Setting your own agenda at Sydney BarCamp

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Early on Saturday morning, at the BarCamp Sydney conference, a group of people crowded around the conference scheduling board. Most wore jeans and t-shirts, and all nursed take-away coffee. “Who’s speaking first?” asked one of them. “No one so far – why don’t you give a talk?” asked another. A young man carrying a laptop wrote his name and subject matter on an oversized Post-It note and stuck it on the scheduling board. “There – I’ll give the first talk,” he said.

BarCamp is an informal conference covering all aspects of the IT industry. It differs from most conferences in its philosophy towards content. Rather than scheduling keynote and industry speakers, all audience members are invited to speak on any subject they desire. At the beginning of each day, participants write their names and topics on the scheduling board; in this way, the day’s content is only decided once the audience arrives.

The BarCamp formula originated in the United States, where participants camped in tents during the event. It was an intentional rebuff towards more expensive, strictly-controlled industry conferences. BarCamps are held regularly around the world, in countries as diverse as Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Thailand. While all BarCamps are organised at a local level, they follow the same rules: fostering an environment of open discussion, without a pre-planned agenda.

Does the format work? Conference “unorganiser” Ajay Ranipeta said that the conference motto is “No spectators, only participants.”

“Everyone has something they can contribute,” he said. “People are often surprised at how much they know. But you might be an expert in some obscure field that everyone finds interesting. We don't want you just sitting in the audience.”

Setting the agenda

Though the conference has no set topic, a few key issues emerged over the weekend. The most prevalent was social networking, which is the use of technology to enable community development and communication. Currently, social networking centres on several websites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

“Social networks provide ambient intimacy,” said web developer Ben Buchanan. “You can stay in touch with the people you care about, and tailor the information you receive about your friends.”

The interaction of social networking and business was explored by participants. Entrepreneur Elias Bizannes criticised businesses for failing to understand the importance of social networks.

“Social networking isn’t a business model; it’s a feature,” Bizannes said. “All business products will need to incorporate that idea. So if you run a website, you’ll need to understand the way your customers interact with your site and each other.”

Mick Liubinskas, a developer, was more concerned about the monetisation of social websites.

“We went to a conference for advertisers and all they talked about is how to get on social networks,” he said. “But people will find somewhere to run to next, to avoid over-marketing.”

Web 3.0 was also a key topic for participants. “The concept of Web 2.0 is a dynamic, user-driven mesh of technologies,” said founder Bart Jellema. “So what will happen in the next generation?”

Jellema suggested that Web 3.0 would be completely data-driven.

“Data will be the key. There will be independence from platforms, devices and the internet. Users might be able to collaboratively design websites and applications. The barriers between applications will begin to break down as portability between applications increases,” said Gilad Greenbaum. “Perhaps the platform is the killer application in 3.0.”

Others were more cynical; quipped an audience member, “The difference between Web 1.0 and 2.0 is how much your IPO is worth. Where’s the money in user-driven content?”

The Internet’s private parts

Aside from social networking and e-business, one of the most heated debate topics was privacy. Laurel Papworth, a social networks strategist and lecturer at the University of Sydney, said that people placed a lot of trust in companies to keep their information private.

“What if Google suddenly published all of your searches? Or your Facebook pictures became publicly available? Now that you can run a reverse IP search on your Wikipedia entries, everyone knows if you’re the person who edited the herpes page with a lot of detailed information. Some people would find that highly embarrassing.”

Papworth recently spent a week in Saudi Arabia teaching women how to write blogs. She said that the women had cultural concerns about privacy on the internet.

“Many of these women were worried that photographs of them would appear on sites like Flickr. This would be devastating to them. They were highly aware of the ‘invisible audience’ provided by the internet,” she said.

Papworth’s concerns were echoed by Liam Hodge, a 16-year-old high school student who talked about the Anonymous movement.

The Anonymous movement was formed in 2005 by participants in various online forums. While its basic aim is to promote free internet speech, it is an emergent internet culture, with no internal structure or leadership. The movement has become known for its vocal opposition to Scientology; in 2007, an anonymous person promised to “remove Scientology from the internet” on behalf of the movement.

“At a rough count, there are 20,000-30,000 people involved in Anonymous,” said Hodge. “It became extremely important to protect the anonymity of the people involved, because of the threat of government and private retaliation. The internet should be free, and people should be able to say what they like, without fear of being shut down.”

An audience member agreed: “There are a lot of draconian laws about what can and can’t be discussed on the internet. Euthanasia is a classic example. But people on the internet will always seek a way to circumvent these laws.”

Hodge said that attempts to shut down the Anonymous movement would ultimately be unsuccessful. “The internet is resilient. The harder you push it, the more it will rally around an issue.”

At the end of the weekend, conference participants exchanged business cards, email addresses and social networking details. “We don’t rely on traditional methods to communicate with our audience. We stay in touch with our participants through our blog and [social networking site] Twitter,” said BarCamp ‘unorganiser’ Ranipeta.

The next Australian BarCamp Conference will be held on Saturday 19 April at Australian National University, Canberra.

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