The Trade-Offs of A Successful Conference

Community development requires putting the interests of the group above those of the individual, as difficult as it may sometimes be.

This is the third year in a row that the Internet Freedom Festival has hit full capacity months ahead of time. Once again, about 1,000 internet freedom defenders from all around the world will be joining forces in Valencia to fight against censorship and surveillance. We are filled with joy to have become the must-attend glittertastic conference in the digital rights circuit, but there’s a flip side to it.

The IFF inbox is currently overflowing with emails from disgruntled and disappointed people – folks who had been eagerly waiting for the festival.

It is overwhelming and heartbreaking for us to have to turn so many people down.

Our organization is built to serve activist and hacker communities around the world, not to organize events to sell them tickets. Unlike many other conferences, the IFF is not a fundraiser, nor a part of our public relations strategy. We don’t measure success in the amount of tickets sold.

The Internet Freedom Festival looks like a conference, but it’s really a tool. A tool designed for the collaborative improvement of services, products and strategies to counter censorship, enable secure communications, and provide secure access to the global internet. A tool to increase the participation of underrepresented, at-risk and vulnerable groups in the Internet Freedom field. A tool to support our belief that the inclusion of new and missing voices is the foundation of a strong and open internet.

A well-designed community development event looks like an iceberg. At plain sight there’s only the conference week. The remaining 360 days (and many nights) of work remain hidden beneath the surface. Communities are built on trust; trust needs to be earned; action and connection earn trust. Having the largest country representation and the most diverse pool of attendees and speakers doesn’t happen organically. It requires a well thought out set of programs and initiatives running year-round, and building long-lasting relations.

It also requires establishing trade-offs by design. Opening the curatorial process to a fellows cohort means losing full control of the conference program, but empowers new and missing voices to lead conversations. Implementing an individual ticket review system increases the workload by a factor, but provides a safer space for participants, and creates additional attendance opportunities for underrepresented groups. Offering an uncapped amount of tickets to those who can afford to commit to attend early on will always result in the most vulnerable groups being a minority. Commonly used promotions, like early bird tickets, may only be fomenting this problem.

Trade-offs create the conditions required for our tools to operate efficiently. We would like to be able to offer individual solutions to personal circumstances, but we take our processes very seriously to guarantee the best experience to our community, with what limited resources we have.

Communications, design and community initiatives are still underrated in the Internet Freedom space. Many of our fundraising efforts are met with “we don’t fund events” — a very narrow view of the Internet Freedom Festival, and of events at large. Using technology terms, you can’t run an app without investing in a server. That’s where the necessary exchange of information takes place. Community development is the equivalent of infrastructure development, and events are at the heart of it.

Thanks to the contributions from our fantastic partners, supporters and individual donors, we are the only organization in the field focusing entirely on community development efforts. But, our current resources can’t meet the growing demands. So we’ll keep doing what we’re good at: hacking. Not hacking the way that many of you do, but hacking the physical world in order to generate the resources that we are currently missing.

As we approach the 5th anniversary of the Internet Freedom Festival, we have entered a period of reflection. Traditional growth is based on centralization, but as a community-driven organization, we’ll always favor collaborative approaches.

Now, the question is: Do we need a bigger tent, or should we open a campsite?

In the next few weeks I’ll be hosting a Glitter Meetup, our weekly virtual community gatherings, to share more about a “campsite growth model” for the Internet Freedom Festival. I would like to hear your thoughts and transform the energy that’s currently overflowing our inbox into action. If you would like to join the conversation, subscribe to the IFF Newsletter and follow InternetFF on Twitter to receive an update when the date is set.

In the meantime, you can always reach me and the IFF team here.

Pepe Borrás,
Co-founder and Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Festival