It seemed to be an average technology conference. A hundred some web geeks gathering for a weekend of presentations and discussion at a loft-like office space in lower Manhattan. And yet, BarCamp NYC (New York City), a recent incarnation of the BarCamp “un-conferences,” was about as far as you could get from a traditional conference.
The BarCamp venue was a tangle of laptops, sleeping bags, food containers, stacks of Red Bull, and notes taped to wall space not already occupied by screen projections. The constant crisscross of discussions and presentations (of which it often was hard to tell one from the other) would likely be jarring to the uninitiated, like an orchestra musician encountering a jazz improv session for the first time.
Think of BarCamp as the open-source equivalent to a traditional conference, in which top-down planning is replaced with bottom-up self-organizational models. Instead of having committees planning the event, selecting presentations, and then charging attendance fees, the only price for attending a BarCamp is participation. Attendees have to either give a presentation or help out with one. That simple rule lends momentum to an overall sense of ownership on the part of each who attend, which in turn, fuels a desire to participate far beyond doing presentations.
At the same time, even BarCamps need an initial seed effort. At the NYC event, Amit Gupta headed up a group of volunteers who did the initial heavy lifting to provide the core ingredients of a BarCamp: a space to hang out, a decent Wi-Fi connection, and some food. In the spirit of making the event as low-cost as possible, the daytime space doubled as accommodations for out-of-towners. Describing group-effort auto-pilot in action, Amit writes that organizers “didn’t give any instructions on what to do or where to go. Everyone just figured it out on their own, found a space when they got tired, and bedded down. In the morning, people got up, showered, and were ready by 10 or 11. Again, no direction, no alarms, people took care of themselves and each other.”
Similarly, the un-conference approach to scheduling presentations was also a community effort. Attendees were encouraged to arrive early to “get a slot on the wall,” which is BarCamp-speak for the self-organizing event scheduler. At the NYC event, this took the form a Day/Time/Room grid taped up on a wall, onto which people slapped sheets of paper with their (sometimes barely legible) presentation names in whatever slots remained open. Presentations ranged from down-and-dirty coding discussions about new or on-the-horizon tools, such as FeedPile and ideaShrub, to more activist-leaning talks with titles such as “Build your own TiVo (Myth TV) to beat the evil broadcast flag” or the more light-hearted, like “Getting your girlfriend the ‘best present ever!’ using OSS.” Below a presentation titled “Social Networks,” someone had added the presentation “Subverting Social Networks.” Very BarCamp indeed.
Chris Messina, open-source evangelist, and a co-organizer of the original BarCamp (held in Palo Alto in the fall of 2005) describes the BarCamp experience as being “emergent… in totality. The events happen in communities — and are organized by the community members *for* the community.” His presentation, “Flock, Micro formats, and Open source world domination,” was representative of the tenor of the event, intermingling intricately detailed technical discussion with larger social themes, such as the win-win proposition of sharing as much of your work as possible with as many people as possible.
Chris used his work on the Flock browser as a springboard for discussing how users can more easily create web content and engage with other users. Describing the traditional bookmarking model for maintaining a personal web history as “stupid and unintuitive,” he presented the Flock model, which takes a Gmail-like approach, indexing every page the users visits. Then, rather than having to dig through long lists of bookmarks to find the URL of that cool page you looked at last month, you can instead just search your web history to find it.
Exemplifying the playfully rebellious undertone of several presentations were Brandon Stafford and Mike Goelzer, in their presentation “Making the entire web as unreliable as Wikipedia.” They talked about a very-much-in-progress model for allowing visitors of a web page to view an alternate version of the page—written not by the original author but by someone who is part of your “micro culture,” and whose opinion you’ve defined as preferable to that of the original author. Admitting the concept definitely needed some work, they described it as an attempt to “take back the web” by allowing users to, at least in a limited way, turn the entire web into a wiki.
Other great presentations included a talk by Nick Gray on empowering individuals to get their development projects implemented on the cheap using offshoring. Generally associated with how big corporations lower labor costs, Nick described a peer-to-peer version of offshoring, made possible by services such as RentACoder, from which one can find a programmer in, say, Ghana, to build an entire application for under $1,500, or even get small jobs done for as little as $10. Many of those attending initially responded with disbelief at the idea of getting even a single line of code written for $10, until we realized that this amount may in fact be a lot more money in other parts of the world.
Some presentations took on more of a sideshow-attraction feel, such as Matt Pelettier’s lunch-time challenge for anyone in the audience to pick an application for him to build in 15 minutes using the Ruby on Rails programming language. “What do you want me to build?” he asked defiantly. “Build something that searches craigslist for New York City apartments,” someone in the crowd proposed. Sure enough, fifteen-ish minutes later lists of outrageously priced Manhattan apartments from craigslist appeared on his laptop.
Saying that BarCamp NYC was a huge success is an understatement. Interest in the event was so high that the organizers had to keep the location of the event secret, only doling it out to the first 100 or so that signed up. The event buzz was in part thanks to a self-perpetuating marketing strategy similar to how the event itself was run: plant a small seed and then let community forces take over. It involved asking a few respected bloggers to write about the event, and then let news spread via word-of-blog. At the same time, a lot of free BarCamp buzz also came by way of its predecessor, Foo Camp.
Created by O’Reilly Books founder Tim O’Reilly, Foo Camp originated the unstructured event concept on which BarCamp is based, with a key difference being that Foo Camp is invitation-only. Due to an “in-hindsight-fortuitous miscommunication,” web-standards evangelist Tantek Celik thought he hadn’t been invited back to Foo Camp 2005, which led him to create an alternate open-to-all event, setting in motion what led to the first BarCamp. (By the time he learned he in fact had been invited, BarCamp planning was well underway.)
More than just an alternative model for facilitating a rich exchange of ideas, BarCamp seems to represent a generational break from conventional professional gatherings. They usually take a year or so to plan, cost tens of thousands of dollars to execute, often have some corporate backing, and are mostly planned over email. In contrast, the first BarCamp was put together in about six days, mostly via instant messaging, SMS, and ad-hoc wikis, for a cost of about $1,500, which is less than the price of a single ticket to some of the more high-end tech conferences. Stripped away are the constructs adopted by major conferences from academia, such as keynotes, posters, formal calls for papers, and peer reviews. Gone too is the presenter/attendee divide, where those not giving talks too often are passive spectators, except maybe for the occasional end-of-talk Q&A.
That model certainly has its place. Some people just want to go to a conference and listen to leaders in their field speak (and maybe get their two cents in during a 5-minute madness session.) But the detrimental side effect of this is one of virtually the same A-listers disseminating to the flock year after year. And this where BarCamp provides a democratizing alternative, where talking is just as important as listening.
The informal feel of the event also makes people less concerned about presenting fully developed ideas, instead, increasing the comfort-level of throwing out off-the-wall ideas just to see what the response is. And by the same virtue, an audience who, in a more formal setting, might politely listen quietly to a not-so-great presentation, is more comfortable speaking up, maybe even turning the presentation into a workshop to see how a bad idea can be turned into a good one.
As of this writing, at least three more BarCamps are being planned. In addition, several spin-offs are in the works, including WineCamp, in which developers mingle with non-profits at a vineyard to explore how one can support the other. As with BarCamp NYC, the events have been mostly technology-centric. But there is of course no reason why this low-cost, yet amazingly fruitful, event model can’t be applied toward IA and UX-oriented events. In fact, because the work of user experience professionals is so much about listening to and communicating with technology and business groups, an event where everyone presents and participates seems tailor-made for this field. At least one such event already is being planned, with Dave Heller heading up the planning of UXCampNYC, expected to take place sometime in May.