Reviving Buffalo Open Coffee

A few weeks ago, I was on the lookout for some events to go to in the local Buffalo area. I was looking for something a bit like the Buffalo Open Coffee Club (BOCC) that used to meet downtown. BOCC was a group of business- and technology-focused people coming together to share. To share stories, to share wins and failures. To share hints, tips, tricks, the name of a good accountant, a thought or two on some new technology. No agenda, little structure.

The COVID pandemic destroyed many things, and in-person networking events rank high on that list. Many events tried to go virtual; using video conferencing technology like Zoom and Google Meet as a stand-in facsimile for face-to-face conversation.

But it's not the same; hell, it's hardly even similar. Networking, in particular, needs a large enough group that small subgroups form, and enough shared space to allow those groups to casually form, break up, and re-form. For a good networking event, people need to be able to float.

Zoom was made for meetings, and corporate meetings in particular. The funny thing about work meetings is that they are incredibly rigid. Attendees are expected to show up on time, focus on the topics of the meeting, and then exit the shared space when the allotted time is up. Popping your head into a Zoom meeting is a disruptive affair; participant tiles can re-arrange, new background noise is introduced, there's the obligatory "you're muted" or "hey Joe, can you mute?" from other participants. One cannot easily slip into an in-progress video call.

This is by design, or at least wasn't a considered feature in the design. Networking events, like conferences and meetups, absolutely do not work like that.

So for the ad hoc, impromptu and ephemeral social groups to form in a networking environment, you have to be in a medium that allows and even encourages unobtrusively joining and departing. I've yet to meet an online video conferencing platform that understands this. That leaves us with in-person events.

As the father of two young children, one vaccinated and one not, I am acutely aware of how my social activities impact the health and wellbeing of those around me. We have masked for two years, and continue to do so out of an abundance of caution and compassion. We still don't dine out. We are careful.

That said, I still think the time is nigh for an in-person reboot of something like Buffalo Open Coffee Club, but before seriously considering that, I wanted to do a little digging to find out why it is that events like BOCC (and it's not just BOCC!) garner such widespread support and community good will and then ... wither.

I spoke with some friends who have a lot of experience building, running, and above all sustaining communities. The primary reason events like BOCC eventually fail is blindingly obvious: entropy.

Organizing is hard. Like really hard. It's a grind. The glory and fun of being involved in a new thing, and having the ability to put one's own mark on it is quickly outweighed by the sheer amount of work that must be put into not just structuring and hosting, but also sponsorships, logistics, and promotion. I've seen several communities go through this "hype cycle":

  1. There is no event / community.
  2. A few people decide to fix that, and start planning.
  3. People get excited, get involved and a small community forms.
  4. Excitement grows, as does the scope of event(s).
  5. Excitement wanes; organizers burn out or move on to other things.
  6. No one steps up to take the torch and carry it.
  7. Events become less interesting; attendance flatlines.
  8. There is no event / community.

There's rarely a specific event that spells certain doom for a community. Looking back, however, it's often possible to point to an event and anoint it "the beginning of the end." With communities, we're dealing with network effects. Consider social media networks. New social media networks are no fun; there isn't anyone you know there. As more people use the network, the network grows, and becomes more useful. It only takes a handful of people in a community to make the community much, much larger.

The flip side of network effects is that when people leave, they leave in droves. Know anyone on MySpace?

The thing that kills communities and events is the same thing that bolsters and supports them: network effects.

This is crucial to keep in mind when running events. Why does the network contract? Fatigue. Attending events entails work. For highly social, extroverted types, it's less work. For the introverts, it's considerably more. If events are too frequent, attendees burn out and you have no community. If events are too infrequent, the inertia of not going can become too great and attendance suffers. A balance must be struck between too often and not often enough.

Another manifestation of fatigue is novelty, or rather a lack thereof. Structured events (like industry conferences) have a leg up in this aspect. Unstructured events are difficult to distinguish and differentiate. What are we doing? Grabbing some coffee and a cheese danish and chit-chatting for another two hours? Just like last weeks? Pass.

If every event is the same old same old, then what's the harm in skipping this week or this month and going the next? It'll be the same then as it is now (if it survives that long). As an attendee, I can easily rationalize this. I'm just one person. Who will notice that I'm missing? I don't speak at these things, and besides, I have other concerns this week.

Sometimes, communities die because, while there may be a will among attendees, there is no one around to step up and organize. At least for this particular thought exercise (vis-a-vis, resurrecting the intersectional business and technology networking group that was BOCC), I feel I can safely ignore this, at least until I cannot. That day will come, but it's at least six months off.

Taking all of this into consideration (with many thanks to folks who I have pestered about this in the community), here's what I'm going to do:

  1. Start.
  2. Run in-person BOCC meetings monthly.
  3. Change format slightly.

I am fully prepared to do this solo. That's not to say I'm not willing to accept help from motivated community members and people who want to pitch in and help. It is to say that I embark on this particular adventure alone, without needing to source volunteers for the task of organizing. It's work, but it gives me freedom to make the changes that I want to make.

Start: I'm doing this.

Meet monthly: People don't work the way they did two years ago. People work from home, with more convenient and less predictable hours. I've talked to working parents who are now able, thanks to remote work policies, to help get their kids on on the bus and off to school. They don't commute to downtown offices. Meeting any more frequently than once a month (to me) seems like overkill. To fight fatigue, we will be spacing these things out more.

Change format: the Lean Coffee format is deliberately structureless. I think this works, when supplemented by robust offline discussion through the likes of mailing lists, online discussion forums, IRC, or even Slack. The in-person component becomes an extension of the online space, where things that do not lend themselves well to asynchronous communication patterns can be worked out. Absent that, however, I think events need some sort of programme. To that end, I'm going to be planning for a ninety minute event footprint, with the first half-hour dedicated to a combination of ice-breaking fun (oh boy do I have ideas here) and pre-selected speakers talking to their professional bailiwicks. For example, one month I plan on having a colleague speak about what precisely Search Engine Optimization people do for their clients, and why customers should care about Google's PageRank algorithm.

James (@iamjameshunt) works on the Internet, spends his weekends developing new and interesting bits of software and his nights trying to make sense of research papers.

Currently exploring Kubernetes, as both a floor wax and a dessert topping.