Come Forth, Ye Spirit of BarCamp! (Part 1)

I am the spirit of REBarCamps past...

Although I wanted to post this sooner, other commitments prevented getting to it before now.  And quite a few of these ideas have been hashed out, particularly in the TQ Radio Show yesterday, but there is something to putting ideas and questions into words.  So here we go.

But first, a disclaimer: Many of you know that I am involved with Lucky Strike Social Media Club, the organization that is putting together REBarCamp NY 2010.  All of the opinions expressed in this post are mine and mine alone, and I am not speaking for LSSMC or for any of the other organizers.

A little background before we dive into it.

For whatever reason, REBCNY 2010 has generated little eddys of controversy from the start.  First, it was over our decision to keep the working committee members to people who had attended a Lucky Strike meeting in person; this, I was told, violates the “spirit of REBarCamp”.  Second, it was over our decision to have a limited number of tracks (approximately 10 out of 80 we thought possible) pre-planned for the benefit of newcomers and more tech-oriented people who may be in attendance.  I was told that this pre-planning violates the “spirit of REBarCamp”.  Then the final straw, it appears, was our thought to offer to sponsors of REBCNY an attendee list.  This, we were told by various people, was completely against the “spirit of REBarCamp” and there was a lot of buzz on Twitter about how worried various people were, about how the new hashtag should be #notabarcamp, and so on.

In all cases, the organizers heard the feedback, considered our decision, and either stuck by our original stance (tracks) or changed our position (attendee list).  Much of the explanation is on the REBCNY site itself, and you’re welcome to head over there to check it out.

This post is not about any of those decisions, nor is it about the kerfuffles that arose in response to any of them.  Conversation, debate, discussion, even argument are all very healthy things, and I rather think the episodes showcased social media in action: listen, consider, and respond.  I’m personally grateful to everyone who raised the issue with me personally, and with the LSSMC organizing committee; it’s wonderful to be in the RE.net where people feel passionately enough on such topics.

At the same time, there’s a lot to discuss here at the level of principles and ideas.  So we dive into that.

Who Owns REBarCamp?

The original organizers — it’s hard to call them “founders” since they never set out to create an institution — of the first REBarCamp ever in San Francisco are Todd Carpenter, Andy Kauffman, and Brad Coy.  They, together with a legion of volunteers, spawned the REBC “movement” in a union hall in the outskirts of San Francisco.  For that, the real estate industry owes them a debt of gratitude.  What we now call the “RE.net” was basically created from that initial REBC.

Okay, okay, it's not a REBarCamp!

And yet, none of the three original guys has ever claimed that he “owns” REBarCamp.  None has put himself forward as an arbiter or judge of the ‘barcampness’ of a particular event.  There is no sanctioning body, no trademark, no copyright owner, and no REBarCamp Certification Committee.

If anything, Todd, Andy and Brad have actively supported the notion of local rules within a broad framework of principles.  In every past debate I’ve seen, each of these guys took the position that if you’re organizing a REBarCamp, you do what works for you — again, within broad principles.

I think this is a minor, but important, point before we delve into the principles themselves.  Until and unless something changes, as much as I respect Todd, Andy, and Brad as individuals and collectively as the originators of REBarCamp, I cannot accept that there is some person or group of persons who “owns” REBarCamp.

Todd Carpenter personally owns the URL www.rebarcamp.com; that is his website.  He generously lets organizers use that site, but at the end of the day, it’s his site.  But apart from that, no one owns the name, no one owns the ideas, no one owns the rules, standards, or event principles.  Everyone has his or her own opinions and all can be equally valid or equally invalid, but no one is privileged over anyone else.  I include myself in this, I include Todd, Andy, and Brad in this, and I don’t think it makes a difference whether someone has organized a dozen REBarCamps or none.  We all have opinions, but no one owns “REBarcamp” and no one has the right to say “Yes, that is a BarCamp” or “No, that is not a BarCamp”.

So let’s consider each viewpoint and opinion, but I will give no weight whatsoever to appeals to authority.

The Principles of BarCamp

As Andy Kauffman suggested in yesterday’s TQ Radio show, he really wanted to avoid creating “hard and fast rules”.  Instead, he suggested that REBarCamp events try to maximize three things: openness of the event, spontaneity, and collaboration.

Now, Andy and others drew on the original tech-focused BarCamp as the model for REBarCamp.  Some of the arguments, then, amount to a sort of a “constitutional appeal” to the “original BarCamp”.  So let’s dive into some of the original principles.

From the BarCamp.org “The Rules of Barcamp“:

NO SPECTATORS, ONLY PARTICIPANTS

Attendees must give a demo, a session, or help with one, or otherwise volunteer / contribute in some way to support the event. All presentations are scheduled the day they happen. Prepare in advance, but come early to get a slot on the wall. The people present at the event will select the demos or presentations they want to see. [Emphasis added]

This is one of the most important rules, as this post from an experienced BarCamp organizer attests:

Don’t get too slack about the “everyone must participate” rule. It’s not just about attendance, it’s about knowledge transfer. Make sure people don’t think that it’s just a tech thing – creative talks are well received as long as they’re well thought out. [Emphasis added]

Here’s more from the Rules:

The Rules of BarCamp

  • 1st Rule: You do talk about BarCamp.
  • 2nd Rule: You do blog about BarCamp.
  • 3rd Rule: If you want to present, you must write your topic and name in a presentation slot.
  • 4th Rule: Only three word intros.
  • 5th Rule: As many presentations at a time as facilities allow for.
  • 6th Rule: No pre-scheduled presentations, no tourists.
  • 7th Rule: Presentations will go on as long as they have to or until they run into another presentation slot.
  • 8th Rule: If this is your first time at BarCamp, you HAVE to present. (Ok, you don’t really HAVE to, but try to find someone to present with, or at least ask questions and be an interactive participant.)

What becomes clear from these “rules” and “principles” of BarCamp is that the event on the tech side is intended to be a gathering of people who know what the hell they’re doing.  Which makes a lot of sense when you get a bunch of tech people together.

The principle of BarCamp...

One gal might be a software engineer, and another guy a specialist in IT, while someone else is a web programmer.  They could add to the conversation or presentation from their background expertise and real collaboration can be born.  “Hey, I really like how you guys did that, but have you considered using the Amazon cloud?”  Or, “I like the functionality, and the code is elegant, but your user interface needs help — move this button to the top right” and so on.

Those are the rules and principles of BarCamp — they require a base assumption that all attendees are knowledgeable experts in something relevant and could contribute actively to the various discussions.

The Reality of REBarCamp

In some respects, the first REBC-SF was like the rules above.  There were precious few tourists and spectators.  Few of us knew each other, and this blogging/social media thing was so new at the time that it was impossible to tell who is and is not an “expert” on anything.  So we all kinda blabbed at each other, sharing thoughts, sharing ideas, criticizing in some cases, learning in other cases, and a great time was had by all.

...meets the reality of REBarCamp

But every other REBC I have ever attended has diverged sharply from that first REBC experience.

For one thing, blogging and social media have taken the real estate industry by storm, practically overnight.  One moment, it was just this weird thing that a few techie geeks were doing; the next moment, it was the hottest marketing trend to hit real estate since the browser was invented.

Some of those people I met at REBCSF are now nationally-acknowledged experts on blogging and social media.  Todd Carpenter is no longer just this guy who runs a mortgage blog; he’s the Social Media Manager for the National Association of REALTORS — one of the largest and most powerful industry groups on the planet.  I myself have a certain amount of notoriety.

The reality of REBarCamp as they are today, and as they have been from about the second or third REBarCamp ever organized, clash with the Rules of BarCamp.

Let us be honest if we’re going to talk about this.

Today’s REBC is divided into two groups: those who Know and those who Know Not.  The first group attends REBC largely in order to teach the second group (and to party with their friends from the RE.net).

Even when there is lively debate, true collaboration, and a great back-and-forth going on, most of the attendees are spectators, watching two or more of the “experts” debate each other on various topics.  I’ve been in too many of those sessions to know otherwise.  I’ve taught too many sessions to people who didn’t know the first thing about online marketing, social media, blogging, or technology to know otherwise.

This is not to put down those who Know-Not — they’ve been busy practicing real estate and making a living.  They came to REBC to learn, because they heard from friends and colleagues that REBC’s are a wonderful place to learn the basics of blogging, using Facebook, using Twitter, video, SEO, whatever… and it’s free!  So what’s the risk?  Many of them walk away from their first REBarCamp experience feeling overwhelmed, but come back in a few months having taught themselves and become part of those who Know.

But it is to point out and acknowledge the plain fact that REBarCamp has not really been about collaboration and dialogue amongst equals for a while now.  Does that happen still? Of course it does, as such things always happen when people who are interested in similar things get together.  But is that the focus of most modern REBarCamps?  I don’t think so.

Nothing else explains the fact that most organizers end up asking specific individuals, who they know to be good presenters, to come speak on Topic A or Topic B.  Nothing else explains the fact that many organizers end up hand-picking the sessions they think would be best suited for the Know-Not audience and putting them up on the Board, while rejecting other sessions they think won’t “draw enough people”.  And nothing else explains the deference that most attendees give to “speakers” at REBarCamps who in fact are spouting nonsense — because the attendees themselves don’t know that.

The Dilemma of REBarCamp

image: stanhua via Flickr

The dilemma that confronts all REBarCamp organizers then is how to address the needs of the very large Know-Not audience that is coming in order to learn something with the needs of the smaller, yet crucial, Know audience who are the teachers and the presenters.

In many cases, people who Know will come because they have a product they are selling to brokers and agents; for them, presenting at a REBC is a way of marketing themselves in an unthreatening, non-salesy way.  In some cases, people who Know will come because they enjoy teaching what they know to people who don’t.  And in some cases, people who Know will come hoping that they’ll meet someone who can teach them something they didn’t know.

The principles a la Kauffman — openness, spontaneity, and collaboration — cannot address this dilemma if “strictly” applied.  The original rules and principles of BarCamp, if applied to REBarCamp, would produce events that fairly oozes elitism and would alienate everyone who wasn’t already in the know.

What I believe is necessary now is frank conversation within the RE.net — because after all, those of us who are in the Know are the ones organizing REBarCamps — about what the principles of Real Estate BarCamp rather than of BarCamp ought to be.  If the overriding principle is “Your Event, Your Rules” then that should be articulated and agreed upon.  But if there are in fact some set of principles for REBarCamps, then we should discuss what those might be.

In Part 2, I’d like to offer some of my thoughts, but let me leave this post with these questions:

  • What goals are we trying to achieve with REBarCamps?
  • Who benefits from REBarCamps?  Who should benefit from REBarCamps?
  • What principles and rules help achieve the answers to the above questions?

-rsh

  • http://www.drewmeyersinsights.com drewmeyers

    # What goals are we trying to achieve with REBarCamps?
    Discuss what's on attendees minds and share best practices with each other.

    # Who benefits from REBarCamps? Who should benefit from REBarCamps?
    Everyone should benefit from RE BarCamps. Not just sponsors. Not just newbies. Not just people in the know. Not just the organizers. Sure, everyone may not get equal benefit, but EVERYONE involved should benefit to some degree from attending a RE BarCamp.

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  • http://twitter.com/kvbuckley Kathleen Buckley

    What goals are we trying to achieve with REBarCamps?
    In my mind REBarCamps aim to help RE Professionals learn about and leverage a wide range of new, largely technology driven tools to enhance performance.

    Who benefits and who should benefit from REBarCamps?
    Benefits are highly variable and subjectively determined. Not sure have much control anyone has over this. Ideally of course, *every* participant would benefit.

    What principles and rules help achieve the answers to the above questions?
    Since we don't really have control over the outcome (who benefits) we can only attempt to follow principles and rules conducive to a productive learning/knowledge sharing environment for all participants, whatever their pre-camp “level” might be.

    On a practical level, and most importantly if these events are to continue in the future, the number 1 rule it seems to me *must* be: “if you’re organizing a REBarCamp, you do what works for you — again, within broad principles”. S/he who volunteers calls the shots.

  • http://joespakeblog.com joespake

    Especially relevant and timely post, Rob. I like the Knows and Know Nots illustration – a spin on Cool Kids and non-Cool Kids, I guess. With each *camp I attend, I see less collaboration and idea sharing and more presentations without discussion. I have even heard presentations referred to as classes by attendees. For me, the best experiences of sharing, collaboration and openness has been out in the hall somewhere, impromptu meetings with strangers, rather than in the presentations.

  • http://myeastbayagent.com andykaufman

    Hey Rob- Great, thought provoking post. Let me attempt to answer the questions you posed.

    # What goals are we trying to achieve with REBarCamps?
    As organizers, I think we should strive to provide a friction-less setting where participants can
    meet face to face with their peers who are passionate about the space can interact. As a participant, I want to meet people, strengthen relationships, learn & share knowledge without 'being sold'.

    # Who benefits from REBarCamps? Who should benefit from REBarCamps?
    Participants who engage & add value throughout the day's activities should benefit the most from RE BarCamps. Whether it's not sharing, not really making an effort to connect w/ the other participants or not exercising the 'rule of two feet' to leave a session for a better opportunity; if you're not fully engaged, you're not maximizing your benefits.

    # What principles and rules help achieve the answers to the above questions?
    I'm curious as to what others in the community think, but IMO a good start would be to remember that you don't attend a REBC, you participate in one.

  • missycaulk

    I attended a BarCamp in Ann Arbor that has been going on for a couple of years, with A2Geeks. There was so much synergy in the rooms and groups.
    One thing they said at the opening was, you are here to participate, if you go to a group and realize you are not getting anything out of it, or not what you expected, get up and move to a new group. They wanted to keep the synergy and discussions going.
    They also just had people passing around yellow sticky notes and you wrote down a topic if you wanted to share and they put everyone in a spot.
    It was a blast.
    Good questions Rob, I think it is just growing pains. I was invited to speak at one in Charlotte, couldn't go due to my son's wedding but have been invited to the one in Grand Rapids and said yes. I would much rather just sit in a circle or on the floor and discuss. I am not interested in teaching or in hearing others teach. I can do that at conferences.
    The beauty of ReBar camps is the interaction, which in my opinion is what made the first one so much fun.

  • geordieromer

    Rob-
    This is what I was trying to say in my post over at GeekEstate a while back.

    http://www.geekestateblog.com/barcamp-or-bored-

    I think the problem with rebarcamps currently is the lack of participation. I've only been to 3, but I'm not interested in going to any more lectures or powerpoints. I want to be involved in discussions. I think the next Portland OR barcamp with its 2 day (overnight) on campus schedule should be interesting.

  • robhahn

    A question I have is this…

    Take the “Advanced” crowd, of which you are part. Suppose I said I found an event that does exactly what you're suggesting — lively, full participation, no lectures, no powerpoints, just people who know discussing with other people who know.

    What's that worth to you? $500? $1000?

    One of the factors leading to the explosive popularity of REBC is that it is FREE to attendees. What if that changed? Would anyone come?

    -rsh

  • geordieromer

    How much is it worth? At $500 my expectations become really high and of course some of the best minds and voices don't show up to share their ideas. To be honest, it's less about the money than it is the time. If there is value I will take a day away from my business and maybe even a few days for travel.

    I think the REBC genie is out of the bottle and I don't think it will be coaxed back in. It has become a very large, free, educational workshop. I don't think you can turn it into something that fits the barcamp.org guidelines. That's too bad because that is what I think I would value the most. If other people find value in the current REBC format, more power to them. It's just a movement (like ActiveRain) that doesn't fit my needs or personality.

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