Notes from Meta-Meetup #2

Local meetup and tech event organisers gathered at Google Digital Garage last month. Here's what went down.

@MayKingTea

About 15 of us gathered at the Google Digital Garage last week for the second Meta-Meetup – the meetup for people who run, or would like to run, meetups and tech events. Everyone got to meet and chat for the first 45 minutes while people arrived. And Google laid on pizzas and soft drinks for us to make sure everyone was well fed and watered before we sat down to talk about running events.

As Katie Attwood mentions in her ‘personal impressions’ write up of the event, we adopted an unusual but fun method for sitting around and chatting about things in a slightly more structured way, based on hand signals. I’ll talk about this more at the end of this write up, after I’ve covered the things we talked about. Also, like a complete newb, I never took a photo of us to use as the banner for this post, thus immediately failing on the first topic of the evening…

Content

The first topic we discussed was how to best to capture and publish what happens at a meetup.

Different meetups use a number of different publishing tools, including a website, Meetup.com, Trello and YouTube.

One of the most efficient methods involved asking the audience to document an event as it happens using Twitter. They can then use Twitter Moments to combine the best tweets into a story of the event and  also publish the speaker slides (if they are happy with that).

Some meetups, including SmartSheffield, which is the one I run, record video of the talks. I just use my phone on a tripod and publish the videos to YouTube. This is admittedly time consuming and it takes me roughly a day every two months to edit the videos and write the event up (this meetup is a bit different to most, though, as it’s intended to open up what’s going on in urban technology locally to a wider audience). One way of speeding this up in future might be to livestream, rather than record, edit and publish.

Sheffield Ruby (ShRUG) has received sponsorship from Pusher Sessions to record their event.

During the conversation, it seemed like there are three different kinds of content that emerged.

  • ‘Documentary’ content, like video of the talks, slides and detailed write ups.
  • ‘In-the-moment’ impressions recorded and expressed on social media.
  • Post-hoc write-ups, containing individual thoughts about what someone took from the event (such as Katie’s).

All three of these types are worth considering and several people said they needed to revisit their content strategy after the conversation.

The content chat then led on to…

Feedback

How do meetups find out what their audiences want and would like to be different?

Some meetups had actively asked their audiences for feedback, while others hadn’t, or hadn’t in a long time at least. Legup Social in particular had sought feedback after every event they’ve run, and reacted to what they learned to address venue, times and catering. There was a general sense that meetups should do more to invite opinion from their audiences, especially to try to find out why some people might stop attending, and how they can improve their attraction.

Several different methods for soliciting were put forward.

  • Audience interactivity at the event, eg a live poll.
  • An exit poll, where you have a sheet (eg a flipchart) on the way out with questions and rating lines from 1 to 5, and people can simply mark their answers with a Sharpie as they leave.
  • A proper Survey Monkey or Google Forms poll after the event via email.
  • Asking the community about particular aspects on Meetup, Slack or Twitter.

Cross-promotion

The conversation then turned to the issue of cross-promoting each other’s events and collectively building bigger audiences.

One good suggestion was for there to be a generic slide that organisers can add to their introductory slide decks, containing the list of other meetup events that are coming up over the next couple of week or month. Or a web page with the upcoming meetups on it that can be quickly copied and pasted into a slide. This would need to tie in with the meetup directory discussed later, and the calendar to make sure the meetups are really going ahead on the indicated day.

One thing that occurred to me after this discussion is that we might be able to incorporate this into our podcast prep workflow, as we compile a list of upcoming events every two weeks anyway. It probably wouldn’t be much extra effort to update an “upcoming meetups” slide for people to use while we’re at it. I will propose this to Iain and Mel.

The other key thing to increase cross-promotion of meetups is to hold them jointly where there are clear synergies between them. Several meetups are doing this, or looking to do it – Agile Sheffield, DevOps Sheffield and Sheffield Test Gathering are all working together. There’s definitely opportunity for others to do this. As well as raising awareness of different events, it also combines resources and audiences, and makes for better participant experiences.

This concept led to a conversation about “working in the open”. If meetup organisers knew more about who was organising what and when, there might be more opportunities generated for organisations to collaborate. One way of doing this is to do more organising on Sheffield Digital’s Slack, as some meetups do at least to an extent.

Slack

This then led to a more general discussion around what the meetup channels on Sheffield Digital’s Slack are for and how they could provide better value.

Here are some thoughts that were expressed about this.

  • Meetup organisers would like to use the channels to engage more directly with their audience, but it’s hard to get engagement.
  • Some organisers don’t want to share too much of the event planning, just in case things don’t happen.
  • Asking questions on Slack seems a bit redundant when there’s Stack Overflow and other bigger platforms – so what kinds of question does it lend itself to?
  • It’s not always clear what a particular channel is for, or what all the different channels are.
  • One thing that could be done is to model the behaviour of using the Slack channel (or IRC if that’s where the main audience already is) during the meetup by projecting it and it’s real time conversation.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that when we created the Slack team originally, we were very conscious that the channels should be set up and owned by the meetup organisers themselves for their own uses, rather than by Sheffield Digital. One of the main intentions was that people who joined the community would find channels in the things they were interested in and be able to engage with others locally, including people who organise meetups around that thing. Meetup organisers need to make the channels friendly, fun and useful places to get the best out of them (as we do with all the official channels, but don’t always succeed).

Codes of conduct

The next topic for discussion was the use of codes of conduct and what they should contain.

What are codes of conduct really for and who they are meant to protect? There was something of a misconception that they are there to protect the organisers. And even that the establishment of a code of conduct was an admission that something untoward had happened – that it was in response to something, which could reflect badly on the event.

In reality, a code of conduct is there to protect people who attend the event. It provides  assurance that any abuse or negative behaviour they experience will be taken seriously and that there’s a way of safely raising the issue. A code of conduct should encourage people to attend the event who might otherwise be reticent. They are about the perception of the space beforehand, as well as about protection during the event itself.

In addition to guarding against abuse, codes of conduct also set out what kind of space the event is, and what behaviours are allowed. LegUp Social, for instance, has a ‘no selling’ policy.

We at Sheffield Digital have a code of conduct for the Slack community, but we haven’t extended it to events and the code itself is wrapped up with a guide to using Slack. We should separate these, apply the code of conduct to our events and make a template available for other events and meetups to use.

This conversation led to a discussion about what should happen when something goes wrong. What should the escalation process be? The consensus was that Sheffield Digital can perform a very useful community service here by providing that escalation point.

We can offer that people can raise an issue with us directly, without having to go to the event organisers if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Or they can include us when they raise the issue. I will raise this point at the next Sheffield Digital board meeting, but I see no reason why we wouldn’t provide this. We should get this approved by the board and draft some standard escalation wording for meetup organisers to add to their own Codes.

Finally, we also talked about the norms associated with instituting a code of conduct. If the majority of meetups have one, and several meetups introduce them simultaneously, that can reduce the barriers to having them and make it a normal part of running an event, or any kind of social space in the city.

It was pointed out that codes of conduct are a kind of ‘disabled access’, in that it may not be obvious to you that you are excluding people. This led to two related discussions:

Firstly that there is still a lack of truly accessible meeting spaces in the city, especially for wheelchair users.

Secondly, relating back to the question about feedback and listening to people’s experience and get a real sense of people’s experiences of your event, it might be interesting to ask previous attendees whether they have experienced any problems at a meetup or tech event over the last year. This could be a good thing for Sheffield Digital to do on behalf of the meetup community. It’s a shame we’ve already launched our annual survey, as this question wasn’t included. We could do a follow up in a few months time though. It would have to be anonymous anyway.

It seemed like there was much in this topic that Sheffield Digital can help with. We will look at how we can make resources available, perhaps in preparation for a concerted push to get more events to adopt codes of conduct at the beginning of the new year.

Meetups section on the Sheffield Digital website

The final topic of conversation before AOB, was to get some thoughts about adding a meetups directory to the website, powered by the community AirTable database.

Here are some things we decided.

  • The directory should use an ‘official’ email address field for contact info rather than the individual email addresses of organisers (although those would remain in the database).
  • In order to provide a way of vetting changes before they just appear in the website (and some protection against cross-site scripting), can the AirPress plugin refer to a particular instance of the database in the change history? Or is it latest only?
  • If the latter, we could keep multiple copies of the database and manually copy changes from staging to live, essentially. This was felt to be overkill though and we should go with as open a process as possible, and close it down later if people really abuse it. (As long as the plugin provides some protection against X-site scripting, etc.)
  • We should look at what extra permission options Airtable allows, eg edit a row, but not create a new row.
  • We should check the ability to easily revert to previous versions of the database.

We’ll be looking into this over the next few months, when we get time. If anyone would like to help with this, we’d be very happy. We would definitely like some help with styling. Let us know and we’ll look to get you set up on the test instance of our website.

AOB

We spent the last ten minutes or so discussing extra things that were on people’s minds.

  • We could collectively create a diversity charter for meetups, or a ‘Better Meetups Manifesto’ that meetups could sign up to.
  • Katie also shared a great Twitter thread listing things organisers can do to make events more accessible for women.
  • There was a conversation about where people host, and issues with acoustics as well as accessibility. It would be good to have a proper asset map of venues, along with details and contacts, that we could add to the Sheffield Digital map.
  • Ruby Users Group (SHRuG) are looking to attract more attendees, there seems a dearth of Rubyists nowadays.
  • Union St offer free co-working to meetup speakers to ShRUG, which is a good idea.

Hand signals

Finally a few words about the gesture-based conversation method that we used, which I mentioned in the intro. These are hand gestures developed by the Occupy Movement based on American Sign Language (and arguably go further back to Plains Indian Sign Language).

In the Occupy scheme, there are gestures for indicating your emotional state, and gestures for managing dialogue. Full information is available at the Wikipedia page, but here are the ones we used:

Emotional:

  • I agree (twinkles).
  • I disagree (down-twinkles).
  • I don’t know / I’m undecided (flat hands).

Speaking:

  • I would like to speak (hand up).
  • I need to ask a question before I can decide (clarifying question).
  • I have some important information to add (direct response).
  • You’re straying off topic (point of process).
  • You’re waffling now (wrap it up).
  • Please speak louder (raise the roof).

I used these for the first time about five years ago in a workshop session for the Children’s Media Conference, and they worked well there in a group of around 30 people. They tend to work well where there is a group of people with a high level of common knowledge, like a meeting of peer professionals, who would like to share their experiences in detail rather than ‘chalk and talk’ or traditional workshopping.

It also works best ‘in the round’, where everyone can see each other. And it takes a few minutes for people to get over the ‘Support Group’-like arrangement, but it works and it’s more fun than just talking. I also think people feel more involved as they can express themselves without having the floor. I realise too, of course, that using hand gestures isn’t fully inclusive, although there are alternatives possible if people are unable to make the right gestures.

It would be fun to use the same format again and I’d be very interested if anyone tries the method in their meetings. I’ve also just discovered that GDS have been using it for some of their meetings and there’s a post about it here.

Wrapping up

I was struck by how many things there are that Sheffield Digital could do to make meetup organisers’ lives easier and improve the quality of meetups across the city. I’d just like to recap them here.

  1. Provide a regularly updated slide showing upcoming meetups and events for organisers to incorporate into their intros.
  2. Split our Guide to Slack and Code of Conduct documents.
  3. Provide a guide to creating a Code of Conduct for meetups and events.
  4. Provide a standard escalation process for meetups to incorporate.
  5. Run a campaign to get event organisers to adopt codes of conduct collectively in the new year.
  6. Implement a meetup directory on the Sheffield Digital website, driven by the community AirTable database.
  7. Add meetup venue information to the Sheffield Digital ecosystem map.
  8. Produce a ‘Better Meetup Manifesto’ document with principles that organisers can sign up to.
  9. Use the Meetups section to link and list all the relevant information for existing and prospective meetup organisers

There’s a lot of work there, and we’d welcome any contributions people can make. We’ll keep you posted on progress 🙂

Next event

We’ll look to host the next Meta-Meetup in the new year. Watch this space!

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