BarCamps are not just for techies

I’ve been following two events recently, Unsheffield and TweetCamp. They’re both BarCamp style events with high levels of self organisation, and I’m really pleased that people are taking the time to run events like this. Unfortunately, they have both taken the line that they are moving away from or different to Barcamp because Barcamps are aimed solely at the tech community. And this frustrates me.

I’m fed up of people perpetuating the myth that BarCamps are just for techies. Seriously fed up. Yes, there are a bunch of technical folk who attend these events, and yes they may be the majority, but that majority is not large. Out of all of the many BarCamps I have ever been to I have rarely been to a “technical” talk, and only myself given one that was in any way technical (that was demonstrating my dissertation project and was seriously cool). 

By segregating “geeks, hackers and core techies” from regular people you are only diving apart the community of people who desire to “share and learn in an open environment.” And yes, we are one community, with members from all sorts of backgrounds. Our community is defined by our desire to share and learn, and not by the types of activities we do (hack, paint, fish, etc.). Anyone, from any walk of life, any background, and profession and or any experience level should be comfortable being a member of this community. 

Did anyone honestly find BarCampLondon6 too technical? In fact, there were some people who complained that it was not geeky enough, lacking a dedicated hackspace or way for hackers to get together, but I do not see BarCamp as a hackspace. BarCamp has been and should always be about sharing knowledge, whatever that knowledge is. BarCampLondon6 had sessions on Reflexology, Sourdough Bread Making, Tai Chi, Making your own drop spindle(spinning wool with a potato), and other BarCamps have had similarly diverse sessions.

I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be other events, there should and needs to be. Nor am I suggesting that TweetCamp shouldn’t happen, though I am of the opinion it would be better off with less structure. To fully engender the experience of Twitter in the real world I think it is necessary to duplicate the experience as closely as possible. Since Twitter is a fully unstructured environment, perhaps it would be beneficial to have a TweetCamp in a bar or a park or a coffee shop without the (self) organisation of BarCamp style sessions.

I applaud the efforts of the organisers of Unsheffield to see the potential to engage more people. Reaching out to different communities by re branding and widening your event is a great thing. But peddling false rhetoric about the technical basis of barcamp is unjust. If you want to separate yourself from BarCamp then you should, but denigrating it to increase the potential of your own event is just petty. Similarly, justifying TweetCamp by saying that BarCamp is not for “regular” people undermines all of the work many of us put into uniting this community of open minded knowledge seekers. 

BarCamps are not exclusivley for “geeks“, and similarly *Camps and Unconferences are not just for “regular” people. They all exist for anyone and everyone who has a desire to learn and and a passion for sharing.

10 comments to “BarCamps are not just for techies”

  1. 1

    On June 11th, 2009 at 3:24 pm, Farhan Rehman said...

    Hey Emma
    I completely agree with you. And, at the same time, I think the legacy of BarCamp, and it’s origins, as an event, in opposition to FooCamp, still fuel much of the community, and people involved in these events. (At least in my experience of the few events I attended in the US, and here in the UK).

    I think there’s an inherent inclination for people to feel that BarCamps, are more about the people who have interests and passions around Tech, just as EcoCamp or SocialMediaCamp reflect the more Eco agenda, or the Social Media meme. BarCamps will always be surrounded by people who have some common interest in technology, by virtue of the origins of the event, and the community it came from.

    Just like Glastonbury is innately a music festival, or the Notting Hill Carnival is innately a street party, BarCamps will at least for now always have an element of a geeky, techy crowd. And to try to change that, or make it something that it’s not, detracts from the original purpose of BarCamp, which was to create an event where hackers could openly collect, and share and disseminate.

    Whilst the diversity might exist within our tech community to cover more than just the tech topics, I feel like it’s still the tech or geek within us, that brings us together for BarCamps. Just like, it the Tweeter in me, that made me want to have a TweetCamp. (And it most definitely isn’t going to be structured like a traditional BarCamp ;).

  2. 2

    On June 11th, 2009 at 3:26 pm, Terence Eden said...

    This++; //If that’s not too geeky a reference

    If people are worried about there not being enough tech content at a *Camp, they know what to do; organise a tech talk.

    One of the great things about SocialMediaCamp was the intersection of geeks & normals.

  3. 3

    On June 11th, 2009 at 3:28 pm, Ian Ibbotson said...

    Hey emma… Sorry to be quite so direct here.. but just so we can fix this up very quickly.. who/where has said that (/is peddling false rhetoric) barcamps are technical basis of barcamps on the unsheffield site? Let me know and I’ll discuss getting it changed as a matter of urgency.

    Really, I think our decisions around #unsheffield branding outside the barcamp had much more to do with the more tightly focused subject area that we are aiming at. We absolutely wanted a flexible barcamp (/syntegration, since that is, after all, the root of this style of event) agenda, but also wanted to produce movement in a very specific direction. We felt this was slightly outside the remit of the trad barcamp setup (Which is, after all, quite tightly defined) hence the alternate branding. If this has come across in any way other than a positive one, I’d like to take steps to address the concerns. Feel free to email directly if thats more appropriate.



  4. 4

    On June 11th, 2009 at 4:28 pm, admin said...


    We’re taking the technology unconference format to a broader public.

    The thing is, BarCamps are not technology unconferences, they are unconferences for people to share knowledge and ideas at, without any predefined subject matter. They are about as broad as you can go. So, yes your rhetoric demeans the broadness of BarCamps in general.

    I get that you wanted to run a conference about your subject area, that’s cool. And I get that you wanted to do it in an unconference way, that’s cool too.

    What I don’t get is this evolution from BarCamp to Unsheffield. I see not evolution, I see a different event. What you are doing by saying one has become the other is stifling the evolution of BarCamp. What you should have done is said this is nothing to do with BarCampSheffield, which seems far more accurate.

    I’m still not clear if you think BarCamp is too quite tightly defined, or if it is not quite tightly defined enough for the event you want to run. I think the conference you want to run is great, and I can’t wait to attend, I’m just concerned at how you position it regarding BarCamps and the light in which they then fall…

    I’d quite like to have this debate in the open, I’m sure lots of people are interested, and after all, the only way we can evolve events like this is to discuss it.


  5. 5

    On June 11th, 2009 at 5:49 pm, Jay Cousins said...

    Clearly this is a topic around which feelings run strong.

    First off regarding evolution. Our statement was “BarCamp Sheffield has evolved to UnSheffield.”

    The Sheffield element is important here, we organised Barcamp Sheffield last year, and we are basing UnSheffield on that event( which at the time was criticised for doing things that were “not barcamp”), hence evolution.

    The name UnSheffield was chosen due to our wish to further build upon the great structure that unconferences possess without incurring further recriminations.

    So yes it is a different event.

    As for “demeaning rhetoric” around taking the format to a broader audience (which has been interpreted as Barcamp is exclusive). Whilst Barcamp does not seek to be exclusively the realm of geeks and technologists, it is not widely known in the world outside these circles. We made a conscious effort to open up our conference, which last year resulted in 80% of attendees being from outside of the previous barcamp regulars, and a far more diverse population.

    It is not our wish to cause offence, merely to draw distinction and manage expectation, because we don’t want to get flack for “not being a barcamp”.

    I hope this clears things up and explains our thought process, look forward to seeing you at UnSheffield.

  6. 6

    On June 11th, 2009 at 6:08 pm, Emma said...

    In claiming that BarCampSheffield has evolved into something else you are closing the avenue for any future BarCampSheffields to take place. An event like this organised by someone else (which, of course, would be in the ethos of BarCamp) would live in the shadow of Unsheffield. I get that you have based your new conference on principles from the world of Unconferences and BarCamps, and that’s great. I’m a firm believer in running conferences in this way.

    You assumptions that BarCamps are not known outside the world of geeks and technologists is flawed. People are activley encouraged to attend these events from all walks of life. Yes there might be a core of people who are geeks and attend many of these events, but equally so this core does not make up the majority. There is a strong difference between geeks, the geek community and geeky people, and we must recognise this difference (a blog post, I will not have to write!).

    Your excellent efforts to attract a wider audience to BarCampSheffield up last year are marred by the fact that they appear to come from a moral high ground. Every BarCamp I have ever been to has tried to do the same. Every BarCamp planner wants to attract the widest possible audience to their event as this can only increase it’s intensity and awesomeness. By “evolving” to a different event you are stifiling the attempts of BarCamp organisers to attract wide audiences.

    You are not causing offence, I can’t say enough how great I think it is that people are using the Unconference format for their events, but I do think that by managing expectations to your event you are mismanaging expectations of BarCamps in general.

    What is not clear is whether your even is a BarCamp (you certainly have retained the logo) or some other form of Unconference. Nor is it clear what the evolution is. It seems to retain all of the aspects of a BarCamp, or perhaps a *Camp (FutureCamp / CoolTechCamp?), and yet tries to distance itself from the phenomenon in a way that negatively impacts the entire movement.

  7. 7

    On June 11th, 2009 at 6:42 pm, Tom Morris said...

    Let’s be fair: the earlier BarCamps were pretty heavily tech-oriented. I just pulled up the first BarCampLondon schedule on Flickr and it had a very heavy focus on web design and technology stuff: JavaScript, CSS, (X)HTML, Photoshop, Google Maps, UI/UX design, PHP, Python, Ruby on Rails, accessibility, XML, Flash/Flex, APIs, microformats and so on. Even the non-technology stuff about privacy, marketing or business is privacy, marketing or business as applied to technology and the web.

    And, really, that’s prevalent in the atmosphere at BarCamp. I can say something like “JSON” or “Rails” or “HTTP” and not get the strange looks I might get if I said to a random person in a bar or on the bus. Similarly, if it didn’t have a technology focus, then why would companies like Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft sponsor BarCamp? It just happens that one of the things that isn’t broken about the social psychology things in techy/geeky communities is that when people want to talk about sex or analytic philosophy or reflexology or making mojitos, that’s fine too. Creative and generalist, but able to focus intensely, maketh a good geek.

    But if the next BarCamp were all about mojitos and sex and breadmaking and didn’t have any discussion of Web stuff, it might not be as easy to get Yahoo!, Microsoft, eBay or whoever to sponsor. They sponsor because it’s a good way to build up loyalty with developers – either developers who will build fancy things on their APIs and platforms, or developers to hire. Let’s not kid ourselves that BarCamp doesn’t have something to do with technology. That’s also why when we look at the *camps, they tend to be pretty technical – we have had iPhoneDevCamp, RailsCamp, SemanticCamp, DrupalCamp, LinuxDevCamp. I mean, yes, CupCakeCamp sounds awesome, but the *camps seem to be primarily technical. That doesn’t mean people can’t push them in other directions.

  8. 8

    On June 12th, 2009 at 11:46 am, Emma said...


    You’re missing the point. There is no topic at BarCamp. There is no restriction about what talks are on. Yes, you are very much into going to technical talks, and you would like to see non technical talks banished, but that doesn’t mean that every talk has some technical background, or that every participant is even interested in technical talks.

    Yes, there is clearly a core of tech geeks who go to BarCamp, and yes that is why some of the big tech firms are happy to be sponsors, but not once have they ever been allowed to stipulate that we must only have technical talks.

    I disagree, to be able to broaden your horizons and learn new an interesting topics outside of your traditional scope of understanding is what makes a good geek. Where would we be if all we ever did was write code?

    If we banned tech talk sponsorship might be hard, but no one is suggesting doing that, and even if we did, there are sponsors out there who are not just interested in the tech community. MyMuseli, Spreadshirt, Zemanta are just some of the sponsors who did not sponsor out of some desire to reach into a specific tech community, but rather into a community of interesting people.

    If you will only look at fringe technical camps then you will only see technical ones. Your argument is tautological. There are many other *Camps that are not tech focused: PodCamp, WriteCamp, HomeCamp, HigherEdCamp, ActionCamp, HealthCamp, GovCamp, PhotoCamp, ArtCamp to name but a few.

    I’m not trying to kid anyone, the principle and ethos of BarCamp has nothing to do with technology.

    BarCamp is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos and interaction from participants who are the main actors of the event.

  9. 9

    On June 12th, 2009 at 3:36 pm, Tom Morris said...

    I don’t want non-technical talks banished. It’d be a bit difficult, since I’ve given plenty of non-technical talks at BarCamps. ;)

    What I’m saying is that BarCamps have changed. The amount of tech stuff has gone down – from the first London BarCamp onwards, it’s gone from lots of web/tech stuff to more and more non-tech stuff. I’m not making any value judgment on that – just a simple observation that there was more tech stuff at the earlier BarCamps. I care about compelling content: if that means an in-depth talk about Java compilers, that’s fine. If that means an in-depth talk about sex or mojitos or philosophy, that’s also fine.

    Personally, I would like to go to more tech-focused BarCamps, *and* more non-tech BarCamps. More BarCamps mean more awesome all around. But I still think it’s undeniable that BarCamp was certainly started with the intention of it being about tech.

    I mean, just look at day 1 schedule for BCL1, bcl2 schedule and bcl3 schedule and tell me that it’s not quite tech-heavy. I mean, the level of tech stuff is such that my mum wouldn’t go to a BarCamp. Now, she likes sharing and learning in an open environment – but she’s just more interested in creative arts and not Python and JavaScript.

    The propositions “BarCamps have generally been quite technical” and “BarCamps don’t have to be technical” aren’t incompatible. And neither of those are incompatible with the “ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment” definition. And none of what I’ve said should be taken to justify changing BarCampSheffield to Unsheffield.

  10. 10

    On October 8th, 2009 at 10:59 pm, Thoughts on why i like unconferences « Sauna Penkki said...

    [...] This in turn, leads to oppertunites to be exposed to new things. Emma Persky touched upon this in a recent post where she points out that not everything happening at a BarCamp is about technology, in fact the [...]

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