankly it's something I'm keen to do more of. Due to a total technology fail on the part of all of us, we couldn't get the projector working with any of the various laptops. However, with 30-odd techies, free wireless and slides available on Slideshare, we managed a novel and collaborative presentation approach, with people clustered around the laptops with the largest screens, and someone at each one valiantly keeping up with my quick pace through over 100 slides of stick-men drawings (a review of the evening is available).
I really enjoyed it, it was quite a change of pace from the conferences - my first attempt at presenting after imbibing probably a little toooo much wine, and a much more intimate venue which encouraged a lot of questions and discussion. It's actually a format that worked, and maybe there's a way to get it to work even more smoothly, if the slides on all the laptops were synchronised, and there was some way for me to gesture wildly at the appropriate parts of the slides like I do when I'm on stage. Hmmm, maybe that's actually a webcast now I think about it.
So I had an excellent time, thanks to the hospitality of the rather awesome Rotterdam-ians. What I found fascinating - as well as the venue and the novel presenting style - is the formation of a group of people with broadly similar interests. One of the great strengths of a place like London is its size - you will find a number of people here with interests like yours, and sites like Meetup make it ridiculously easy to find them. One of the weaknesses of London, however, is its size - there are so many people you could attract that you end up narrowing your search field. You pick a very specific technology, a tiny geographical area, a single interest, to build a community around.
I've been thinking for a while it would be nice to have a community of people who aren't all the same, who share overlapping but different passions. But how do you create something like that? You need a single thing to draw those people together, otherwise they'll never find each other.
In smaller cities the geography limits the numbers, so you can have a broader range of interests represented. In London, I can see something as (relatively) specific as a Java User Group becoming even more specific. With nearly 2500 members, you could easily spin off Java-for-banking, Java-for-gaming, Java-in-west-London-zone-2 etc etc. In fact, we've already spawned off a number of groups like the Graduate Developer Community, the London Scala Users' Group and so forth. With nearly 2500 members, you cannot possibly meet them all, you can't even get a feel for what everyone's into. How do you get the intimacy from a smaller user group without narrowing the scope so much that all of you might as well be clones? The awesome thing about user groups is coming across new ideas, seeing solutions to problems you didn't even know existed, hearing about things people are working on that never occurred to you. For that, you need diversity.
And one of the nice things about a city as large as London is you get plenty of diversity. But how do you pull together that diversity? How do you create a group that is diverse, when by necessity you need something central for those people to gravitate towards? And if the diversity creates a large group, how do you create intimacy and feel personally involved, the stuff that comes for free if you belong to a smaller group where you know everyone?
In Rotterdam, at the Girl Geek meetup, I saw the advantage of using something other than a specific technology to gather together a group of interesting people - you get a wider range of experiences and passions. How you can achieve this without using geography or genetics to select your participants?
Is it even possible to build a community when your goal is diversity?