how do barcamps work then?

Notwithstanding having read some of the received wisdom (here, here and here for example), I am a barcamp newbie (have only been to one other, beside barcamp scotland 2009 on Saturday). So I thought I’d reflect on things observed thus far – may as well try & learn as I go along. After all, the opportunity/risk of running one might arise…

A fair amount of what follows may involve comparing aspects of one event with the other. This shouldn’t be taken as any form of summative assessment at all. Rather it’s just a way of teasing out learning points.

What did I do on Saturday then? First did a v minor bit of lending a hand, then chatted a bit, while others finished getting things set up. Then listened to the general briefing on how it works, and signed up to kick off an early session. Gave my session, then grazed a bit at one on social networking in business environments. Then went to part of a session on something I knew nothing about (had heard sometime ago that one should absolutely do this at any conference you attend). Then spent most of the afternoon chatting in congenial company (You Know Who You Are – invidious to name names etc etc) – missed what counted for the day’s Keynote Presentation as a result. Later, participated in the first half of a discussion on how to recognise an online community if you meet one. Nearly finally, went to a session on managing multiple online personae. Then the last, plenary round-up. Missed the post-camp drinks, as other RL social networking commitments then took over…

Reflections (in no order of priority/logic):

  • size of venue in relation to number of participants. The London event was relatively tightly packed in to its space, and perhaps as a result you couldn’t really move without inter-acting with someone. It felt buzzy (first timer experience?). Meanwhile we had plenty of room in Edinburgh. At times things felt a bit diffuse.
  • Venue layout. In London the workshop rooms were all visible from the main space, and no sessions actually took place in the main space – this would have been impossible. The workshop rooms were all laid out in round table format – no raked rows of fixed seats as we had in the Edinburgh lecture theatres. Layout here obviously impacts on amount of inter-action and its characteristics (discussion vs Q&A)
  • extent to which event was topic-focused. The London event had a relatively clear and specific focus (the Gov’t webby agenda) while the Edinburgh event catered for multiple & diverse topics. Associated with its limited focus the London event had (by chance) a clear delineated context (the Power of Information Task Force Report, along with gov’t & digital engagement).
  • Use of social media before (and after) the event. The degree of focus in London was also accentuated a bit, via the use of the ning group to explore (but not set in stone) topics for discussion on the day. You could also begin to identify the possible sessions you’d want to look out for, ask a question about them online etc. The standard barcamp wiki that we used in Edinburgh doesn’t perhaps lend itself to this, much. So you’re starting from cold, on the day. On the other hand, there were criticisms of the London event that it was moving away from the classic democratic barcamp model towards a more traditional multi-stream conference, where most us were consumers rather than producer-consumers (prosumers?). After the event, the twitter stream continued across the railway network on the way home, and the ning group has been used to canvas the potential for more than one sub-group or spin-off initiative. It’s too early to reflect on this point, for the Edinburgh event.
  • Assembling the agenda on the day. In London we were all given post-its to write our session offers on, while in Edinburgh we wrote directly onto the flip chart. The advantage of the post-its was that they allowed for easier re-grouping, where it emerged that more than one possible offering was available on any one topic or related-set of topics. This applied to timing within the day, too.
  • Presenting a session. We stood round in a gaggle, for the one I started, while later on people tended to sit down more (fatigue setting in?). For the facilitator, it’s quite different from a session where you are the only one standing(!) The boundaries of the group are more fluid, so it’s easier for participants to arrive unobtrusively, graze a bit, then move on if they wish. This was easier for both parties in Edinburgh than in London, where, despite clear advice at the beginning that moving on was OK and not personal, it felt harder as all were seated and leaving meant leaving the room as well as the circle. Within any given session, there’s also, naturally, a balance to be struck between sticking to your topic and dragging discussion back to it, and allowing (more or less distantly) related points to be raised and considered.
  • when to present during the day. There’s a skill here, if you have a message that you do want to get across – like fixing the order of a meeting agenda so that the important items do get a proper seeing to. I think I went early (partly because no one else was at the time) in order to dive in. But by the end, people had mentally moved on and their attention had been taken up by other issues. Some sort of poster wall might help, in terms of providing a reference and reminder point during the day. A digital equivalent of this would need considered too.

Well, quite enough for now, but maybe more learning points will emerge from further reflection. What were your main takeaways from barcamps you’ve been to?

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