Over the weekend, I visited Columbus, not just to hang out with skippy at ComFest and buy too much crap at Origins, but to attend and lead a session at PodCamp Ohio.  The side dishes to this entrĂ©e are actually better than the meat, but the meat was the point of the dinner, so that's what I'll talk about here.  I'm all about focus here.  Focus.  I showed up right on time for the welcome session on Saturday and checked in.  I hadn't been able to show up for the Friday night meetup because of the previously mentioned "side dishes".  I checked in and was shown to the "Speaker Lounge", marked off by signs with martini glasses (with olive!).  After a brief welcome from another couple of session leaders in the lounge, we all shuffled down to Room A for the introduction.  I'm not going to do a play-by-play of the rest of the day, because that's already feeling tedious.  Let me cover briefly a couple of sessions I did attend, and my overall impression of the camp. 
I stayed in Room A for "Podcasting in Plain English", which was a decent summary of podcasting, doing exactly what the title says: Translating all of the technical terms down into understandable language.  Using metaphors to do this can be powerful, but some of the metaphors in this one were off.  For example, "bandwidth" is not "number of cars on a bridge," but rather, "the width of the bridge, which increases its capacity to hold cars." Also, there was some contention over whether you could create a podcast without a blog, and here's where the trouble with the entire conference starts.  Rule #1 of podcamp (and specifically even posted beside every door at PodCamp Ohio) is:

All attendees must be treated equally. Everyone is a rockstar.

So when someone in the audience started talking about how you could create a podcast without an RSS feed, he should have been allowed to have his say without being shot down by the session leader.  Likewise, when I said that there are tons of services that provide a way to publish podcasts without a blog, including at least one of the podcamp's sponsors, I should not have been told anything like, "Ok, but you really need a blog."

The resounding theme with all of the sessions I attended was one where the camp put a person in front of the room to speak at the crowd; to convey the speaker's message and that message alone.  Although there were some Q&A periods, there really wasn't any sort of dialogue generated within the session.  I think this is where the real value of unconferences exists.  Apart from having a set structure of how things work and licensing applied to the conferences, the primary value of an unconference is having a room full of people in the same mindset as you to discuss a topic about which you know or want to learn.  Granted, you need to have a reason for experts to participate, and having a session leader fills that potential void, but it's the session leader's job to lead a session not lecture for the duration.  There were a couple of sessions that I could not attend because there was simply no room.  This is a problem that I've seen at other conferences, since there's not accurate way to gauge in advance which sessions need the larger rooms.  It's in this one odd case where not having the "unconference mentality" that I mentioned above actually pays off, since I will have missed nothing - having had no opportunity to interact with the session - by actually having been there.  I can simply listen to the recording of the session and gain everything I need to know.  This leads me to another disappointment.  I traveled 450 miles to attend PodCamp Ohio.  I spent more than $300 for the flight, and more than $150 for the hotel.  Plus I paid for food and other minor things.  For what reason would I travel so far, spend all that money, and use my most valuable asset - time - if listening to the sessions on the web offers no different access than sitting in the session in person? If I didn't have other reasons to be in Ohio this weekend I would be more than a little pissed.  Before you comment in response with "why didn't you interject?" I should tell you that I did not try after that first session.  From what I saw, many speakers were set on a path to talk about what they signed up for, and didn't seem to want to be interrupted from their task.  Also, I didn't attend every session.  Most session timeslots were packed 4 or 5 sessions deep, so there was no way to see everyone (although I did wander a bit when I had the chance).  And finally, I do see value in occasionally getting preached to, especially for people who are just receiving a topic for the first time.  If you don't know about it, you can't ask questions.  All that is granted.  What I'm saying is that if PodCamp Ohio is the same next year, it's truly not going to be worthwhile to its attendees, who will have moved on to more technical questions based on what they learned this year.  It's what happened to blogOrlando, and I see it happening around Philly, too.  Without a chance to interact, the questions people have will inevitably outgrow whatever a presenter can put in his slides, leading to disappointment.  So I tuned my session on tools a little differently.  The major fault I found with my own session is that it was clearly too broad.  I had expected that we would talk briefly about all different kinds of software tools.  I think we didn't even really talk about software at all.  We got stuck in hosting and DNS registration.  But what I think is good is that because I simply guided the session and let others participate, we got a great discussion about DNS and hosting horror stories from the veterans in the room, while the newbies in the room got to hear these trials first hand and learn to avoid them.  People who needed help asked specific questions, and I wasn't the only person answering.  That's how it's supposed to work.  You can dump a whole lot of canned information on people at a session, but it's probably no more than what they can get out of a book and a few hours with Google.  If you're doing a presentation of any kind, it's better to give personal accounts and insider tips than focus on the basic tedium that you can get by reading a For Dummes book.  Especially at a podcamp where other people are expected/expecting to share their stories, too.  So yes, next time I'll introduce a much narrower topic.  I would love to be more positive about the event.  I think I would be, but I wasn't swept away by the buzz.  Sometimes these events become tight echo chambers.  I challenge anyone who comes away from an event like this to think of three things they've applied from that event after three months have passed.  Then we'll call it worthwhile.  It's great to see friends and talk tech, but shouldn't that be happening unfocused outside of a conference too?  Here's a question: To where did the money go?

I have my t-shirt.  I am wearing it as I write this, in fact.  On the sleeve, there is the logo of the printing company.  Were these donated, or was the logo just a discount?  Why were no other sponsors logos on the t-shirt if it was just a discount?  Folks at Habari pulled together a good bit of money (for an open source project!) to sponsor PodCamp.  I'm not sure what we were expecting for our money.  The list of benefits as a gold-level sponsor don't really indicate anything more than what we involved ourselves enough to receive.  Still, the 10' of table space was shared with any other person who wanted to throw their business card on the table.  The bowls we set out to offer our buttons were filled with other people's giant home-made podcast promo buttons by afternoon.  And while we have no standing upon which to complain, for the value received in return for sponsoring podcamp, I would recommend that organizations considering it avoid it in the future, simply because there is no exposure.  The most bizarre thing about the sponsorship is the utter lack of recognition of them in the speaking components of the event.  ITT was recognized for offering the location.  TechSmith gave away a few screen capture apps in the closing session, and that is the sum total of talk time provided for sponsors, whose names weren't mentioned at all.  The sponsors weren't even mentioned in aggregate.

Moreover, a glaring and unforgivable omission is a thank-you to the participants in the sessions.  If not the lecture-giving session leaders who offered their time (since that would violate rule #1), then thanking anyone who did participate, including the session leaders.  Isn't that fair?  I flew 450 miles!  And finally, what is with the WordPress blitz?  Haven't you people ever shopped around for blog software?  You'd think it was the only software on the planet for publishing a website based on the session lineup.  You know, Drupal has a capable podcasting component.  Habari might not podcast just yet, but it does support rich media like nothing else does, and it was a sponsor of the event.  It was very disappointing to see that the bulk of sessions were about making WordPress go.  They should have called the event WordCamp Ohio, and then I could have played games at Origins or gotten sauced at ComFest.  My favorite moment at PodCamp was in the lightning session.  Skippy was doing a quick presentation of Habari for the room.  Someone asks, as they always do, "Why would I use this and not WordPress?" To which the room gives quiet consent to the proposal that even looking at another blog package is heretical.  My instant response, as Skippy will tell you, is "Because it's better" with an implied "duh" on the end.  Ten minutes later, skippy's shown them how the admin works and people are saying, "I need to write this down." This is the kind of revelatory experience that I'd hope to get out of every session, and I'm glad that it happened when skippy showed them Habari.  Also on the upside, I met a few neat people that I wouldn't have if I didn't go to Ohio, and we exchanged cards.  I met some people in person that I've only talked to online before, which is always fun.  That's really the best part of these things - interacting with the other people.  For me, I'm "shy" -- I don't like to just interject myself in people's space to make friends as fast as you'd have to at a conference.  This is actually what I'm doing in the background of this video (on the right, in front of Skippy) with Michelle Lentz, the leader for the session on Twitter.  That's why the interaction in the sessions is so important for me, since it gives us a context and conversation to build on where it's ok to interact with people I don't know.  The afterparty at Dave and Busters was decent, although the Dave and Busters itself had some so-so service.  I hear there was some issue with the tables needing to be turned over very quickly instead of letting people sit and talk, which is a bummer.  Seating at the bar wasn't bad, and had some live video streaming.  I played a round of House of the Dead 4 with Mitch Canter, and got the skinny on some of the behind-the camera workings of some of the Ohio-based podcasts.  D&B was genuinely worth the time.  Thanks to Dr. A for the Bass.  So what's the verdict for next year?  If there is a podcamp in Columbus next year, I doubt I would attend, simply because it's going to be off the radar.  I think I will refocus my efforts closer to home.  For example, this September there's a podcamp in Philly which would be interesting to lead a session at.  More focused, tight, with my friends from the area, talking about the evolution of rich social media beyond previous years' waves of "What is it?" and "How do I?" I'm thinking that year three's topic will be a great focal point.

Comments

Hi there!

I'm sorry the event didn't live up to your expectations, but at least you learned something to apply to future presentations. (I know I did.) Everything, good or bad, is a learning event. That's the trainer in me talking though. In my presentation, I tried to get discussion going. I have learned, though, that sometimes people just don't want to discuss, which can bring an inexperienced or overly technical presenter to a screeching halt.

I do want you to know that I had never even heard of Habari before Podcamp. I did see the buttons, etc, amidst every thing else on that table, and as I sat in the last half of my last session, I looked up Habari on my laptop. So I learned several new things, actually. Granted, there was no formal thank you of the sponsors and there should have been, but I bet a lot more people than you think informally learned about Habari, just like I did.

Also, I'm one of those strange folks who doesn't use Word Press. ;-)

It was good meeting you (and I'm glad I can't really be seen in that video. I'm camera shy!)

Cheers,

It seems to me that PodCamp Ohio was about everyone else just as much as it was you, and if the feedback says anything - it was a much more positive environment than you have defined. The "All attendees must be treated equally" quote doesn't mean that everyone's outspoken opinions during a session are correct. They're just allowed and being active is appreciated. I guess we also could use our two feet and walk out of sessions as well.

Nobody (including you and I) could pull off an event like this that pleases everyone. Angelo did a fantastic job for the first year and we all learned ways to improve the event for next year. I'd sure hate to hear what you would have said if the event wasn't free (thank you sponsors and host). I probably would have suggested some respect and approaching the staff of the event directly first (with as much negativity available in this post). Of course, all my "humble" opinions!

Michelle: It was nice to meet you, too! I suppose that I shouldn't discount the idea that people picked up on Habari on their own. Still, I'm disappointed in how sponsors were unfairly all relegated to a table in the hallway, and weren't spoken of at all.

A friend of mine mentioned that your session was more conversational, and I did listen to some of the recording that has now been published. While I agree that presenters in an unconference should be prepared to go the distance for their session, more effort could have been made in the sessions I attended to involve participants and create discussion.

Hopefully Podcamp Ohio '09 is more like that.

Gabe: I'm sure that everyone attending has their own opinion of the event, and I'm entitled to mine. I'm also sure that I'm not the only person whose opinion has negative aspects. This post was one that steamrolled from a few minor sore spots into one long, "Hey wait a second, I think we've been swindled!"

I'm really tired of hearing the "two feet" rule. I think people repeat it because it sounds cute. What does that mean, that I'm supposed to walk out of every session that doesn't encourage discussion? I would have attended no sessions at all!

Events like this are hard to coordinate, and everyone appreciates the effort involved. Unless you're a sponsor. Or a speaker. A mere mention of the sponsors individually and the session leaders in aggregate at the front and back of the event would have been enough.

I'm unsure why my critique would need to be approached to the event staff first, nor how that would have affected change after the fact. Maybe I missed something there.

It's really hard to look at this post from an objective point of view. I'm going to do my best, but please if I go off on a rant, call me out on it.

Let me begin this by saying that PodCamp is different things to different people. Some people go for networking, some people go to learn about the different technologies, and still some people go to show others things that really get them excited. New technologies, new methods, and new ways of doing old mastered techniques.

You talk about a WordPress "Blitz"... I led two of the three discussions on WordPress, so I feel like I should briefly interject on this. Looking at your blog, I see that (just like any other content managed site) it has certain elements that are essential: a header, sidebar elements, a footer with your blog's information, posts, and comments. It looks the same as mine on the outside, but the inside is what is different.

It's just like a car; whatever brand of car you are comfortable with is one you will drive as long as you can. It's one you will tell your friends about. It's one you will recommend and help friends with when they go car shopping. And if you really believe in the product you will tell anyone who's car shopping about it.

The same concept applies with a blog. Blog platforms are just like cars in the respect that you find something that works and stick with it. WordPress is not the end all be all solution to blogs.

People asked me this weekend whether they should switch from XYZ platform to WordPress and I told them the same thing I tell everyone: "Are you having problems with it"? If they said "No", then I said "only if you want to. If it's not broke, don't fix it". If they said yes, I asked what, and offered my suggestions on how WordPress could (or could not) fix it.

I am a firm believer in WordPress because I've "driven a WordPress blog" for 3 years. I know the code, I know the interface, and I know how to make my WordPress site do pretty much whatever I want. And when people recommend a blogging platform, I head straight for the "WordPress lot" to shop for one.

I started on Blurty (Livejournal) and moved to Blogger before I finally settled on WordPress. I tried Joomla; I came back to WordPress. I tried Drupal; I came back to WordPress. And I will honestly give Habari a shot. If it performs well enough for me, then that means I have another bullet in my gun for making fantastic websites that clients love. But for now, I stick with what I know and love.

On another topic, I agree that the sponsors should have been given the limelight. They are what make a great conference come together, and make it where people can enjoy it. I do agree with you there. However, if you weren't enjoying the conference, and you had other options (If I'd had known Origins was in town I'd have gone... I am a solid D?

The Law of Two Feet applies to everyone, and I had several people leave my sessions (my second one, especially) because the content I was delivering was for specific groups of people. But I knew going into it that was going to be something that would happen. I hope they got something out of the other sessions that were going on. I told many people in the hall "Go to my sessions, or don't go to my sessions. Just go where you feel you'll learn the most".

I drove 399 miles from Nashville to attend because I wanted to network with Daniel Johnson Jr, Brandice, Lewis Howes [a client of mine], and the other people I'd met from Twitter before I got there. Were there things that could have been done better? Absolutely; it's the first time PodCamp has ever been held there... things are bound to go wrong. Heck, Nashville still has hiccups and we've had a BarCamp and a PodCamp. Will I go back to PodCampOhioII? Absolutely, and if I have the funds, studionashvegas might sponsor it. Why? Because even if it's not something I get physical or monetary returns from, it's something I believe in, and something I encourage everyone to attend that has a chance.

Wow... sorry to write such a long comment, but I feel that there were some issues that needed to be addressed. Thanks again for the zombie killing at the after-party, and maybe we'll cross paths at PodCampOhioII (who knows, maybe there'll be a Habari 101 session that I can go in and learn).

PS: I'm taking your post and my comment over to my blog... I'd like to get other people's perspective on it.

Ah Man! I didn't realize you were going to be there too... And with origins being that weekend, it definately would have been worth a drive down.

Rats... I had a booth at Origins back in the day... circa 1996. I had the stuff bag from then too. I had a nice long conversation with Michael A. Stackpole at that one. Seemed like a nice guy...

Well maybe I'll bump into you at some other event... Cheers!

Mitch: I should clarify that I fully expected your sessions to be WordPress-centric, and let's face it -- WordPress is the predominant self-install platform. I'll admit to only attending the last five minutes of your 201 session, so I'm not sure how you personally handled your presentation in regard to my comments above, but I do expect that it was talking about WordPress.

What I find distracting is that there are many options for blogging out there, not just WordPress or Habari, but hosted vs service, and all of the options therein. As you say, not every tool works for every person, which is why it's distressing that WordPress was always the foremost/only choice presented to neophytes in the sessions I attended that were not specifically about WordPress.

This post may give the impression that I did not enjoy the conference, and that's not exactly the case. Perhaps I paid some attention to Jennifer Laycock's advice about making a message go viral?

I'm a jaded old guy in this "new" media. I've been blogging since before it was called that. I want to share what I have learned, and I hope that's valuable. I'm not sure how to apply the rule of two feet to people like me. If we all walk out, who is left to talk?

Saying that you're free to leave if you don't like it isn't enough, since that doesn't seem to result in the most positive experience for everyone.

I think people if people continue to read what I've written as constructive criticism rather than baseless criticism, Podcamp Ohio will certainly be much better next year.

Bryan: That'll teach ya! ;)

In case it doesn't survive moderation, here's my response to Dave Jackson's post, linked above at #9:

I'm sorry you were offended by my brief opinion of your presentation. Taken as a whole, your presentation was good for its intended audience. My post wasn't entirely about you though, and I'm sorry that I used you as an example to illustrate my other general problems with Podcamp Ohio. Please allow me to clear up a few things, both about my thoughts of your presentation and what I thought of podcamp in general.

"Bandwidth" is the width of the bridge. It's the rate of possible flow. It's the difference between 20 users at 56kbps and 20 users at 1mbps. One eats through available transfer faster -- this is the word you wanted, "transfer". Bandwidth absolutely can scale. Some hosts offer fixed bandwidth, while others burst when more visitors connect. Unlimited transfer is absolutely not the same as unlimited bandwidth.

I was not insulted that you didn't mention Habari. The reason Habari sponsored the event was to become more well known, which unfortunately, sponsoring the podcamp did not do well as well for us as we had hoped. Unless you count this post, which I think doesn't reflect well on anyone.

Nonetheless, if you're presenting podcasting to a novice audience, omitting the many great newbie-friendly free and commercial hosted services is a big oversight. That was what I was trying to add during your session at Podcamp, and in my opinion the tone of your response was dismissive, which was even worse than the omission.

In any case, you needed only to look at the sponsor list to see these alternatives, which was the point I was trying to make in my post.

Ideally, you might also link to the list of WordPress contributors if you're into discovering motives. My name's on that list, too: http://wordpress.org/about/

"The event must be new-media focused - blogging, podcasting, social networking, video on the net." Yes. The tools that allow you to publish and create that content very much apply. It was actually the intent of my session to discuss these tools. Rather than focus on tools everyone knew, we did talk a bit about rarer tools like Aptana, which participants seemed interested in. I would have loved to talk about recording software. I also had a list of graphics packages, blog packages, server software, blog services, compression packages... There just wasn't time with all of the talk about HostGator.

I think it's clear if you read my post that my disappointment with the treatment of the sponsors by the event staff is the primary reason I would not recommend sponsoring the event. Even some of the event staff has conceded that. While I think the format of the sessions was disappointing in general (consider the differences between your presentational style and my round-table style), that wasn't the reason to withdraw sponsorship, as you seem to have read.

I hope that clears up any misconceptions you may have had about what I wrote, and maybe leads to improvement on all fronts next year. Thanks for the linkage.

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