I discovered the Sisters of Mercy when I was 13 or 14. Their songs tore holes in the fabric of the universe and set worlds on fire.
By the time I was 18, the Sisters of Mercy had retired from cosmological pyromania to the relative comfort of simply being a good band. I still went to see them twice that year.
The first show I saw, at the Riviera nightclub in Chicago, went way above and beyond the call of duty for a good band. They threw my brain in a blender, mixed it with the nectar of the gods, and served it back to me as a smoothie.
The second performance I saw, at the Alpine Valley stadium near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, embarassed me and nearly had me snoring. The Sisters sucked that time. The highlight of that show was Public Enemy. The industrial/goth/synth/rock band and the Afrocentric revolutionary rap group were doing a combined world tour.
Most people I knew were baffled by this, but these were my two favorite groups, so I was in heaven. Or at least, I'd been expecting to be in heaven. I'd been in heaven before the show anticipating it. When the time came, Public Enemy were great, but the Sisters had sound problems throughout their set and basically just looked ridiculous and incompetent.
Another very real difference was the vibe. People who went to shows at the Riv went to lots of shows; people who went to shows at Alpine Valley were much more driven by a band's popularity than by a genuine love of music. When you and a few hundred other passionate music lovers share a whirlwind generated by your favorite band's amazing performance, that's a much better experience than watching your favorite band fail miserably in front of thousands of people who don't really care one way or another.
End of story. Back to the future:
Last year, I went to Canada on Rails, a tiny, 100-person(-ish) conference in Vancouver. This year, I went to RailsConf, a 1600-person mega-huge-type-thing in Portland.
I hope you can see where this is going.
At Canada on Rails, DHH had a response for his critics.
It was brave; it was bold; it was funny. There was some filler, but the overall vibe was one of excitement and rebellion. There was a powerful feeling that something was really happening.
At RailsConf, DHH told us all a bunch of stuff we already knew - or at least, those of us who read Ryan Daigle's blog or stay up to date with Edge Rails - and during the one time he coded something onstage, he introduced a bug. He got the code of his own framework wrong. That wasn't quite the same as watching the Sisters of Mercy trying to perform onstage while their monitors kept losing power, but it did feel kind of familiar.
Canada on Rails wasn't quite the Riv, and RailsConf wasn't quite Alpine Valley, but it was a similar type of difference. Canada on Rails drew people who knew they were onto something new and amazing; RailsConf drew people like that, and also drew people who had seen DHH in BusinessWeek, Wired, or the Linux Journal.
The star of the show at RailsConf, as far as I'm concerned, was Avi Bryant, the Public Enemy to DHH's Sisters of Mercy. The most interesting part of both events was the counterintuitive support act. Although I saw a ton of great presentations, the more beginner-oriented stuff was less exciting, and a tiny, tiny smidgen of the nasty, childish arrogance the Rails community sometimes falls prey to was, unfortunately, present in attendance as well.
Obviously I'm using the analogy of the teenager who tells you that Band X was cooler when nobody had ever heard of them, and obviously that teenager is an annoying little brat. I know because I was that brat, and when I was that brat, I annoyed people. It was fun!
Here's what that brat knows. You get that kid together with a hundred other similar kids and one awesome band, you'll have a better party than you'd have with any number of regular people and the same band.
Technical conferences aren't concerts, but they are social occasions, so please pardon the conceit. The analogy is a stretch, I know. My only point is that a smaller conference might actually be a better experience than a larger one, under certain circumstances.
The Pragmatic Studio organize an additional, smaller Rails conference, called the Rails Edge. From the site:
Everyone using Rails is on a continuous learning cycle—experts and novices alike. The Rails Edge is a unique conference where we bring some of the best minds in the Rails and Ruby communities together with you in a single-track environment, so that we can all sharpen our edge.
If the beginner sessions at RailsConf seemed kind of pointless to you, you might want to check this out. I'm definitely interested (although not sure I can make it). You're probably looking at a smarter and more genuinely invested crowd at this mini-conference than you'd see at a larger event, and that's probably a tremendous advantage.