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YAPC auction considered lousy

by rjbs, created 2011-07-01 11:42
last modified 2011-07-01 11:57
tagged with: @markup:md journal perl yapc
Every year at YAPC: :NA, there is a conference dinner where I end up sitting
with some people I know and some people I don't. We talk about the conference,
and Perl, and our jobs, and the city, and so on. Once we're part all the
introductory small talk, the auction starts and we spend two hours waiting for
it to stop. Once it's over, we leave.

I can't stand the YAPC auction.

First of all, as I have described, it ruins the social aspect of the largest social gathering of the conference. There are basically four kinds of social gatherings at YAPC: the arrival dinner, the conference dinner, hackathons, and the "hallway track." Hackathons are (in theory) very focused on one topic, attended by people who already work on them. You don't meet new people there, in general, and if you do, you spend the time talking about your project, rather than just getting to know each other. The hallway track is great. It's the socializing that goes on between talks. There's lots of great talk in the hallways, but it's usually with people you already know, and any conversation occurs under threat of, "Oh, I actually want to go see a talk now."

Meals are much better for sustained conversation with people you haven't met before. OSCON is great for this, because there is a provided lunch on several days, and the population of the conference is huge. At YAPC, we don't have provided lunch (which is fine, because it means the conference remains cheap) but without an official lunch destination, it means that you end up getting lunch with people you know at a random place you pick. This leaves us with breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is usually a lot like lunch, but at YAPC this year, it was better: the hotel sold breakfast, so lots of people sat together at breakfast and talked.

There are two important dinners at YAPC: the arrival dinner and the main conference dinner. The arrival dinner is attended by some subset of people who have arrived the day before, and is usually at some local bar or restaurant. My experience is that it's usually okay, somewhat overpriced, food. That's fine, but the real problem is that it's in a restaurant, which means that you can't easily mingle. It also means you're usually seated at a narrow table where you can only talk to three or four people comfortably, and you will struggle to talk over everyone else, because everyone will be talking nearby in a room with low ceilings and poor acoustics. I'll pass.

So, finally, the conference dinner! It's often held in a banquet hall. That means high ceilings, which means everyone can talk more quietly. There are big round tables, so you can talk to eight or nine other people at once, without craning your neck. Because there are so many seats, you're unlikely to sit only with people you know. There's nowhere to go after the dinner, and you can sit and talk for as long as you like. It's usually the first or second day of the conference, so anyone you befriend at the conference dinner, you can talk to in the hallway track over the rest of the conference.

Instead, though, the whole thing becomes dinner theater, where you watch an auction. You can try to ignore it, but talking over the auction means you're back to the "loud room" problem.

So, what is the auction? It's supposed to be something like equal parts entertainment and fund raiser. I don't think it works as entertainment, but it is at least somewhat successful as a fund raiser. In the end, there isn't very much interesting about watching an auction. Very occasionally, a massive bid makes everyone gasp, or the auctioneer says something particularly funny. Mostly, though, it comes down to a lot of "come on, guys, we can do better than this." Uri ran the auction for many years, and was often pretty funny. This year, there was a round-robin format that also resulted in some pretty funny moments. Still, the central message isn't, "we're having fun," but, "you aren't giving enough." The more often you hear, "come on, bid more," the less entertaining it is. There is nothing less entertaining than a telethon.

Beyond that, what does the auction say about the community? It doesn't seem to encourage a real sense of community, because in the end it means that only X people participate, and everyone else is a double outsider: once because they're not answering the organizer's pleading for money and once again because they're left sitting at the table, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. It's contrary to everything we say we want YAPC to be about.

So, if we need the fund raising that the auction performs, what else can be done about it? After the auction in Asheville, I joked that we'd have made even more money (by a small amount) if we just got everyone to make a no-strings-attached donation of $20, and that one way to do this was to say, "If everybody throws in $20, we won't have an auction. If this is your first YAPC and you don't know about the auction, ask one of your table-mates. He or she can tell you how much happier you will be if you throw in the twenty bucks."

I actually don't like this idea. It means that the auction might happen. My real proposal is more like this:

First, make a list of all the items up for "auction." Post the list on the wall. Put it on the website and the printed schedule. Email everyone with it.

Attendees can then go to TPF or some designated organizer and make a donation. At the end of the conference dinner, the auction donation window closes. The highest donor (with ties broken in some fashion) gets first pick from the list of items. This can be done publicly (to honor the donor) or privately (to avoid disrupting dinner). Either way, it will take much, much less time than the current auction. Donations that didn't rank highly enough to make the list are not returned. They are donations.

Some items can be held in reserve to be awarded to random donors who did not win a choice of prize. This encourages giving even $10, because $10 still might win you one of the fabulous prizes. The Surge conference, in 2010, offered this sort of raffle-style prize to attendees. It took very little time, and was more interesting to watch because you might win without doing much other than showing up (and, in the case of my suggestion, making a small donation). I won a copy of the O'Reilly Erlang book, which may have helped my opinion of the thing.

I'm sure other people might have other ideas, and maybe better ones. I hope we can get the organizers of the next YAPC::NA to accept one instead of an auction, too, because otherwise I think I will just take my leave of the conference dinner when the auction starts -- and invite the rest of my table to do the same, so we can finish our conversations elsewhere.