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PodCamp DC: Should We Be Peeved?

Honestly, before we start, the answer from me is: I don’t know.

In the past few days, a few people have approached me wondering what I thought of PodCamp DC, which is ostensibly an unconference centered around podcasting and related techniques. The problem, it seems, is that PodCamp DC eschews the vast majority of the tenets of a BarCamp, while still parading the “camp” brand.

Full Disclosure

You know what they say about throwing stones in glass houses. Full disclosure: as an organizer of BarCamp DC, we did break some rules too, but we tried our darnedest to balance the rules with the incredibly high demand we found after announcing the event. I’ll defend all of those decisions, even in retrospect, but it wasn’t conferment to the platonic form of a BarCamp in the purest sense.

Is it a BarCamp?

So anyway, here are a couple of the problems one might have with PodCamp DC using the “Camp” moniker:

The schedule is already set

Not only is there already a detailed schedule, but there’s already a lineup of speakers to fill those slots. BarCamps are built around a lack of structure in, first and foremost, the schedule and the content. In almost all cases, the schedule is created that day. In many cases, all attendees participate as a speaker in some sense, though that seems flexible. In this case, it seems, most attendees will see this event structured in the same way most real conferences are structured.

Sponsors have big skin involved

Sponsorship levels are priced as high as $5000. This isn’t friendly support from an area company, this is a significant marketing strategy on the part of the sponsor. There will be sponsor logos on the stage, sponsored pieces of the official podcast and video, etc.

Should we care?

I don’t know. I know some other people are flat-out pissed about this. Maybe it’s that I’m not all that into podcasting as a strategy, so I don’t sweat it too much. But, if I’m playing devil’s advocate for a moment, here’s why I can imagine some people being a bit put off:

It reflects poorly on DC

We can’t exactly say that DC really gets it and then have a major event that uses a brand name and violates most major tenets behind that brand. I know that if I were from outside the area, and I saw this event, with the Camp on the name, I’d probably think that the region was a little JV when it came to the web. Since this is one of the community’s current challenges, it’s certainly not helpful to have stuff like this setting the mission back.

It might turn a profit

At $5000, $2500, or $1000 per sponsor, this event could legitimately be profitable. If someone profits significantly off the BarCamp name without adhering to the requirements, that could be grounds for being significantly disturbed.

It doesn’t jive with the license

If it’s legit, it appears there’s actually a license for using the PodCamp name. There are six rules required of those licensing the name, and at least two of them are being broken in this case. Rule one, requiring that all attendees be treated equally, is broken by having a set of speakers already in place. Rule three, that all attendees need to be participants, is broken by the same rule.

So, worth being pissed?

I dunno, you tell me. Are you going? Does it bother you? Does it bother you that other people are bothered?

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Avatar of M. Jackson Wilkinson

I'm M. Jackson Wilkinson, a technologist, designer, speaker, educator, and writer in San Francisco. I'm the Founder of Kinsights. I'm from Philadelphia, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, root for the Phillies, and love to sing.

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  1. Regarding critique of BarCamp DC, you’re right, we had to balance the anarchist nature of a BarCamp with the constraints of our very generously donated venue. We certainly could have done a better job of encouraging ad-hoc discussions, though.

    My biggest gripe with PodCamp DC is that the site clearly outlines what both a “podcamp” and an “unconference” are while, at the same time, presents a (seemingly) fixed agenda and speaker lineup. From the site:

    “PodCamp DC is a free UnConference […]”

    I will admit to having not contacted the organizers to ask them about this, so I’m unsure of where they’re coming from or what their goals are regarding the event. I do plan on attending, but I’m skeptical about the organizer’s motivations.

  2. Actually, PodCampBoston - run by Chris Brogan himself - was structured in a similar way.

    • The schedule was set in advance and sent out via email. I think they’re a bit different due to the sheer size of the operation (8 tracks, 700+ people), but I don’t think that’s a deal breaker. Of course, they ran into issues where a number of speakers didn’t show up. I was in 2-3 sessions that were canceled that way.

    • While I don’t know for sure, I suspect major $’s were making it happen. PCBoston was at the convention center just before VON. And I think the PodCamp rules takes this into account… “The financials of a PodCamp, including details about sponsorship money and how said funds were used, must be fully disclosed in an open ledger, to the PodCamp Foundation.”

    While I was surprised to see a number of things already on their schedule, I’m a little more annoyed that I haven’t seen anything along the lines of “here’s how slots are being filled”. Disclosure is the most important thing in my book.

  3. @Keith. Good point — perhaps transparency is the key thing in an “unconference” or “*Camp” event. I think that I’d seen a twitter post somewhere from someone announcing last call for speakers, and maybe that kind of thing is enough.

  4. It’s always great to question and keep an eye on such things, I agree.

    Christopher Penn and I started PodCamp based LOOSELY on the model of BarCamp. We attended BarCamp Boston, loved the feel, and wanted something for the podcasting/new media crowd, so we adopted the elements that worked best for us.

    If you swing by, you can see the 6 rules of PodCamp, which are required to call an event a PodCamp. One of those rules is an open ledger. Organizers have to show where the money goes, and what is done with the excess. In the case of Boston, we put our money back into the community by seeding some events, and by helping the cause overall.

    The unconference vs schedule thing is tricky. We consider it an unconference experience insofar as we put the grid up ahead of time, and the community volunteers sessions to fill it. We don’t do it on the day of, which is a BarCamp tradition, so yes, it comes off feeling structured and pre-planned.

    There’s a reason or two for that. One, it allows for a little more opportunity for folks who are contributing to collaborate, combine, and round out a conversation. Two, it allows for newcomers who might not be sure of these events to know at least a little of what’s going on.

    We compensate for the spontaneous by having these events in areas that have enough open space to permit impromptu sessions, which gives that dynamic feel back to the event.

    If you really want a sense of how it goes or doesn’t, swing by. There’ll be some great DC-area tech community folks you might not yet know, because they play more in the media side. I’m thinking either way, you’ll have fodder for a good blog post afterwards. :)

    —Chris Brogan, co-founder PodCamp (but has nothing to do with the DC event except to wish them well).

  5. There’s a third major reason for having a pre-arranged schedule: when you have 850 people at an event, no whiteboard is large enough to intelligently manage schedule change that rapidly. Wikis page lock, when you’d really need a database that could row lock - we had a really negative experience with that at PodCamp Boston 1, when it was only 300 people who showed up.

    Right now, DC has 260+ people registered, and the list is growing by about 15 people a day. Assuming things remain the same, we’ll have around 400 people registered by the time the event rolls around.

    On the rules - all attendees are equal. Everyone is given the chance to register as a speaker, and we also have one flash session room which is completely unscheduled - whoever shows up that decides on that day they’d like to speak is welcome to; we’re in the process of setting up an additional flash room if needed. Right now, we have a grid of about 72 slots for speakers, and we’ve filled 34 of them - all speaker requests are handled on a first come, first served basis. If anything, we’re having trouble getting people to speak at PodCamp DC.

    PodCamp has a different interpretation of the participation rule than BarCamp. BarCamp’s rule is no spectators - you MUST participate. PodCamp’s rule is that you must be ALLOWED to participate, but by no means do we compel you to.

    Finally - you’re 100% right that PodCamp is not a BarCamp. It was never intended to be, nor should it be. It’s a different animal. The BarCamps I’ve been to have been heavily focused on building skills within the developer community. PodCamp’s a different animal, focused more on bringing in new folks to the community who have had no exposure to what the new media community is doing. Having a little more structure helps them acclimate rather than really throw them into the lake.

    I’m happy to have you and anyone else be our guest at PodCamp DC to experience it for yourself, and as with all PodCamps, it’s your conference, so feel free to sign up as a session leader, or just do your own thing while there.

    Christopher Penn PodCamp Co-Founder PodCamp DC Co-Organizer

  6. @Chris and Christopher, thanks very much for commenting, and I can understand the need to deviate from the BarCamp model for logistical reasons when you are looking to get a large crowd.

    I think the only remaining issue would be around the understanding some folks have around the term “Camp,” and how that might be getting a bit overextended these days.

    Since the original two tech *Camps, FooCamp and BarCamp, were unconferences in the traditional sense (same-day scheduling, etc), and events like PodCamp have a name that harkens to those traditions (and indeed the PodCamp DC website cites the same-day-scheduling provision in its sidebar), is it perhaps misleading to an audience expecting a more traditional event based on the name and marketing copy?

    Should events that don’t follow the traditional expectations of an unconference or of a *Camp, but use one or both of those terms, not go a bit out of their way to clarify the extent to which they fulfill these expectations?

    I think that PodCamp DC’s website could certainly be a bit more clear what is and isn’t meant by “Camp” and “unconference,” and that would only serve to set expectations appropriately. That’s just good user experience practice in general.

    To be clear, I don’t have any objections to the event itself or its structure, and I love me some well-organized conferences as much as anyone, but I think that the copy could be a little more clear and transparent so as to ensure that potential attendees aren’t misled.

  7. I guess this issue I have is that *Camp is not a brand name at all, and thus it can be adopted by anyone- I have seen word press camp, transit camp, newbie camp, you name it. And not all unconferences are created equal, either.

    However, Podcamp is now almost two years old, and while some people are not as fond of the plan ahead version of things, the audience for Podcamp is much more diverse- podcasters, video bloggers, bloggers, educators, business people and marketers- and it’s this mash up that makes it such a great a vibrant conference. We’ve got over 600 people signed up for Podcamp NYC at the moment as well.

    Because wi-fi can be dicey at times and not everyone brings a computer, a printed schedule just tends to be attendee friendly. As with anything that requires advanced planning, sooner or later you have to put the thing to bed and say enough sign ups, or We’ve run out of room- which can happen as well- and it did with the over 100 sessions that were presented at last year’s podcamp nyc.

    This is the first podcamp for the Podcamp DC crew, and I think you might make more friends if you decide to come and be a part of it, help organize it, or do other things to make this event possible and successful- maybe even help organize it next time around! As you know from putting on BarCamp, organizing community based events takes a lot of time, and the first time out, no one gets everything right. So I guess I would plead for support versus flame and arrows, and give people a chance before drawing out the barbs.

    I guess I’d also like to understand who “owns” the *camp name, especially since in some versions of history, Bar camp stole it from foocamp, and BAR stands for Bay Area rejects- the kids who weren’t invited to FooCamp.

  8. @jackson great post. I think this is a valuable discussion you’ve started. I’m planning to attend and speak because I enjoy sharing my knowledge with the community and learning from my peers at the same time.

    Regardless of whether or not this follows a strict Bar/FooCamp format, i feel it’s still a valuable and valid structure, and one that i would like to support through my participation. However, if the organizers were charging attendees, i would not be participating as a speaker nor would i be likely to attend.

    Also, this audience seems to be a bit different from the typical dev camp crowd - i would think that if Justin, Bill, Will and the rest of my fellow widgetdevcamp organizers had run that event as podcampDC is running their event, that we would have been rightfully criticized and/or boycotted. I believe this audience, however, is in need of and will receive a “camp lite” experience. I’m not sure that this is so wrong.

    The sponsorship aspect of the event is certainly exclusionary - which doesn’t jive with the inclusive nature of community events in the first place. It’s a little (a lot?) over the top if you ask me.

    I wonder if all would be copasetic if the word “camp” hadn’t been included in the name from the onset.

    Will DC be reinforcing it’s “JV” perception by hosting this event? Perhaps. But most likely that perception is will be held in the minds of a few elite technologists, and while those people are certainly influential and important, what is more important is for DC itself to know itself, teach itself, and not worry about what other markets think of it.

    For the most part, i have a feeling everyone is going to have a great time, make new friends, get some networking done, and learn a lot. I can’t see that the pros of this structure can be outweighed by the cons.


  9. Whenever you open up a brand like this for anyone to use, you’re opening it up to everyone, including people who won’t necessarily agree with your philosophies.

    We’re dealing with this in the Joomla! community; the brand name Joomla! was left open for people to use for user groups and even business ventures as long as the logo was not used. (For instance, you could open while having no connection to the Joomla! core team).

    I’m personally looking forward to PodCampDC as I’ve built podcasting software. There will always be people out there who believe their “scene” is being invaded, but I think that people who blatantly skim off another group’s success for straight profit get called out fairly quickly. PodCampDC definitely appears to be within the spirit of “Camps” (learning and sharing); I’m not worried.

  10. I say let people do what they want to do. If you build it they will come … if you build it poorly, no one will come :-).

    I am a proponent for the more the merrier with respect to local events. I’d prefer that over a smaller amount of “better” events. I don’t care for podcasting or anything related, so I sort of like that it stays out of Refresh-DC (as it has thus far), but I do like that there is a venue for those that do care.

    No one owns any of this, no one here locally at least — its a free reign … anyone can host a “camp”, I say.

  11. I obviously (hopefully it’s obvious) fully support the event, I just question the marketing of it. To boot, I encourage anyone who is interested in the topic to attend, and those who are able to share knowledge to do so. I’ll be speaking in France that weekend, so I won’t be able to attend.

    I don’t think the event itself is better or worse because of the marketing, but we should all know by now that a major part of creating a great user experience is in setting expectations, and a brand is meant to do exactly that.

    My initial point was that the term “camp” in the name of an event sets expectations around the format, and for me those expectations are those of a standard unconference like BarCamp or FooCamp (and indeed PodCampDC reinforces this in its sidebar).

    @Joseph: Your point is well taken, that some folks have a relatively broad set of expectations around a “camp.” That’s exactly what I was asking.

    @Peter: Good points. Expectations may indeed be a little looser for a less technical audience, and I definitely wouldn’t have made a post if it didn’t have the word “camp” in the name, and I doubt anyone would have asked me what I thought about it were that the case.

    @Martin: If your event is a single-day event, then your first line is simply erroneous. People show up to the opening night of a bad restaurant, since they don’t yet know it’s bad. Your other points are ones I obviously agree with, and I never disputed either one.

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