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 entrée 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.