Remote User Group Meeting Participation

Remote participation in a meeting is one of those would-be-nice things that comes up with every user group. Most recently someone requested it via the GR Mobile Dev discussion list, which is what prompted me to finish this neglected blog post.

I’m not completely opposed to remote participation, but I have not personally seen it work at any user group meeting. Here are a few of the reason I’ve identified for why this is so:

A Bustling GRWebDev Meeting

A Bustling GRWebDev Meeting

1. Quality: Streaming a meeting via something like Ustream or Skype produces low quality video unless you have good video equipment and a lot of spare upload bandwidth. You also need a decent microphone to pick up the presenter while ignoring ambient sound. The hardware is not cheap, and when you have a dozen or more heavy Internet users in the same room, the bandwidth is precious.

2. Personnel: It can be hard to find people willing to spare the time to attend a user group meeting. Finding someone willing to spare the time so that other people can “attend” the meeting is even harder. Due to unavoidable distractions, if you are the cameraman or camerawoman, you will not get as much value out of the presentations as a fully-engaged audience member.

3. For actual two-way participation you need some kind of physical presence at the meeting. A laptop sitting on a table in the back of the room isn’t going to be loud enough to be noticed, which means someone at the meeting has to babysit the remote participants to relay their interactions. Similar to reason #2, you’re going to have trouble finding that babysitter.

Obviously these problems are not insurmountable, but so far they have been enough to prevent any of the meetings I attend from doing remote participation. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, it just means I haven’t seen it. If you’re willing to commit to being the streaming cameraman, microphone wrangler, remote presence babysitter, or whatever else needs to be done to get it to work, please get a hold of me.

Now if you’ll indulge me a bit, I will explain why I think remote participation isn’t really even valuable for a user group.

To be frank, much of the information coming out of the typical user group meeting is not groundbreaking. In most cases, you can find presentations with similar information on YouTube, Slideshare, or SpeakerDeck.

You don't get this by remote participation.

You don't get this by remote participation.

As an attendee, what really makes a user group meeting valuable is the opportunity to meet and engage with other enthusiastic local developers – something you will not get via remote participation. If you attend the meetings and put a little effort into engaging and talking to people there, you’ll make new friends and you’ll build a valuable network of peers. These are people you can consult when you need a new job, when you’re learning a new technology, or when you need to refer someone to someone you trust.

I was a hermit for a decade before I put aside my fears and started coming to user group meetings. It’s worth it. Trust me. You’ll get to know some awesome people.

As a viewer, I personally find a streamed presentation less valuable than one which has been recorded and posted to YouTube. If I had that particular time slot free, why would I watch from home instead of going to the event in person? Why passively consume the meeting instead of actually shaking hands with the people presenting? Also, if it’s on YouTube, I can watch at my own pace on my own time while I’m doing something else, such as riding the exercise bike. The recorded and uploaded version just makes more sense than a streamed version.

To this end, I have started recording some of the meetings I attend and putting those videos up on YouTube. For each two hour meeting I end up with about 1.5 hours of presentation footage. Afterwards, it takes me about two hours of editing, then one night to render and another to upload (1.5 hours of HD video is big). I have decided to take on this task because I think the videos will be good for helping groups to promote themselves. Hopefully some folks who have heard of the groups but don’t know if it’s worth taking the time to attend can find out what they’re missing. I also think that having the meetings online may bring in bigger presenters because we can give them a little bigger audience.

Now I know a lot of you think you don’t have the time to attend a meeting. Hey, I have a wife and a kid, so I know it’s hard to justify being away from home. Do it anyways. Being gone a few nights a month does not make you a bad parent, husband, or wife. Swap a night with your spouse and you each get some one-on-one time with the kids, as well as a night off from them. I’ll bet your parents want to spend time with their grandkids. By the time the meeting is over, the kids are in bed, so you might as well go have a drink at the after-party – that’s where you really get to meet the interesting people.

To sum up, I don’t like remote participation for several reasons: it distracts organizers, volunteers, and attendees; a recorded copy of the presentation is better than a streamed version; and you will get none of the real value of a user group meeting by sitting at home.

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