Barcamp Philly 2008

Recently I read something that referred to nature as “ordered chaos” or even “Divine chaos” aka chaos with intention.  When I think about chaos, I think of it in terms of the chaos theory.

In mathematics, chaos theory describes the behavior of certain dynamical systems – that is, systems whose states evolve with time – that may exhibit dynamics that are highly sensitive to initial conditions(Wikipedia).

I couldn’t think of a better way to describe Barcamp Philly 2008 – a system whose states evolve with time.  BarCamp was described as an unconference.

An unconference is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose(Wikipedia).

For Barcamp Philly 2008, that themes involved anything from web applications, to social networking and social media, to marketing strategies for people interested in technology.  A full list of the sessions that were held can be found at the BarCamp Philly homepage

How was it like ordered chaos?  Unlike most gatherings of the type, an unconference does not have any speakers or sessions planned out months in advance.  In fact, people arrived at BarCamp Philly at 8am to decide which brave souls would present and what topics would be discussed – only 2 hours before the actual sessions were designated to start.  When I arrived at 9:45am, some sessions were neatly posted with index cards on a bulletin board and that bulletin board continued to be filled and updated throughout the day.  To keep up with the times, a kind man with a laptop updated the list of sessions on the web as well so that people with iPhones, other smart phones, and laptops could access the sessions instead of constantly running to the bulletin board (like me).  BarCamp evolved throughout the day from a loosely defined goal of meeting to discuss technology into a full-out gathering with defined speakers and sessions.  Of course a lot of planning went into booking the space, sponsoring, and marketing the event (kudos to the organizing team of Roz Duffy, JP Toto, volunteers, and sponsors) – but the content was left to be formed by the participants.  I loved it!  A democratic gathering – of the people, by the people, for the people. 

The first session I attended was “Lions, Tigers, Higher Ed – Web 2.0 in the higher ed community”.  The spectrum of opinions on social networking is amazing… some people view it as a tool for monitoring their students, others view it as a complication of personal and work boundaries, others see it as a positive force furthering the advancement of research and helping people to earn recognition for their accomplishments (scientific, artistic, musical, etc).  And of course, the subject of “tenure for faculty” came into play – it seems that the tenure process and the pressure placed on faculty to focus on research is at odds with adopting web 2.0 technologies in the classroom.  My favorite part of the session  happened when a participant asked to shift the tone from a negative view of social networks to a more positive one.  An older professor then took the stand to say that we are in the midst of transformation much like when the printing press was first invented.  Whenever a transformative invention enters the scene, there’s going to be a spectrum of hard core supports to those that dislike it – mostly because any kind of transformative invention often entails the re-assessment of the status quo (which could mean that people whose jobs exist because of the current status quo might feel threatened by the new emerging way of life).  I think we should all be as positive as that older professor because he felt like this new transformation will lead to a widespread positive impact like the printing press (I apologize for referring to him as the older professor but he introduced himself as “one of the oldest people in the room”).  Another professor brought up the point that the internet was initially designed for collborative purposes from the start and that its finally heading in the right direction. 


My next session lead to a lot of website sharing:  “Self Help/Social Change – How can a site help your life?”  If you are interested in innovation or social change check out these sites:

  • Ideablob inspired by Advanta:  Have an entreprenurial idea?  Submit it to ideablob!
  • The Darfur Puppy – an interesting subject that was brought to light by the group.
  •  Games for Change – video games for social impact.  Great organization I had the pleasure of playing one of their games. 
  • Social Actions – connects individuals with opportunities to take action. 
  • Carrotmob – organizes consumers to make purchases that give financial rewards to those businesses who agree to make socially beneficial choices.
  • Moveon – website dedicated to social change. 

Regardless of whether or not you believe in the causes listed above, it’s great to see technology used to bring people together for any cause with a positive mission.  I know there’s a downside that it can also bring people together for negative causes, but I’ve seen far more results come from the humanistic uses of technology than the alternative.  If you have a good cause that is not being represented, get out there and start a site!

The last session that I attended for the day was “Group Blogging is like Group *** – messy, fun & complicated”.  Although you may think I starred out that three letter word because I’m practicing prudence, I actually blocked it out so I don’t get spammed like I did the last time I used a word that held several connotations in a blog.  The session mostly dealt with how to convince your organization to maintain a group blog.  We discussed issues like concerns over being fired for a blog, which blogging services should be used (or which ones have benefits), how to encourage people to donate their time to the blogging process, how to monitor the blogging of your group bloggers and whether or not having an editor is a good idea for your organization.  It was also an informative session and we confirmed that blogging is NOT passé :-)  The speakers also confirmed that giving your organization incentives for blogging really encourages people to submit content.  But hey, time is a precious commodity these days so sometimes you do have to slap a price/incentive on it.  Personally, I like blogging because its the equivalent of tagging my brain and making it searchable.  With the amount of content that I feed it these days, memory recall doesn’t work as well as it used to … but with a searchable tagged brain, I can recall memories in one click! 

Biggest take-away from BarCamp Philly 2008 – having session leaders that do not simply function as “talking heads” really allows room for discussion and without a set agenda the discussion can often take directions that it probably never would have taken if it was extremely structured – hooray for ordered chaos and evolution!!

By the time I left for lunch, the session slots were almost entirely filled.  It reminded me of watching one of those nature films where they speed up the film so you can watch a flower blossom in 30 seconds as opposed to the amount of time it takes in nature.  It was like someone took the concept of a conference content development and sped it up to a few hours as opposed to the months that us ually go into content development (something I’m experiencing first-hand as we develop the content for Wharton’s first annual Learning and Technology Conference).  I think both approaches have their benefits!  I loved the spontaneity of an unconference, but I like the highly developed content and keynote speakers of a regular conference – wouldn’t it be nice to combine both aspects???  Oh the ideas 😉

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