By Jason Snell
March 31, 2017 4:50 PM PT
Relocating a community
“Communities create themselves.” It’s something we’ve said about online communities for years now, and there’s truth to it. When I worked at IDG, we were maintainers of multiple online communities, some of which we had inherited through various acquisitions of other websites. Whenever someone made the mistake of assuming that community X was just like community Y—or that community X could be merged into community Y—we had to explain that it simply wasn’t true. Community X had organized itself a certain way, and if we treated them as an asset to be transferred or an employee to be assigned, they’d just leave—but not after leaving a big steaming mess on the lobby floor.
Big companies can create shells that can house communities, but they don’t own the people inside. The enlightened ones realize that the right way to approach those communities is to cultivate them, understand them, and accept that in exchange for the lack of control over them, you do receive great benefits from being adjacent to them and owning the shell that holds them together. It’s a trade-off, but what in life isn’t?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regards to WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference, which is returning to San Jose this year after a run of more than a decade in San Francisco.
Each move of WWDC—the shell that holds a bunch of Apple-related people—has caused the community to break and re-form. New things are gained, but old things are lost. When WWDC was held in San Jose the last time, one of the highlights for me was a party at the home of longtime Mac developer Rick Holzgrafe. Families were welcome, and for several years my wife and I made the drive down to hang out with all sorts of cool pepole, including Adam and Tonya Engst and their young son Tristan, Peter Lewis (then of Interarchy, now of Keyboard Maestro), and James Thomson (then of DragThing, now of PCalc). Rick had a big, beautiful house in the heart of Silicon Valley, and he threw a great party.
But when WWDC moved to San Francisco, that was pretty much the end of that party and that group.
In San Francisco, especially after the rise of iOS and the death of Macworld Expo, WWDC became the heart of the Apple community’s calendar, and new traditions appeared. John Gruber started holding live version of The Talk Show at increasingly larger venues. Jim Dalrymple held increasingly loud Beard Bash parties. Macworld did an annual party on the Macworld office’s beautiful terrace with bay and ballpark views. When tickets became hard to come by, people stopped trying to get them and just showed up for the week to hang out. Alternative conferences sprung up to serve people who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) go to WWDC proper. In the spirit of Rick Holzgrafe, I even started inviting people over to my house at the end of the week for a casual evening of food and conversation away from the hubbub of downtown.
There are people in the Apple community, lots of them, who literally don’t know anything about San Francisco that can’t be found within six blocks of Moscone Center. (You should come back and visit sometime; the Bay Area has a lot going for it, but other than AT&T Park, very little of it can be found in the South of Market area.)
But now it’s time to wipe that all way. Apple has moved the shell back to San Jose, and our old traditions will have to be replaced with new ones. (We were going to order in Puerto Rican this year for the party in my backyard. More plaintains for me, I guess…)
Downtown San Jose is not a bad place to hold an event like WWDC, though. Not only is the entire place cleaner and cheaper than San Francisco, but it’s still sleepy enough that a big conference like WWDC can take over the entire vibe of the downtown. This year there will no doubt be false starts and mistakes as we all learn the best way to do San Jose, but I have no doubt that if Apple holds WWDC 2018 in San Jose, everything will get that much better. The new community will continue to grow in the shell Apple created by staging its event there. Our old traditions will be gone and we’ll miss them, but it’s the community that makes the event. All Apple has to do is sit back and watch: A great one will grow around WWDC in San Jose, just as it did back in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, Rick Holzgrafe moved to Oregon a while back. Someone else with a nice house and a big backyard will need to plan the party.