June 16, 2008

Vancouver Joomla!Day provides case study in community-building techniques

Author: Bruce Byfield

As free software projects balloon in size, many struggle to create and maintain a sense of community. One of the projects that has been most successful in its community-building efforts is the content management system Joomla! In the last couple of years, its Joomla!Days have been held around the world. A particular case in point is this past weekend's Vancouver Joomla!Day, whose organization and use of social networking to expand the scope of the event make it a case study in modern community-building.

Nobody seems quite sure when the first Joomla!Day was organized, although Brad Baker, a member of the Joomla! core team, thinks it was likely in 2006 and held in Holland. Nor is the originator of the idea known. However, what is more certain is the popularity of the events today. Already, 2008 has seen seven Joomla!Days in locations ranging from South Africa and Australia to Thailand, the Philippines, and Canada, with more to come in the remainder of the year.

Each Joomla!Day is organized locally by volunteers, and typically attracts 100-200 attendees, although, with the increasing popularity of both Joomla! and the conference, attendance figures of up to 400 have been reported at some recent events. The project must approve each event's use of the trademarked Joomla! name, and, according to Baker, may contribute up to $1,000 if it receives an itemized list of expenditures after the event. Some events also receive sponsorship from educational institutes or from larger conferences held at the same time.

Otherwise, most of the expenses are met by ticket sales. The Vancouver Joomla!Day was typical, attracting an audience of about 110, each of whom paid $25 for admission. The total cost of the event was about $4,000, according to organizer Wendy Robinson, a Joomla! forum member who also sits on the board of OpenSourceMatters, the legal arm of the project.

To assist each Joomla!Day, the core team tries to ensure that at least some of its members attend it -- usually, the ones closest to its location. The Vancouver event, for instance, was especially well attended by prominent project members, with not only four of the core team, but also two from the board of OpenSourceMatters. However, when such representation is not possible, the core team tries to ensure that at least some active project members are available to speak at each conference, Baker says.

This effort keeps the core team busy; several of those at Vancouver noted that they had attended four or more Joomla!Days this year, and, after the Core Team Summit last week in Germany, some looked seriously jet-lagged.

Yet, despite the effort of supporting the events, active members of the project seem eager to do so. Not only are the small events less formal and less stressful to address than mammoth conferences and trade fairs, but they provide an opportunity for the presenters to network among themselves while they are in town together for an event.

"It has been incredible meeting people on the Joomla! team whom I've known for two years. I finally get a chance to meet them," Robinson said halfway through the Vancouver event. "The wonderful thing is that there's no surprises; everyone is exactly who they say they are, and very genuine. And having met should make it easier for us to relate to each other online."

Scheduling for networking

On paper, the Vancouver Joomla!Day appeared little different from any other conference, with a list of speakers and topics. But the main way that Joomla!Days differ other conferences is that the presentations are not just a means for providing information. Instead, they become the background for networking opportunities.

"For any open source project, it's essential for people to come together to share ideas and cross-pollinate," says Rastin Mehr, a Joomla! consultant and an organizer of the Vancouver event. "When people come together, it's a ritual, whether it's eating or drinking coffee or listening to presentations. Rituals bring the people together, and we need them to build a community."

This philosophy caused a rethinking of the Vancouver Joomla!Day as it was organized, both Robinson and Mehr say. Initially, organizers planned a traditional conference with a highly structured schedule. Then, after receiving feedback from the Joomla! community, the organizers heavily modified the schedule, shortening the presentations and leaving more room for discussion at the end of each one.

In addition, half a dozen slots in the schedules were reserved throughout the day for members of the audience to talk about their own Joomla! projects and problems -- an idea that not only assured greater audience participation, but also gave everyone a more varied sense of how Joomla! was used. For instance, in Vancouver, one impromptu presenter described his efforts to use Joomla! to maintain a multi-language Web site, while a relative newcomer to Joomla! on a disability pension described how it had give him the resources to develop a site providing information about Type II diabetes.

Supplementing these efforts throughout the day were regular raffle draws for Joomla!-related goods and services, and an hour-long standup buffet and a networking session at the end of the day.

In their revised schedule, the Vancouver organizers made a special effort to include sessions for non-programmers. To this end, the program included not only presentations on such topics as page templates and performance testing, but also ones on a musician's use of Joomla! and the opportunities for getting involved in the project. "I hope we provided something for every kind of user from beginners to template designers, to software developers," Robinson says. "I hope there's something in it for everyone, and that everyone walks away with something."

"It's very important not to make an event designed for one small niche," says Mehr, a veteran organizer of local networking events. "So I always like to mix and match. I think it's essential for non-technical people to gain some basic technical skills and for developers to understand the marketing and communications part. A lot of people are lousy developers or marketers because they only focus on one aspect."

Conference organizing and social networking

Another notable feature of the Vancouver Joomla!Day is that it was planned, not as an end in itself, but in combination with a series of online interactions intended to increase interest in Joomla! in the local high-tech community.

Before the event, Mehr used Twitter and blogs to spread news of the event, encouraging everyone who participated to use a common tag to make it more prominent online. On the day of the event, Mehr and at least one another attendee live-blogged and Twittered about what was happening. In the aftermath, Mehr is encouraging attendees to blog about what happened at the conference, and to discuss it on local networking forums. His goal is to create "a buzz before, during, and after that creates a sphere around the event and is more than the event itself."

Mehr explains that these efforts are designed both to increase awareness of Joomla! locally, and to encourage other Joomla!-related activities in the Vancouver area. Robinson hopes that the social networking publicity will lead to the creation of a Joomla! users group, and, by the end of the conference, several members of the audience were already talking about other Joomla!-related sessions.

This use of social networking might be effective with any free software project, but it seems especially suitable to Joomla! In addition to the JoomlaDays!, the project has also been held a Joomla! Doc Camp this year. Moreover, next week, the second Pizzas, Bugs and Fun events is scheduled, in which Joomla! community members meet locally and online to participating in bug-squashing, testing, and documentation. Like Joomla!Days, each of these events has the potential of giving local communities a focus, and of connecting them to other Joomla! enthusiasts around the world.

Such effort are an ingenious use of social networking tools for the practical purpose of community building -- perhaps one of the best justifications for these tools that has been conceived so far. But what they all come down to is creating opportunities for people to interact in a common interest.

"When you organize an event, give people the opportunity to network," Mehr advises others who might want to use their own conferences for community building. "Make the attendees part of the process, and make them players. Don't make it all about the speakers and the presenters -- that's a thing of the past."

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