Two weeks ago, Tim O’Reilly surprised a large segment of the online publishing world when he announced on the Tools of Change blog that O’Reilly Media would be folding the Tools of Change (TOC) Conference series and blog and disbanding the community that it had fostered over the past 7 years.
I have spoken at several of these meetings over the past few years and I have found TOC to be one of the more vibrant and forward-looking conferences in the industry. There were many reasons for this success but my sense was that it had to do partly with the technology focus of O’Reilly’s publishing program and the tech-savviness of the O’Reilly staff. The group that organized the meeting had a finger on the pulse of the rapidly changing technology impacting and transforming the publishing world. A lot of people contributed to this event, but of particular note was the adroit leadership of Kat Meyer and Joe Weikert, who seemed abreast of each emerging technology and each new entrant in the industry. It often seemed lees like a conference than equal parts rock concert and evangelical sermon about the future of our industry. The high-level leadership and commitment to the notion of advancing the landscape of publishing derived from Tim O’Reilly himself. This is evidenced by O’Reilly’s writings and the talks he has given about the value of TOC in transforming the publishing industry.
The criticism of O’Reilly for pulling the plug on a well-attended, seemingly profitable, and passionate community event was—not-surprisingly—lightening fast and filled with stunned shock. One vocal and influential commenter was Brian O’Leary, an industry consultant and writer who was a frequent speaker at TOC. On his blog, O’Leary took O’Reilly to task for lacking the commitment to support the community and the meeting that O’Reilly and his staff fostered. O’Leary made the strong point:
“But once you’ve helped make a community, you have an obligation to nurture and sustain it. If you decide you want to do something else with your resources, you still have to provide for its care and feeding. You don’t shut everything down without making an attempt to at least provide for its welfare.”
In response to O’Reilly’s decision, one friend commented that a meeting is not a community and I couldn’t agree more. It brings the community together, but for the most part the topics, the ideas, and the strategies develop from the bottom up, not from the top down. Nearly every meeting, even TOC and other for-profit meetings, is organized by program committees or advisory boards. The TOC Program Committee included an impressive list of industry thought leaders. Based on the meeting scope, vision, and mission, the leadership groups identify and build a program to serve the expected attendee community. In the case of TOC, this mix coalesced exceptionally well.
Similarly, for years there had been a vibrant community that met around the London Online conference in early December each year. Over the years, that conference seemed to be more and more like an exhibit hall where vendors put up booths to talk to each other without talking to many customers, since the program seemed to attract a relatively modest number of attendees compared to the size of the exhibit hall, particularly in the last few years. The meeting was terminated in 2011. There wasn’t quite the same outcry when that meeting disbanded, but the rationale seemed to be similar at the time.
While the approaches to for-profit meetings and those are organized by communities of interest (i.e., professional societies) are similar, there are some important distinctions worth mentioning. The challenge of centering a community of interest around a for-profit business is that the effort is only as stable as the corporate underpinnings. A professional society exists to educate and there are often policies and admonitions to speakers not to specifically promote their services in presentations—although this is often breached, it is generally not the fault of the organizers. TOC held an explicit program track for sponsors and exhibitors, and significant sponsors were often given prime presentation slots. In my personal opinion, theses sessions often fell flat in the same way that an advertisement during a football game or your favorite television show is often when you refresh your beverage, talk with your friends, or press the fast-forward button on the DVR. In fairness, there is a great deal of sponsorship, advertising and promotion that takes place at association meetings as well; these events are frequently the source of a large portion of an association’s income. One can’t fault the association or a corporation for doing as much as possible to make an event profitable. But association events tend not to have blatant promotional presentations (with emphasis on “blatant”) and encourage such marketing be left in the exhibit area.
It is also true that no organization, for-profit or non-profit, can sustain a recurring money-losing event. What makes all the difference between the two organization types, and what was highlighted in the case of the decision to cease hosting TOC, is that an association exists to support the community, while a for-profit company does not. An association hosts a meeting to bring a community together to promote its mission, be that education, current awareness, or to advance the mission of the group. A corporation hosts a meeting to generate as large a profit as possible (directly or indirectly from meeting follow-up sales). Serving a community is not the mission of the corporation, generally speaking, although it might be a tactic to generate profits. Corporations do not—and should not—undertake such efforts in the same way or for the same purposes as non-profit entities. Importantly, I don’t want to argue that one approach is right and one is wrong, or that one is inherently better or worse. But we shouldn’t be surprised or even feel betrayed when a corporation on its whim decides to stop supporting an event or a group.
The community of digital publishing specialists continues to exist. While there may be a gap in where that group gathers regularly, perhaps putting faith in a for-profit group to bring the community together is a mistake. I look at the successful efforts of the ER&L community, the Code4Lib community, the Force11 (Beyond the PDF) and the THATCamp groups that have successfully organized energy around their respective spaces.. Not surprisingly, these communities are all centered on non-profit centers.
I am looking forward to seeing where our community of publishing technologists coalesces in the wake of TOC. Wherever and however that is, I expect it will be equally compelling because there is a need to share and advance the innovative ideas that are transforming publishing. These changes will continue to advance every year and those who are leading the way need a gathering place. When it does coalesce, I plan to be there. Hopefully, we will see you there too.