Camps and Unconferences – What and How

Over the last year or so I have been to a few dozen camps (mediacamp, socialmediacamp, homecamp, …) and unconferences, but I realised that I’ve never explained the concept or how they work. This post should straighten that out.

What is a Barcamp? What is an Unconference?

It is a little hard to explain, or rather it is easier to understand when you experience it. Traditional conferences involve a few dozen experts presenting to an audience of several dozen listeners. That might be good if the listeners are new to the topic and all want to learn the same thing, and that is well understood.

What if the room is full of people who are almost equally experts? What if the organisers don’t know what people want to know? That is when an unconference comes in to its own. Imagine an environment where everyone is expected to be an organiser, and where the agenda is decided on the day. That is essentially what an unconference is. Lightweight organization, and extensive participation.

BarCamp is most easily understood as a specific type of unconference. It is more complex than that, and there is quite a bit of history/lore to it. A number of years ago O’Reilly set up a conference for the Friends Of O’Reilly (FOO) who were doing interesting things (Foo Camp). And rather cool it was too. However, not everyone could go. People wanted an alternative. Foobar is a common placeholder name in computing circles. Foobar camp with out the FOO is clearly a bar camp. Or something like that.

The concept goes back quite a way – a least to Harrison Owen’s book Open Space Technology (1997) – see for more on that. The Open Space methodology is similar, although the ideas are a little different (see wikipedia entries for Unconference and BarCamp).

What should you expect when you go to a barcamp? That question is nicely answered here. It isn’t as scary as it might sound. You’ll meet new people, learn somethings, and have to opportunity to share some of what you know (which is more than you think)!

How do I Run an Unconference or Barcamp?

Darren Barefoot of Capulet Communications has a nice post on how to run a great barcamp. The venerable post on clever clever girl is good too: Ten Steps to Organizing a Barcamp. There are even more resources on the event manager’s blog: 20+ resources for a smooth BarCamp.

That said, this is one instance where doing is the best form of learning. Go along to a few barcamps and see what works and what doesn’t. Get involved in helping to run an existing camp or unconference with people who have done it before. With that learning under your belt, you’ll be ready to have a go yourself, assuming you are already a good facilitator.

(other pointers gratefully received… Crowdsourcing is good, usually).

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