published at 9:10am on 10/04/06
This past weekend I had the wonderful experience of watching the BarCampNYC2 event that I had helped organize finally come to fruition. When I attended the first New York City BarCamp in January (almost a lifetime ago with the way 2006 has been progressing thus far), I ended up having such a fantastic time at the event that I decided that I would help make the next BarCampNYC happen.
The interesting thing about the organizational aspects of a BarCamp (or any conference that utilizes some or all of the Open Space Technology techniques) is that the seemingly ad hoc, un-conference is actually planned out to nearly every last detail up until and during the event. Though the structure ends up being fairly loose for the conference attendees, and though the dynamic and the structure of the day may change at any given moment, there is always a team of people at the helm, steering the anarchy, ensuring that it ends up at (or even near) intended goal.
There is plenty to be said about what went right at the event, what went wrong, what could have been done better, and much of that is already broken down on the post mortem page, but I wanted to explore a bit the main thing that I noticed which was this very different “buzz” in the air compared to the first New York City BarCamp, which I will attribute to three things: Space, Communication and Context.
This BarCamp event was held at the Microsoft offices in Midtown Manhattan and the office was absolutely lovely to us, and they definitely just helped to ensure that the event could happen at all (namely, it was one of the only spaces, if not the only one, that allowed overnight stay for the campers). As the company’s sales offices, the space was a collection of conference rooms, surrounding a couple of center common areas, which ends up being perfect for an event like this where you want to be able to mingle with people in-between sessions. I think the only downside to the physical space itself was that there was actually just too much of it. Everyone was able, if they wanted, to find their own corner in which to hide, and I noticed many people grouping off, many times with the people with whom they arrived, and tucking away into a side room or down a hallway, never interacting with other participants.
Now if we were to fully embrace the spirit of BarCamp, we would argue that people are allowed to make of the conference what they will and should be allowed to tuck off into a corner if that’s how they feel they will best experience the event, but at the same time, I would argue that we are going to have to filter out people who are just not interested in fully participating, and participation is a large component of why one would attend, and why the sponsors are paying for, a BarCamp.
Which actually brings me to the next point about the space itself: the draw. The draw that the name “Microsoft” has versus a secret meeting place in downtown Manhattan (which is how the first event was billed) is markedly different. I will simply offer the shoe closet as an example of this difference: I decided not to wear my black, Chuck Taylor Converse All Star sneakers to this event for fear that they would get lost in the pile of other hipster shoes, but what I found instead was a collection of sensible sneakers and loafers, indicating a very different crowd than the one I was expecting. I will not want to blame the space entirely for this, but I do think that an event in Midtown Manhattan will bring in a very different demographic than a downtown one.
In addition, the space brings with it its own group of attendees. When I arrived to set up on Saturday morning I encountered a cluster of MS employees sitting together in the main lounge area. This was a group of engineers who, from all outside appearances, had no idea what they were doing at this event, and were not actually interested in embracing the (arguably froofy) underlying motivations behind BarCamp. One individual had gone as far as to, with a smirk, fill out his nametag “I am a MAN, I am interested in SEX” (the “I am a…” and “I am interested in…” were pre-printed on the name tags). To me, that small gesture, along with the aforementioned exclusivity, and the behavior I witnessed in the actual presentation sessions, was indicative not of any personal shortcoming, but simple a failure to truly internalize, before the event, the type of event a BarCamp really is.
Which of course brings us to my second point, which is one of communication, which I do believe was lacking on the part of the organizers. Again, while an event like this is supposed to be organic, there is some point at which the people making it all happen have to take a step back to see what the attendees are actually seeing and to help get them as engaged as possible leading up to the actual event. In our attempt to keep things loose and free, I think that we missed an opportunity to actually get our hooks into people and make them really excited for BarCamp.
I think the primary shortcoming was simply in making sure that people knew what BarCamp is all about, at least in the broadest sense. While we were immersed in the day-to-day planning of the event, the participants simply had the event website to get all of their information, and up until the event (and even now) the site does not really convey what BarCamp is all about or why you might want to attend. It did not emphasize the attitude that you need to bring to the table in order to really have fun, and I think that it put too much emphasis on one particular part of the participation mantra, namely that everyone needs to present. It did not actively encourage people to help with another presentation or help lead a panel discussion (instead of just leading the typical slides-and-lecture style talk), which resulted in, anecdotally at least, in a number of people not attending simply because they didn’t have a full understanding of what was expected from them.
Finally, there is the matter of context, in a more societal sense, and I don’t think that anyone actually had control over this part of the day. We are eight months down the road from the last BarCamp event, and a lot in the world has changed. A lot of the people who were looking for work, who were exploring projects on their own or who were just starting their own companies are now solidly entrenched in the daily day-to-day of the work, and when that happens, a lot of the gleam can come off of one’s vision of the world. And instead of being stuck in the middle of winter, with the prospect of spring on the horizon, we are now at the end of the summer, with only the prospect of a cold and rainy autumn on the horizon, which too affects the overall mood of the participants. Again, this context was mostly unavoidable, and I’d be curious to know if there could have been any way of harnessing it, but I think that it’s important to at least acknowledge its existence as an outside influence.
BarCamp is a free event, and while it is open to all, it is really only open to people who are open to it. Attendees who are not ready to experience it, and who are not willing to let go of their preconceived notions of what a technology conference should look like will not only have a bad time, but will also bring down the buzz of everyone around them. While I do not think that this happened at this event, but I do feel like the energy level was not as high as it potentially could have been. I firmly believe that the un-conference aspect of the event applies to the planning of it as well, and I am excited to take the lessons that we learned this time and apply them to future BarCamps, either in NYC or beyond.
Filed under: Observations