Recently on WP Tavern, an article was posted about WordCamps, alcohol, and after-parties. Should WordCamp Afterparties Be Alcohol Free? has certainly got a lot of people talking, and this isn’t the first time the topic of alcohol and tech conferences has come up. There have been numerous things written about the pros and cons of having alcohol present, along with individual people’s experience dealing with these events. Some of those experiences, sadly, involve various forms of harassment and even sexual assault. These stories are not to be taken lightly. That said, I’m a straight white male in tech, so most of the things that have a negative effect on people don’t really apply to me. I’m playing life on easy mode, and I totally understand that fact.
But when it comes to booze, I do have some experience, and probably a perspective many people don’t have. For those that aren’t aware, I’m a sober alcoholic with almost 13 years between me and a drink. I hadn’t even begun learning to program when I quit drinking, so every single event I’ve ever attended in the tech world has been during my sobriety. I have, however, attended many parties where I participated in the drinking festivities, and I’m acutely aware of what can happen when someone has a bit too much to drink.
tl;dr The alcohol isn’t the problem, rather, the structure of the entire event.
WordCamps are put on by volunteers. Having been an organizer of two of them, I know it’s a thankless job and involves a LOT of time, and involve a lot of moving parts to coordinate for the hope of having an event go off smoothly. Most of the organizers are not professional event planners (I sure as hell am not one) and the logistics of certain things are very difficult to pull off, even for a seasoned veteran. The standard after party goes like this:
- Show up to bar
- Door person gives you a few drink tickets
- Get drink from crowded bar
- Attempt conversation over loud music
- Be given more tickets because not as many people showed up as planned
- Shout over music and other people, lose your voice
- Leave with a small group of people and go somewhere else
Notice that nowhere in that list does it say “get drunk”. Because I firmly believe that people who want to get drunk will get drunk, regardless of the logistics. A free drink or two (or a code of conduct for that matter) isn’t going to change that. But the whole setup DOES lend itself to problems. From my vantage point, a large part of the problem is that the parties are sold as “networking opportunities”, but often are so loud and cramped that you can’t even have a conversation with someone without shouting. You simply cannot take the “meet a few friends for drinks” idea and scale it to 500 people. It just doesn’t work that way. Being in a place with 400 people is WAY more uncomfortable to me than being around alcohol. And I have a suspicion I’m not the only one who feels this way. In the time I’ve written this, I’ve had no less than 6 people, all of whom have attended at least 10 WordCamps, tell me that they stopped going to the after party because they’re simply too loud.
The best after party I can remember was at WordCamp San Diego in 2015. The party itself was held at the venue, which removed a lot of the “bar” atmosphere. It was large and spacious, allowing people to hang out and talk to each other with as much or as little crowd as they wanted. They had actual places to sit down. It was well lit. Was there alcohol? Yep. Did it dominate the event? Not in the least bit. And a bunch of us DID go out afterwards and get dinner and hit a few spots in downtown San Diego. A good time was had by all.
In short, creating an environment that makes people comfortable will go a lot further than just removing booze. Making people feel at ease without a drink in their hand will likely curb a lot of the issues people see. Those that want to get loaded can (and likely will) get loaded, but they’ll easily become the exception rather than the rule.