My First (Last?) Barcamp Vancouver


Open to All—Except Advertisers

Yesterday, I joined 175 folks at BarCamp Vancouver 2010, an event billed by local organizers as an “ad-hoc un-conference born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment.” I had read an entry on Wikipedia about the history of BarCamp before registering and expected an informal, peer-driven series of sessions on a variety of topics.
 
Happily, Barcamp Vancouver didn’t disappoint on that score. Armed with post-its, a plastic milk crate and the stopwatch on an iPhone, the organizers opened the floor to a steady stream of participants who wished to pitch a session. All attendees then “voted” to see which topics ocurred in the big room (sponsored by Mobify), medium-sized “Nitobi” room or in the smaller rooms on the upper floor at The Waldorf Hotel. Since I’m more interested in social media than coding, I headed for the following:
 
 
Listen, I enjoyed myself and met up with old friends and made a few new contacts too. The conversations were sharp, smart and I left knowing more about how to set up a strong promotion in Groupon, why Reddit is cannibalizing Digg’s user base, and how developers used a “Trojan” system at BBC to first standardize company websites before centralizing key systems.
 
Mission accomplished, right? Err, right.
 
Except that I can’t shake the feeling that I was an interloper–someone to be politely tolerated rather than strictly welcomed at yesterday’s event.
I’ve spent the large part of my career in corporate advertising. I’ve held all sorts of positions within the field, from copywriter to proofreader and content strategist. I define myself first and foremost as an advertiser.
 
During Eric Weaver’s session on Why You Don’t Need a Social Media Strategy, things got a little…tetchy. Weaver’s from DDB, a large creative agency, and–incidentally–one of the event’s sponsors.
 
During his presentation, he walked us through a recent campaign for Unilever’s Knorr product line of Sidekicks in which the character of Salty, an anthropomorphized salt shaker, became the emotional hook for driving awareness and engagement. Sales rose by 10%, the client’s website experienced the highest traffic ever and the brand overtook Uncle Ben which had been the market leader until then. Weaver’s point was that we shouldn’t get sidelined by the tools, it’s about having an integrated strategy that starts with the business’s end goals in mind.
 
But during yesterday’s session, the comments veered off the topic to focus on the product itself rather than the strategy Weaver and his team implemented to achieve success. He was asked to defend the line of rice which was “poisin,” then his industry’s business model (making money by making money for his clients), and the ethics of crass agencies co-opting the social media space for their own greedy ends.
 
To be fair, I think there were people who were genuinely engaged in the conversation and not for the sake of pure conflict. (See Weaver’s own diplomatic tweet.)
But for the most part the conversation seemed adversarial, argumentative and deliberatively rude. I felt pummelled sitting in the audience. Others noticed too. After the session, a special #adrant was organized to continuing exploring “people’s hate of advertising agencies.” I stuck around for it but didn’t glean much truthfully so I’m leaving it to others for their take.
 
In the end, I’m left with the same question I tweeted yesterday: “If you are so turned off by big, bad advertisers, maybe you shouldn’t ask them to be your sponsor?”
 
And should I, and others who work in advertising, feel welcome to join Barcamp Vancouver 2011?
Updated to include a link to Earl Von Tapia’s excellent presentation on Reddit.
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5 thoughts on “My First (Last?) Barcamp Vancouver

  1. I’m very sorry to hear you felt “pummeled”. I really don’t think the questions were meant that way, and had Eric looked at all uncomfortable, or people realized that it was making other attendees uncomfortable, I’m sure it would have stopped. Eric responded to the questions very well, and I thought it was a lively and interesting debate.

    It can sometimes take a thick skin to be around techies / geeks / etc. We critique each other’s work all the time. We tend to score low on empathy and high on problem solving, and we forget that not everyone is like us.

    As an example, another BarCamp session was basically advocating going into restaurants, telling the owner their website sucks, and telling them on how to fix it. As a programmer, people do that to my code all the time, and it makes my code better. I suspect academic conferences have a similar style of debate.

    I’m hoping you can put this down to cultural differences, and give tech events (and BarCamp especially) another try. We mean well 🙂

  2. hmmm… I can imagine (a bit) the vibe. I’ve gone to 2 previous barcamps and also many of the other camps. I also felt a bit of an outsider (I’m middle-aged!). And I can imagine the free-wheeling, straight-shooting ethos. Part of it probably was as Graham pointed out, just the nature of the geek work-style.

    But I wonder if part of it was deeper. Web 2.0 is rooted in an ethos of “sharing” and “word of mouth if something is genuinely *and inherently* worth getting excited about”; the antithesis of “using cool stuff to convince people to buy more of whatever we’re selling”. If you haven’t read ClueTrain Manifesto (at least the 99 Theses) it’s a great read which speaks directly to this.

    And fwiw, in the past I know there were raging debates about whose sponsorship money to accept 🙂

    I wish I could have been there! Sorry if you already knew all of what I wrote here -!

  3. Graham, Nancy:
    Thanks for providing a balanced perspective and an “in” on the techie/geek ethos.

    Cam Cavers echoed much the same in a tweet earlier today, writing “growing pains… hard to transition from a funky hacker nerd party to something relevant to the world at large without some friction.”

    I agree that Eric did an admirable job of answering honestly as many questions as he could. And I absolutely do not believe that anyone was trying to hurt the man himself.

    And I can accept that making him squirm might just be this unique community’s way of testing the ideas under discussion, a “stress” test if you will to see if they’d stand up to scrutiny.

    So I’m going to take the time between now and #bcv11 and learn how to toughen up! 🙂

    After all, I think the event itself is worthy and the discussions I’ve been participating in here and via Twitter since Saturday have been stellar. I’m a believer.

    T.

    P.S. Nancy, I haven’t read ClueTrain Manifesto so thanks for recommending it. Also, I’m glad to hear about organizers having frank discussions about sponsors–it speaks to the integrity of the process and the community.

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