BarCamp Organization

I haven’t written about BarCamp last weekend because others have done a good job giving an overview of what happened. If you haven’t seen the pictures, check out Flickr.

But I do want to ruminate a bit on the self-organizing nature of BarCamp. I was skeptical, even though others claimed it would work. For those of you too lazy to follow the links, everyone comes to BarCamp prepared to teach something — from JavaScript to juggling. The hosts (you really can’t call us “organizers”) provide some sort of signup mechanism… in our case, 2×3-foot flipchart paper taped to the walls. We had one sheet for each room for each day (Friday evening, all day Saturday) with a crude grid of times down the left hand side: see here for an example. Add a fistful of magic markers, explain the rules in a loud voice, and stand back. Within half an hour, the grids were mostly filled, and people were planning their routes from session to session.

This is an incredibly non-optimal way to organize such an event. It’s not even particularly rational. How can you decide which event goes in which room? (We had half a dozen rooms ranging from 10 chairs to 100.) How can you avoid scheduling sessions that would attract the same audience against each other in the same time slot? How can you make sure introductory sessions come before advanced sessions?

As a poster child for the left brain, I can visualize all sorts of mechanisms… each attendee gets one vote per time slot, and you circulate a list of all potential sessions, and each attendees prioritizes his or her votes, and you work out a weighting function, and count noses to fit each room….

Or you go with the flipchart paper and the fistful of magic markers, and It Just Works.

There’s probably some deep lesson in all this about the nature of self-organizing systems. Or maybe it’s just a trivial observation: collect intelligent people, trust them to act intelligently, and the results will probably be pretty good. Not optimal. Not as good as my (unimplemented!) multiply-weighted-and-prioritized voting scheme. But good enough to work.

If you haven’t attended a BarCamp (or any of the other breeds of “unconferences”), you should.


  1. Michael Mealling says

    It worked for the size of the crowd we had. I think if we had doubled the number of people then it would have been a bit more chaotic. But I’m not so sure since SoCon ’07 seemed to work. I think the difference there was that some sessions were already specified prior to the event so people could coordinate around those.

    I don’t think I would go so far as creating the solution you describe, but I would create a wiki with a schedule and let people start filling in slots a few weeks prior to the event.

  2. Stephen,
    Thanks for the link!

    One difference between BarCamp and SoCon is all the SoCon sessions and session leaders were defined ahead of time. Truth be told, I’m not actually sure why there were sign-up sheets other than to give an idea of headcounts.