On Thursday and Friday, I took time off work to visit Bristol for the GNU Hackers' Meeting 2008. Around 20 people attended - obviously these were all people contributing to GNU, but (surprisingly) I didn't feel too much like I was surrounded by giants. Instead, it was all quite relaxed; most people there seemed rather like me - with a mild caffeine addiction, permanently short of spare time, and just trying to improve their small projects as best they could.
The impression I have of the GNU project after this meeting is one of a disparate organization with many small contributors; it is clear we have massive communication problems, both internally and externally. From the outside, I suppose GNU looks like a monolithic, perhaps US-centric project, with the strong leadership at the top controlling the direction of all these sub-projects. In reality, these sub-projects are more or less autonomous. There may be some checking at the centre that no two GNU programs are directly competing to solve the same problem, but the maintainers are largely on their own, struggling to build up whatever community of contributors they can. The feeling of isolation is much greater than in Debian, for instance - there, although package maintainers generally have some sort of authority over "their" packages, you will get bug reports filed if you are not following Debian policy, and you are expected to observe common freeze periods around releases. There are no real equivalents in GNU.
So naturally, considering the amount we had in common, this meeting was always going to be a success. It was very well run by Brian Gough, and there was just the right amount of structure versus "corridor time" (although everything took place in a single room, except for lunch/pub). There were a few talks from people about the projects they were working on - for instance, a nice game called GNU FreeDink, although I need to fix a segmentation fault to progress any further in level 2, and a very impressive sound generation program called Psycosynth.
It was suggested that a UK-only GNU hackers' meeting could be organised sometime, which I think would also work very well. Simply meeting up like this every once in a while was quite inspiring; I much prefer developer-oriented meetings over user-oriented meetings, and this was one of the best.