Well I didn’t quite know what to expect having never attended a BarCamp or indeed an “un-conference” before. What I found was one of the best geek-xperiences that I have come across, something that I would recommend to anyone into what they do and who enjoys the company of other people also into what they do.
So the premise behind an un-conference is that there are talks, but there is nothing scheduled when the event starts. Instead, right at the start all the attendees fill out the gaps in the schedule with sessions, presentations and talks that they have prepared (or will prepare over the course of the event). Everyone is encouraged to participate, especially those for whom it is their first BarCamp, which meant I was going to be doing one.
Public speaking isn’t one of my stronger qualities, but one thing I do know about it is that the more you do it the better (and the more confident) you get. This is a fact, and it’s also helped by the fact that all the attendees are lovely. The thing about this kind of event is that no-one is going to want to pick a fight with you or want to make you feel small. If they attended your presentation in preference to someone else’s then they genuinely want to hear what you have to say on the topic you have chosen. Also, most people will be in the same boat - all having their own sessions to run - and so they will treat you in the way they hope to be treated themselves. Finally, as it’s a free event, no-one will feel cheated if your talk doesn’t live up to the high expectations that might surround a conference which costs, say, £300. It’s the perfect incubator for talent!
Variety is the spice of life, and BarCamps
The sessions can be on anything, and when I say anything I mean anything. There were sessions on topics varying from CSS to Erotic Writing, the alcohol ban parties on the Tube to multi touch programming on Snow Leopard and from Autism to LOST. Whatever your interest or topic of expertise, there will always be people interested in what you have to say!
I’d say my main complaint about the event is that you can’t attend all the sessions! Obviously with so many sessions happening all at once, filming them all would be tricky and so it’s very much a case of if you miss it you miss it, so don’t miss it!
Free is my favourite price
BarCamp is free. I say that; it must have taken some serious clout to pull it all together but to the attendees it’s free. It’s all done through sponsorship and the generously donated time of the wonderful team that organise it all. The sponsors are many which means they all only need to donate a little to add up to a decent pot of cash. That said, the prominence of the sponsors was minimal which I think added to the general feel of the event. It was all about sharing ideas and information and not wanting anything back for it - a fine and noble idea, and one I can get behind.
Of course staff from the sponsors are free to come along and give presentations (which the did, at least in some cases) but these are usually pretty interesting, at least to some people. And hey, if you don’t find it interesting you don’t have to go - there are probably 7-8 other talks happening at the same time… take your pick!
I had already decided to do a CSS-related presentation (a blog version of which is forthcoming) but sadly this meant I had to miss a chunk of sessions during the first day just in the name of finishing off. I wish I had started to prepare earlier but it’s that always the case? It had to be done though… imagine turning up to do a talk with a half-finished set of slides. Not too impressive.
So what follows is a list of the sessions I attended (or would have attended if I hadn’t been preparing my own):
- BarCamp Bootstrap: 1st Timers Panel
- How we broke the tube with Facebook (Steve Emslie)
- Google Street View + Virtual Reality Goggles (Tom Scott) (Regrettably missed)
- CSS Nuggets - Some snippets of CSS that will help you make better sites and stuff (Anna Debenham) (Regrettably missed)
- Split fares aka Hack yourself a cheaper train ticket (Sam Machin) (Regrettably missed)
- Mobile Stats 2008-2009 (Adam Cohen-Rose)
- Design in Lost (yes, the TV show) (Inayaili de Leon)
- Don’t break my stuff! A guide to writing CSS for widgets and pages with widgets (Mark Stickley) (My session!)
- Want to write a tech book? (Gavin Bell)
- Sex and other things we don’t talk about (Ian Forrester)
- Why I give web clients no control over their project (and why they love it) (Alex Teugels)
- Web Scale Identifiers (Use and Abuse) (Ade)
- Linked Data and the Semantic Web for Dummies (David F. Flanders)
- Designing for the teenage generation - what they ‘dig’ (Jack Franklin)
- Multitouch: on Snow Leopard + Quartz Composer & Chuck (@gernot)
- 10 Fucking Awesome Bands You Should Be Listening To (Mary Rose Cook)
- Putting telly on the Internet (David F. Flanders)
- Photography is not a crime (know your rights as a photographer) (Martin C)
- Lightning Talks
- Teach Me How To Run A New BarCamp - Cultures, Languages (BSL) (@bjfletcher)
- Autism, Internet and Antelope: Cognitive Accessibility and how people with autism use the web (Jamie + Lion)
If you’re interested in the full list of available talks, here’s the Saturday talks and the Sunday talks.
I’ll just run over the panels that I actually went to and remember enough of to talk about extremely briefly to give some idea as to how they went.
A brief introduction to BarCamps for first-timers. I figured I’d only be a first-timer once so why not pop along. We were told to enjoy it and given brief tactical instructions on the inevitable games of Werewolf that would take place overnight. Then we took part in an exercise which was supposed to both help us get over our fear of public speaking and put us more about saying something stupid by actually standing up and saying something stupid (we were fed a line) in front of everyone else. Good introduction!
How we broke the tube
Brief account of a couple of guys who innocently created a Facebook group encouraging people to go and have a “last drink” on the tube the night before the alcohol ban came into force and thought nothing more of it. Until it started to gain massive traction ultimately shutting down large parts of the tube on the night in question! They also asked if anyone knew how to mine the Facebook data to try and find who was responsible for the tipping point which caused such a huge uptake.
Basically going through a bunch of stats on mobile device usage which showed the screen resolution of devices is quite rapidly on the up and how Apple crept up from 6th place to 5th in the device manufacturers sales charts in just one year.
Design in LOST
Going over some of the finer points of the hit TV show and showing how the plot and prop design goes so in depth that you wouldn’t really notice some of the more elaborate details unless you were paying meticulous attention. Also covered some of the cross promotion with other brands and Easter Eggs that don’t add anything but are a real treat to those who spot them. Fascinating!
Want to write a tech book
Tips mainly on how not to write a tech book actually! Don’t drag it out and don’t try and do it as well as a full-time job were the main ones I took away from that.
Sex and other things
What was essentially a hosted discussion about geeks, sexuality, how comfortable we are with it and why. It was interesting to listen to but I wasn’t compelled to get involved…
Why I give my clients no control
Alex took us through how he runs his business which is basically to take complete control of his clients’ sites, charge them an ongoing fee and make sure conversions keep moving skywards. A very different and interesting approach which I haven’t seen before. Strangely enough this talk was given by an old school friend of mine who I hadn’t seen since all those years ago which was an unexpected bonus!
Web Scale Identifiers
An interesting talk that gave way to an interesting discussion that went on for almost an hour! It’s basically an idea that’s floating around that “wouldn’t it be nice if people would stop making their own ids for objects and start using standard ones.” For example, books have ISBNs. But what about things that don’t have a centralised authority? How do you identify the id to use? Very interesting.
Designing for teenagers
As a teenager himself, Jack gave us an insight into what they like and what they are indifferent to. Turns out that the average teenager doesn’t give two hoots about fancy CSS3 rounded corners, gradients and the like - they are mostly interested in the content. Especially flash games. I still can’t help thinking, though, that if there was some excellent content or games available but the design was terrible they wouldn’t really be so interested…
Multi touch on Snow Leopard
This was an interesting talk on programming with Quartz and the presenter demoed his own test app in which he showed how the trackpads on modern MacBooks can detect up to 11 simultaneous touches. Pretty incredible!
10 Fucking Awesome Bands
Mary took us through 10 bands which in her opinion no-one should be without. Most of them were not so much to my taste but you can’t please them all, eh? Afterwards she took suggestions of other bands that should be added to the list.
Putting telly on the internet
Some of the more technical challenges the iPlayer team have experienced. Very interesting stuff.
Photography is not a crime
Fascinating talk on photographers rights and how little law enforcement actually seems to understand them on the whole. Basically, anything you can see while standing in a public place is legal and fair game, although snapping people’s kids and other such intrusions are usually misunderstood and it pays to ask first. It’s just polite!
The lightning talks session is actually a series of 5 minute talks by whoever wants to do them. The trouble with these is they aren’t really long enough to be that memorable… I do remember one about a collaborative art project which was quite interesting.
Teach me how to run a BarCamp
This was kind of a ‘reverse’ session where the guy running it basically asked the audience their advice on how to set up, publicise, fund, organise and run a BarCamp… for deaf people! The responses were interesting, especially when discussing the advantages of a deaf-only event.
Jamie (and his friend Lion) gave an interesting talk on how cognitive diversity affects internet use and taught us all a little about autism and how it affects people. Very useful indeed!
BarCamp was not only a lot of fun but it was valuable, interesting and a good opportunity to meet nice people. It was also very exhausting, but the lack of sleep was my own fault! I hope to be attending many more in the future.
Check out the BarCamp wiki for more information on BarCamps and to find your next local event. Alternatively you can go to the BarCamp London site which was the fine event this article is written about!