I attended an unusual conference this past Saturday. It was the Raleigh-Durham BarClamp. A BarClamp is a sort of an "un-conference" where, according to the BarCampRDU Web Page
...people interested in a wide range of technologies come together to teach and learn. Unfamiliar with the un-conference format? Here's the idea in a nutshell. Rather than having scheduled speakers, everyone pitches sessions the morning of the BarCamp. Those sessions are put on a schedule, and lots of little groups form for intense group learning. Everyone is expected to teach, to talk, to participate....The lack of a formal structure to the content is quite liberating. Each session has the feel of a really good panel discussion where everybody in the room is on the panel -- or like an interesting talk where you skip the presentation and get straight to the question and answer session at the end, which is usually the best part.
It... Wait a minute... [Note to self: There is no L in BarCamp... No wonder that Yahoo Image Search couldn't find the logo. Hmmmm...] Where was I, Oh yes: BarCamp!
For those of you who are, as I am, both computer jockeys and semi-fannish SF fans a BarCamp combines the better features of a technical conference with those of a small regional con with no Klingons. It is a geek-fest par-excellence and, what is even more astounding, it was free. RedHat provided the space in their offices in the NCSU Centennial Campus and other worthy organization provided food, books, web hosting, coffee, t-shirts, etc.. (See the BarCampRDU site for a full list of who provided what.)
Someone has gone back into the BarCampRDU wiki ( barcamp.org/BarCampRDU ) and entered the session grid. If you are interested its about half-way down. The sessions I attended were 1C: Reputation Online, 2E: Sex and Death of Advertising, 3A: Social Networking, 4G: Future of Social Browsing, 5C: Ajaxifying Your WebApp with Dojo and 6E: Multi-User Blogging.
I am way, way too lazy to summarize the subjects discussed but I will mention a few ideas that struck me during the day.
Online Identity and Online Reputatuion were recurring themes, probably because they (especialy identity) represent unsovled (potentially unsolvable) problems. How exactly can one decide who one can trust online? Is the other person who he or she claims to be and can that person be trusted? In order to make any decision about the second part -- reputation, or whether a person can be trusted -- one must first be sure of the first -- identity, or who exactly are we trusting? There are a number of approaches to these problems and none of them quite work. The reassuring thing about rubbing elbows with PhDs and researchers in these areas is to find out that it's not just me -- nobody knows how to solve the problems completely.
Social Networking and Online Collaboration Systems were another frequent topic. It was nice to be able to discuss these without the odd paranoia that surrounds more mainstream discussions. The discussions helped me sort out my theory that people use social networking tools to meet different needs, depending on who they are, and that certain features of the different systems are targetted to meet those needs. College kids use Facebook and MySpace to meet people and each user's page is their own personal advertisement. They tinker with their pages -- trying to create the 'perfect' page to attract the kind of person they hope to add to their circles of friend -- but their pages change very little from day to day since today's vision of perfection tends to look pretty much like yesterday's.
Most of the participants at BarCamp are college age kids and so this was the general notion of what Online Social Networking is all about. Since my age is approximately twice the average age of the participants I was able to offer another set of needs that are met by another set of tools. People my age tend to already have friends and we use social networking tools to keep track of the friends we already have. Because of this, instead of tools that tell who we are we prefer tools that tell what we have been up to. We expect that most of the people who visit our pages will be our friends who already know what we are like. We tend to gravitate to tools such as LiveJournal that have more of a journaling nature.
Noisy Bars are a problem I think about often. People will say they are going to a bar "to talk" but talking is almost impossible in most bars because the music is always ear-damagingly loud. The night-before party for BarCamp was held in Tylers in Durham -- a nice bar/tavern that would be nicer still if they turned the volume down to "merely painful." I mentioned the loud-bar-music thing to one of the BarCamp participants the next day and he suggested that bars do it because when people shout it sounds like they are having fun; but my theory is that the music in bars is kept loud so that men can interact with women without having to talk to them -- an ordeal which all men instinctively hate and fear.
So, in conclusion, BarCamp was fun. If they do another one I will notify my readers... just after I sign up myself -- attendance is limited and I almost missed out this time, being saved only by the waiting list.