SciBarCamp is done. Other than a lot of excellent leftover Pakistani food, a surprising amount of beer, and a photo set on Flickr, you’d never know we hosted 60+ people for two days. Time for a bit of reflection.
Wednesday morning, as I was getting the Institute’s conference space ready for SciBarCamp– hauling tables, moving chairs, trying to figure out how to get sixty people into our large conference room, calculating how many and what kinds of signs we needed to put to up to help guests find the wifi, bathrooms, etc.– I overhead someone say, “What I love about these things is that you don’t have to do any preparation. You just show up.”
Events like these may look like they’re spontaneous and free, but that’s only because someone has set up the environment in which it takes place. That labor shouldn’t really be visible to the participants– like all infrastructure, its purpose is to be useful, not to call attention to itself– but it is essential to the success of even the loosest and most improvisational event. To make a brief comparison to music: the most brilliant jazz improvisers, people like Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, aren’t brilliant because they just get up onstage and do whatever comes into their heads: they’re brilliant because they’ve played for thousands and thousands of hours, are highly disciplined, have great training… and bring all that to the concert hall. [Update: See Fred Kaplan on creativity in jazz.] Likewise, when I travel, I like to be able to wander around and explore things; but I can do that because I carry a pack that has all kinds of things that I find useful, and come in handy under a variety of circumstances. (Preparation is likewise important for biking and cooking, and other things.)
The Institute’s conferences are scripted to the minute, the presentations are rehearsed endlessly, group exercises are agonized over. There’s a lot of top-down structure, because we have a lot of content to share, and because it’s hard for most people to think about the future in an orderly way. People, we assume, need the structure we provide in order to translate our work into terms that will be useful to them. So the bar camp model is one that I find very interesting.
But the camp isn’t just the absence of organization: that wouldn’t be a bar camp, it would just be chaos. There is structure here, and I want to understand what it is.
I was talking to Jamie McQuay, one of the organizers of this year’s camp and a veteran of the bar camp scene, about the ingredients for a successful bar camp. He said that the two things you really need are free space (which saves the organizers money and time, and cuts down on the number of sponsors you have to look for), and interesting people. Tantek Çelik, a camp veteran, told me that all you really need are physical and virtual spaces– a conference venue and a wiki.
But my sense is that there’s more to it than that.
There’s a cultural element to the camps that I think is important. People here are veterans of academic meetings, scientific society conferences, and industry trade shows, and know that world well enough to be intelligently dissatisfied by it. (I had a professor who said you couldn’t rebel effectively against Catholicism unless you had been educated by Jesuits. Not Franciscans or Dominicans, mind you– Jesuits. Truly, give me the child until he’s seven, and he’s ours forever.) When you have an event that’s a mirror-world of the traditional conference, you need to know what the traditional conference is like, so you can do the opposite. I would draw a comparison to Wikipedia. One of the usually unacknowledged reasons Wikipedia works is because people know, or think they know, what encyclopedia articles are supposed to sound like: readers and creators alike share a basic understanding of what they should be doing.
I also suspect a good bar camp also requires some minimum number of people who are veterans of the camp scene, and can catalyze others and acculturate novices. I’m not sure what that number is. Tantek said that return attendees are like culture in yogurt, which I think is a good comparison.
I think there are also some practical things that you can do that I’ve listed after the jump. None are especially profound, but they’d all make the event work better, and are worth paying attention to. But what else is there? Besides physical and virtual space, interesting people, a familiarity with conventional conferences, and perhaps some elusive bare minimum of people who’ve been to bar camps before, are there other things that a successful camp needs?
[To the tune of John Coltrane, “Out Of This World,” from the album The Classic Quartet – The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (I give it 3 stars).]
Very practical things
- Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. You can’t have too many signs for wifi, Twitter tags, arrows pointing to the bathrooms and exits, put the agenda in a very public place, etc..
- You can’t have enough mobile whiteboards, flipcharts, and other public writing surfaces.
- 5-minute breaks between sessions. People need time to get from one room to another (or find out what room they’re headed to next).
- Work in time for longer breaks. We tend to want to pack a day as full as possible. Don’t. People will take breaks whether you schedule them or not.
- Clocks in the rooms. Also having someone go around and announce how much time is left in each session is good.
- Cloakroom. People tend to put bags and coats on chairs, which inhibits their use by other people.