(I went to BarCampScotland in February 2008; and this is a summary of what I wrote about it elsewhere – because I intend to refer to some of the topics here in a couple of other posts.)
I hadn’t been to BarCamp before, and I didn’t really know what to expect. There was a fair bit of interesting stuff going on, some interesting people there, and, best of all, some interesting conversations.
BarCamp is a self-organising conference; before the event, I thought of it as a real-life wiki, and that still feels apt. It would have benefited by a little more organisation – and next time, I shall volunteer to add some of the things that I feel it missed. (I don’t feel I could criticise an event like this without putting my money where my mouth is) I contributed by asking questions and participating in the discussions.
The way BarCamp works (or did this time!) is that anyone who wants to run a session puts there name down on a list, and everyone else decides whether they want to go to that session or not.
AboyneJames discussed dataportability – why we should be interested in how are data is being used, and what we can do to promote its use in ways we find valuable. His idea is to make our data more available so that other organisations can use it to produce products that reflect our individual needs – he later spoke more specifically about mepath.com acting as a data intermediary. (By the way, James’ session worked well because the university’s technology wasn’t working properly: so the small audience had to huddle around his laptop, and we all felt really involved in the debate. Technology can create barriers as easily as it can breach them). This was an interesting discussion because James is coming from a completely different direction to me: I don’t want organisations having my data – I prefer to keep my data to myself:
Ewan Spence was, I think, one of the key voices of the whole weekend. He filled an empty silence on Friday when he improvised a talk on interactivity (so 10/10 for making the effort), he was a pervasive presence on Saturday – photographing, videoing, podcasting, and talking to anyone and everyone – and he gave a very entertaining talk last thing on Saturday, when everyone was flagging. On Friday, he spoke about interactivity. His thesis on Friday was that the 20th century will appear as an anomaly: before broadcasting, people made they’re own entertainment (all that sitting around the piano…), and after it the web could make everyone creative, since everyone could produce content. I am not sure if watching a video of Ewan give a presentation at BarCamp actually is interactive – it is how I react to it that makes it interactive, and for an awful lot of content out there, people are just watching it like they watch TV. The web does give anyone the opportunity to create content – just like me – but I don’t necessarily see it as interactive. The real difficulty becomes the balance of quantity and quality – as Ewan said, looking for quality will require very good search; but he also felt that the cream would rise. Me, I’m not so sure.
Jon Mountjoy lead a discussion about the role of community in Web 2.0 – how, with millions of websites fighting for our attention, communities can create more loyalty for a website. There was debate about what a community actually is – people with a shared passion, a sense of membership, a shared emotional connection. I am not sure I get it [I still don’t – and I’ll follow up on this!]– and it might be because I am happy getting by without a real sense of community, or because I use different words for the same things, or because I think the word is so misused by politicians and advertisers – when I used the Heathrow Express, I remember a Vodafone ad that said “Welcome to the world’s biggest mobile community!”. It made me think of a caravan of gypsies. [There is now even a Minister for Communities, and I am pretty certain that Hazel Blears’ means something very different to me by the word “community”.]
Later, Jon and I talked some more; he feels is that online communities are hugely enriched and strengthened by real-life contact, which increases the feeling of trust and reputation needed to build a genuine community. This is a very interesting aspect – whatever happens on the internet, it seems we still really the human touch. Jon’s job is in managing online communities (a job I wouldn’t have guessed existed).
Another product demonstration: Linguit Wikipedia search engine. I use Wikipedia a lot; I contribute, too (though not much recently) – I think it is a great idea. And I was really annoyed that Linguit were using Wikipedia to generate revenue: I felt that this resource was created by a great many people giving their time for free, and Linguit were free-riding. Thing is, they weren’t: it is just that they left it to the end to explain that the search engine – which looked like it worked really well – was a free demonstration of their “natural language programming”. There is a big lesson for me here – think carefully about how you are positioning a presentation: because once they explained that their search engine was free, , they won me over.
The next talk I went to taught me that in a technology conference, the best presentations forget about the technology. Hugh Hancock, who runs StrangeCompany, a machinamina developer, spoke without any technology intervention about technology: his talk was entitled “Catching Mice With Webcams”, and he spoke about how we take for granted things that happen by accident with technology. Unintended uses of technology, I guess. He was a very entertaining talker. The areas he covered were webcams – which he used to track the mice in his kitchen (and a prize for the best bad joke of the weekend to Hugh for his description of mouse-traps as “weapons of mice destruction”); virtual tourism; accidental learning (mainly in gaming); exercising games; and technological cookery. I didn’t buy it all, but it was a really stimulating session. And not a powerpoint slide or website in sight!
Ewan Spence closed my attendance at BarCamp with a double session, entitled “Social Gaming, Web 2.0 and Freedom of Expression”. He didn’t really cover that, but it was a very entertaining session, thought provoking, interactive – and he taught us a card game. He started off by questioning our understanding of games, then our understanding of Web 2.0, and what he meant by social gaming. This really came back to communities – a bunch of people with a shared interest, playing a game in the pub; or ten million people who play World of Warcraft. (I don’t, but a large number of people do.) He introduced us to a card game called Fluxx, where the rules of the game are determined within the game itself – a form of game play apparently called nomic (sic).
Then we built one of our own: one thousand blank white cards, which we proceeded to play. This was great fun, though since it was the first time that most people there had played, it was also pretty confusing.
It seemed apt that Ewan closed the BarCamp, since he had been a dominant, irrepressible personality over the previous day and a half.
All in all, I thought BarCamp was great – I loved the “hey! let’s do the show right here!” aspect of it, I had some great conversations, I met some fascinating people. I was made to think a lot. But… I couldn’t help thinking that like the internet itself, there was a lot of content but it could have done with some more analysis. The sessions that really worked for me were those that promoted discussion – that were interactive with the audience. This prompted me to think what was missing, what could be done to improve it: I wanted some sessions about what this all actually meant – for me, as a user of the internet: what is going to change? What will we be doing with this stuff next year, in five years? What’s going to happen next? I left with a lot of questions in my head.
So next year, at the next BarCamp Scotland, I guess I will need to run a session or two posing these questions, and engaging in the debate that follows. If anyone turns up…