We know that the two main reasons people attend conferences are to learn and connect with others. Traditional conferences provide little or no session support for the latter. Instead, they assume that one or two social events provide a good environment for attendees to meet interesting new people. Socials at conferences are assumed to fulfill this function.
But research summarized in a recent article in Wired by Jonah Lehrer indicates this is not the case:
Do people mix at mixers? The answer is no…Mixer parties are supposed to free their guests from the constraints of preexisting social structure so they can approach strangers and make new connections. Nevertheless, our results show that guests at a mixer tend to spend the time talking to the few other guests whom they already know well.
—Do People Mix at Mixers? Structure, Homophily, and the “Life of the Party” by Paul Ingram and Michael W. Morris
This finding agrees with the common observation that traditional conferences provide a miserable social environment for first-timers. Walking into a room filled with hundreds of strangers is a daunting experience for all but the most extrovert. If we want to increase the likelihood that first-timers return to our events in future years and become active member of our conference communities, we need to provide effective ways for them to connect with their peers, preferably right at the start of the event.
If socials at conferences aren’t great ways to meet new people, then how can we improve matters?
Well, Jonah’s article also describes interesting research on the effect of group size on the likelihood that people will meet diverse peers. A 2011 paper Social ecology of similarity: Big schools, small schools and social relationships concludes that in large groups, people spend time with people who are much more similar to them than in small groups. The research also found that the friendships developed in small groups were closer and longer lasting. Yet another piece of evidence, perhaps, in favor of the small conferences that I’ve always championed.
Photo attribution: Flickr user IFLA 2011 Goethe-Institut Reception