As I mentioned previously, having noted that Barcamp London is coming around again, I decided to get a little more involved this time and attended one of the recent meetings. It was an interesting experience. I hope to stay involved although I'm not being awfully useful to the team at the moment as the major focus is on earning sponsorship for the event.
And that's what's actually so interesting to me. To date, the events I have helped to run have varied from small scale personal parties, through large parties to raise the profile of a cause at a convention, up to conventions themselves. The biggest of these was Eastercon in 2009. What most people imagine when I talk about a science fiction convention is a hall full of people listening to William Shatner and queueing up for his autograph, and while that's a valid understanding to hold, there are more kinds of conventions in existence. The ones I frequent and have had a hand in organising are a rather different beast. Ask around the community and you'll find many people talking about the difference between an entry ticket and a membership. Eastercon encourages its attendees to see themselves as members, to be a part of the whole, to offer their own expertise and ideas and to be more than a passive consumer. These events are run on a relatively small budget, drawn largely from selling the memberships. The guests are not big name TV stars, but there is a big focus on the literary and the big name guests will generally be authors, some of whom attend the convention outside of their invitations to be guests of honour.
The budget is never fixed, a committee can never be sure what they will have to spend, they can only estimate based on how many they expect are yet to sign up. However, the money is assumed to a degree, and allocated to modest costs while hard negotiating is done to get a decent hotel deal that usually involves a certain amount of required bar spend, and filled hotel rooms in order for heavily discounted or free meeting space.
With that all taken as known, the main work of the committee is to work on the programme, to find the volunteers, to slot everyone into a vast grid to try to get a nice balance of programme streams that don't clash horribly with one another, and to make contact to get the people on the panels or giving the talks ready to perform. It's all fairly informal, but the programme is a major headscratch.
That's where Barcamps differ from conventions massively. The convention is closer to the traditional conference, however the conference has a more professional air, while the barcamp has the same cameraderie of a convention. While a con expects to find much of the membership visiting the bar regularly, Barcamps have no such thing, but may offer drinks and encourage the attendees to visit a nearby pub.
The meeting I attended was looking closely at the venue for the first time, and that was almost exactly like the hotel visits I've been on in the past. The people leading things scratch their heads and try to view the room from various angles, working out how they best fit together for their varied purposes and envisioning the partition walls pulled back. But instead of a hotel with some awkward and eager to please hotel staff leading the tour, we had a university building and a knowledgable faculty member enthusing about how it could all work.
It's intriguing to be in early and seeing behind the scenes, but I'm at a bit of a loss for suitable sponsors to approach directly myself. Unfortunately I'm unlikely to be able to make the next meeting, so I'm hoping to find some other way to make myself useful, and am keeping my eyes open for more of the differences and similarities and wondering if there are lessons to be learned in either direction.