A few weeks ago, before I canceled my Twitter account, I saw an informal conversation taking place between a few of the UK Microsoft community 'leaders' on the subject of an overall decline in attendance and interest in community events over the last year.
I've noticed the decline in some of the user groups I attend and apparently more country-wide events like Developer Developer Developer are also seeing a decline in interest. This manifests itself either through less bums on seats (like the recent Windows Phone 7 event), or through a longer period before the free event 'sells out' (like the upcoming Special .NET event aka DDD8a).
I have my own theories about why the interest hasn't been as great over the last 12 months as it has in the preceding 12 months, but it was interesting to see speculation that video might be one answer to this loss of interest. Could it be that video is encouraging people to stay away and just 'watch the video' instead?
I must admit, the same concern that video might encourage people to 'miss' meetings had crossed my mind when I first started doing video for London-based user groups a few years ago. It's one of the reasons why some user groups specifically told me 'Thanks for the offer but we don't want video'. These user groups feel that video in some ways detracts from the main objective of the meetings which is networking, albeit packaged around a couple of more formal talks. This makes sense to me, and the 'rule' is usually bent when a high profile event, such as Microsoft VP Scott Guthrie flying into town, takes place and it's assumed ahead of time the demand for places can't be met.
As a video consumer I have to confess that video has meant that I'm unlikely to be attending big events like MIX or PDC again. It costs far too much money to sit in a room hearing mainly marketing material presented badly, when a free video means you can at least stop things a few minutes in and move onto something else if the content isn't what was initially advertised.
So far as 'free' community events are concerned though, my personal view is that the impact of video on actual attendance numbers is minimal (but then I would say that!), and when many user groups only have access to premises that limit live attendance to 30-50 people, but even the poorest performing video can garner over 100 views (with the most popular grabbing over 7000 views) then doing video of a talk seemed in the early days like a win-win for both the user group and its members and the speaker wanting to reach as wide an audience as possible.
At the last meeting of the user group I attend as a priority, The Silverlight UK User Group, attendance was lower than normal and for the first time in a long time we had some empty chairs. This is possibly because of a clash with another user group that same evening, possibly because of a clash with a high-profile football match that same evening, or possibly because it's becoming increasingly obvious that what Ray Ozzie described this time last year as 'Microsoft's premier UI' is clearly anything but that. Or it could, conceivably, be the fact that people knew ahead of time I'd be videoing the talks presented at the meeting.
Whatever the reason, the Silverlight User Group organisers asked me to hold the video publication back for a couple of weeks (which then turned into four weeks because I've been lazy!) instead of rushing to get it online as quickly as possible, the way I usually do.
In many ways this debate about video being a possible cause of declining attendance gives me a good excuse to retire from doing community video. Those who followed me on Twitter for the last 3 years (before I deleted my account a week ago) know how disillusioned I've become with not just Microsoft over the last 12 months, but also the current 'community' eco-system that seems to be far too reliant on 'partnership' with Microsoft. I think it's time for me to move on and use my spare time to support things I actually believe in.
The truth is that while it's been a privelege producing video when the subject matter and speaker have been as high as it often has, there have been rather more occasions than I'd like where the talks have not been good and when I've been faced with hours editing, rendering, compressing, uploading and transcoding video that I know nobody will watch past the first couple of minutes. On such occasions, it's hard not to resent the fact that you're stuck at a PC when the sun's shining outside and you know you're wasting hours on something nobody will have any real interest in.
I think it will be interesting to see what happens over the next 12 months in the Microsoft 'community' space. I am totally unconvinced that it's video that's killing user group attendance, but in the meantime I'm happy to finish my community video efforts with a really excellent couple of videos. These last two videos feature Guy Ferrier-Smith giving an excellent 90 minute talk (split over two videos) on the subject of Silverlight Internationalization. This is well-researched material that the blogs and the official Microsoft documentation have largely ignored and there's a LOT of hard work and experience gone into Guy's talk. It's exactly the sort of talk that got me excited about doing video for community a few years back. An opportunity to get the really good stuff out to a wider audience that otherwise wouldn't have access to it.
The latest videos, along with the other most recent user group talks, can be seen on my hosting page on Exposure Room. Enjoy!