Farewell to the hallway track.
One of the great joys as a conference organizer is walking through the venue and seeing people grouped along the hallways, deeply in conversation. Even though you may spend just a second or two as you pass by, that energy is tangible and electric. That’s something people may not expect: yes, you want the presentations to be full and well-received, but once there’s a break you’re watching for how attendees interact outside of the talks.
First-time conference organizers will try to pack the schedule—like a well-meaning hyperactive tour guide—thinking that more content will mean a better conference. It’s not true. The hallway track is how you know people are interacting, are connecting. It is the negative space in your photo that provides breathing room to the image, and without it the air is taken out of the gathering.
The truth is that when people travel vast distances to attend a conference, they do so not just for the information, but to be around other people. The presentations you program, well, they’re the fuel for conversation between attendees. Whether the audience agrees or disagrees, whether the ideas on stage are novel to them or not, after the session finishes, you want the crowd energized and ready to connect with their fellow attendees. The cherished stories you hear from people will almost always be from the hallway track.
The hallway track is a place where you can learn from others like you, and hear conversations that are too private to share on social media. (You know, the ones that don’t have to be polished and performed.) The hallway track is where you get to enjoy not just the ideas of the industry you’re in, but the people. We’ve met our heroes through the hallway track, and strangers who instantly felt like friends we’ve known forever. These moments are necessarily ephemeral: that is the magic of live events.
When news of O’Reilly shuttering its in-person conference
hit, it felt surreal. It’s easy to take these events for granted. They’ll always be there. You don’t imagine Christmas being cancelled. The very reason why monumental conferences have to shutter is precisely what made them useful: they brought together people from everywhere. The sheer bigness is why now they are so uncertain. It must have been a difficult decision, and we feel for everyone affected. How many other conference organizers are also wondering if they should follow suit and take a breather?
There will still be in-person events. Local meetups will persevere, and smaller conferences will fill part of the void. As will online conferences. But we’ll miss meeting someone from another part of the world and unexpectedly getting sucked into a multi-hour conversation, playing hooky for all the talks we had planned to attend. We hope there will be other opportunities for our friends to meet, as a global reunion. That feeling of a village or a neighbourhood embodies what it means to be in a community.
Community is built not through networking but in the subtle, nonproductive interactions. The joy of faces becoming familiar after years, and even if you don’t ever speak with them knowing they’re there is part of the joy. Maybe it’s just a wave hello, or a nod of recognition, but you feel within you that you’re all in this together.
The community building is irreplaceable, although we will have to find new ways after this. Many solutions will be offered in the coming days. We feel like it’s too soon for that, at least for us. Until then, we’ll recall our own cherished memories, reflect in gratitude on the people we’ve met, and pour one out for a now bygone era.