Issue #22 August 2006

Belly up to the BarCamp

by Bascha Harris

160 geeks descended on Red Hat headquarters this July for an educational experience--but they entered the event without a schedule, a list of sessions, or an admission fee. Red Hat provided the space. Organizers and participants came bearing routers and other donated items. This was BarCamp, and they were counting on their companions to bring the expertise that would turn this gathering into a conference. Or unconference, as they say.

Grassroots organization isn't just for politics anymore.

A BarCamp is the equivalent of an intellectual swap meet. Everybody brings something to the table, whether it's the web server trouble they diagnosed and defeated last week... or the ability to juggle five pins while holding an instructional conversation.

Since the attendees provide the knowledge, you just need a handful of really smart people to organize for the event, invite the people, and secure a site. RDU's organizing committee included enthusiastic experts from ibiblio.org and the local technology community. This committee also solicited sponsorships that covered food and drinks, a nifty t-shirt, and a pre-event party at a local watering hole.

The collaborative organization and sign-up process happened in real-time on the BarCamp wiki. Participants added their name to the list and noted any equipment they could bring. Campers also floated ideas for sessions they would teach or would enjoy being taught.

Paul Jones, Director of ibiblio and one of the organizers of the RDU event, said, "The BarCamp hints, shared information, and shared communications resources really helped make things easier."

Once the guest list was full and donations secured, the organizers divided the available rooms into mini-classrooms, some large and some small. They created a map and a big, blank schedule.

The day was divided up into hour-long sessions, with a big group meeting in the morning to submit and vote on session topics. The most popular sessions were quickly taped to the schedule. Once the first draft was posted, campers marked the sessions they were most likely to attend--hash marks in permanent marker right on the posted paper. While everyone mingled with coffee and snacks, organizers re-shuffled each hour's courses to best fit the rooms. And then it was on.

One of the things I'd been told to expect at BarCamp was a wide variety of topics. Some every bit as tech-heavy as one might expect ('Linux System Adminstration,' or 'Scaling web applications on free software'), and others delightfully different. Take 'Sex and advertising,' for example. Not something you'd see on the list at the next LinuxWorld, perhaps, but then you would have missed the insights of a very savvy guy who happens to know a lot about hosting and promoting a business that is already largely online.

BarCamp also offered some lighter fare--a way to break up heavy-hitting technical talks. This was so popular that an hour-long juggling session turned into an all-day amusement. The fellow who offered the expertise and equipment ended up giving his talk twice. Every time I saw him he had several objects in mid-air.

The level of activity was always high. Nearly everyone came bearing a laptop or PDA. Many gathered in various chatrooms, or were furiously sending email from one session to another. Some talks looked just like a big conference--expert at the front of the room, alert attendees taking notes. But then you'd see 10 campers in a tiny room clustered around a glowing screen. They've turned off the lights and they're all chattering, trading ideas, and asking questions as a new application is demonstrated.

Jones said, "BarCamps are more like the very useful birds of a feather than a conventional conference. Less expert at the head of the room reading a script and more questions and interactions, more what we're used to on the net in general."

The ability to adapt the curriculum and the schedule on-the-fly tailors the conference to whatever audience attends that day. BarCamp was able to take advantage of present experts. And the informal setting seemed to blur the line between speaker and attendee, turning sessions into discussions, adding more viewpoints and, ultimately, more robust information.

At BarCamp--like in open source development and in design thinking--the best ideas win.

So where did BarCamp come from?

BarCamp sprung up in complement to a more exclusive conference that Tim O'Reilly (of O'Reilly Media, Inc) hosts once a year. O'Reilly's verison is limited--it's just one conference, and only invited guests can attend. O'Reilly's FooCamp had grown so popular that the guest list was trimmed, and some of the former attendees decided that the concept had a more universal appeal. Thus, an open-ended version of FooCamp was born... and what could it be named but BarCamp. BarCamp has the same limitations as FooCamp--namely, space. But instead of just one BarCamp, there are many, with new ones cropping up every week.

"Foo is more or less spontaneous but there were also quite a few folks who had their talks in the can. Some were dry runs for the upcoming etech conference (I went to both.). Of course the feel was quite different, as most of the folks at Foo came from all over. BarCamps tend to be more local or regional. You will see the presenters and attendees again. Maybe next week," Jones said.

How did BarCamp happen in RDU?

Jones received an invitation to the first FooCamp but couldn't attend. He sent Fred Stutzman, then a student employee at ibiblio, in his place. Stutzman loved the idea, and, at his encouragement, Jones accepted the invitation himself the following year. It comes as no surprise, then, that those two were instrumental in bringing BarCamp to the Triangle.

"I just thought it would be cool to bring together a wide range of people for the day. We've got so many different skillsets and interests in the Triangle, I just sort of knew that the cross-pollination that would occur in a BarCamp context would work well. Also, as a broke graduate student, I can't afford to attend many conferences--so I figured, why not just bring one here?" Stutzman said.

Fred Stutzman leads a session at BarCamp RDU.

Jones echoed Stutzman's sentiment. "BarCamp works great in a community like the Triangle that has skillful and experienced folks with the ability to be creative and inclusive in small meeting spaces."

160 attendees, 49 sessions, many hours, and several glowing reviews later... the camp was a success.

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Stutzman is already looking forward to doing it again. "I know we'll do this big bash at least yearly. There may be smaller, discipline-oriented unconferences in the BarCamp format cropping up in the area. And I hope to see others adopt the unconference format. This format works for all sorts of conferences--it doesn't just have to be tech-oriented."

Ready to get a BarCamp started on your area? Stutzman's posted advice for planning a BarCamp on his blog. It doesn't get more grassroots than that.

More information

About the author

Bascha Harris is an editor and web developer at Red Hat. Prior to donning the fedora, she cut her web teeth working for Paul Jones at ibiblio.org. When she's not glued to a web browser, she's pursuing the art of home improvement, trying to figure out where she unpacked the pasta pots, or sitting on the dock at the lake, watching the sun go down. (Woo-hoo, kids, it's summer vacation time!)