On the impossible BarCampization (*) of Universities and other lessons learned from rItaliaCamp

I’ve been at RitaliaCamp at University Bicocca in Milan Saturday. I surely want to thank the organizers who spent countless hours in the permanent SkypeSwarm, dealing with all the details. RitaliaCamp was an interesting event, not interesting because of the topics that emerged but because of the social dynamics involved. In fact I must admit I’m not satisfied with how RitaliaCamp developed. This is not a criticism of whom organized because, as usual, in a doacracy I could have just helped more. What I hope to contribute here is a description of what I perceived as problematic and possibly some lessons we can learn from the suboptimal development of rItaliaCamp, for future events.

The first, simplest and most important is: Never ever organize a BarCamp in a University.
Spaces shape social interactions and Universities are not designed to enable conversations between peers. The “No spectator, only participants” BarCamp rule is precisely the opposite of the default Universities rule (at least Italian Universities) “There is only one actor, the professor; all the others are spectators, don’t even try to be an active participant for one second, you know nothing.” I might say that Universities are not barcampizables (*). I created a page on the bzaar wiki Luoghi ideali per Barcamp (in Italian) in order to collectively discuss what are the ideal characteristics of a Barcamp location. Add your opinions there, if you like (strangely enough, I didn’t find a similar page in English in barcamp.org).
Moreover the WiFi connection didn’t work: in this case the problem was an error in communication with the responsible of the network: there is an antiterrorism law in Italy (idiotic law!) that requires you to make a copy of the identity document of everyone you give Internet connection to and provide an individual login/password. One more reason to avoid in future Universities which are sinking in their mad burocratization.

The second lesson learned can be: When there are many noobies, rules and goals have to be precisely conveyed the days before the Barcamp and at the beginning of the Barcamp.
There were around 150 (or 200) people at RitaliaCamp and for half of them it was the first barcamp. I think they received a bunch of contradicting messages.
1) the organizers correctly explained that “barcamp is a conversation among peers” but the model and size of the room in which we started suggested quite the opposite. It was a 450-seats frontal university room with a huge projecting screen and the organizers had to introduce the day using a microphone. And in fact the first social dynamics were all centralized around the speaker standing in front of all the others and holding the microphone: quite the opposite of a barcamp.
2) after an introduction, we were told we were going to start a collective brainstorming session but what followed was not a brainstorming at all. We received a predigested mind map explained verbosely and in all the details, and with the microphone. This was not a brainstorming session and it is actually quite impossible to brainstorm in this kind of frontal rooms and if you need to ask the microphone in order to throw your idea. Ideas should fly in the air at the velocity at which they occur in the mind of anyone. Second contradictory message.
3) then the brainstorming was ended quite abruptly (someone also complained about this) because we were in fact already at least 90 minutes late and we were going nowhere anyway, and people were invited to go in the corridor and to propose a talk attaching a post-it with the title in the preferred time slot in one of the 3 available rooms. Because for many it was the first Barcamp, because of the contradictory messages we earlier received, and because it was not clear what we should have spoken about, there were few proposed talks and everyone seemed in a “let’s see what is going to happen” mode. Eventually the first 3 slots were filled, but there were still some problems. One talk was about exchanging turistic information via proximity hot spots (by Stefano Vitta) and was scheduled in the 450-seats room, and basically the speaker was so down and far away from the entrance that everybody was perceiving the room as empty and the talk as not starting and hence keeping wandering in the corridor. At the end Stefano had to start the talk with around 5 people in this 450-seats room. Another talk was very technical about a 3D engine and so the people interested were not too many too. The third and last talk in the first time frame was from Marco Ottolini, the ex-director of italia.it (!) so you can easily imagine how basically all the 150 people wanted to attend his talk and listen what he has to say, expecting a sort of insider view I guess. I didn’t attend that talk (I wanted to move some people in other rooms) so I might be wrong but I’ve heard comments stating that he presented his complete vision for the Web promotion of Italy as turistic destination and that the talk was very long (almost one hour?) while the time slot should have been 15 minutes talk and 10 minutes discussion. This situation (all the people in one room listening the ex director of italia.it speaking in detail about his vision) led some people to think that this first talk was in fact the official position of RitaliaCamp organizers and that all the people (as “spectators”) had just to say yes and contribute. Of course this was not the reality, of course there was no official position of organizers but this was one additional contradictory message people (especially noobies at their first barcamp) received.
4) in general, it was not perceived as clear if this event was just for sharing ideas for future, or for starting working around something already predefined by the organizers. Some of the comments in the corridors and during talks were precisely about this. Again, I lurked the organizational SkypeSwarm the weeks before the event and I have to reckon it is not easy to define a clear goal and get everyone agree on it, while also dealing with thousands of other strategic and low-level but urgent things, such as “where shall the sponsor send the shirts?” So the lesson here might be define a one-line-goal and write it down as first sentence in the wiki and in the blog, separated from the rest of the text. Could I have suggested this myself before the event? Sure, and in fact, one more, these are not criticisms to the organizers.

Another point I heard (from Roberta if I’m not wrong) is that the conversation was led by geeks and hence turist marketers who were present didn’t understand their possible role and didn’t feel the barcamp inclusive for them and for their opinions and ideas.
There were also some people from IBM, the company who got from Italians some of the millions of euros for the highly criticized italia.it Web portal and so probably some people perceived the “money/power” aspect as well. I’m not sure about this, surely IBM presence didn’t affect me, besides the fact it was odd to see people with ties at a barcamp.

Going back to the barcamp as an instrument, I’m not sure how much a barcamp modality can be used for events with a focus (such as rethinking Italian turism strategy on the Web in our case, or improving Toronto transportation system in the Toronto TransitCamp case), I need to see more evidence.
Something that seemed to have been approciated was the add-your-idea post-it wall (that is currently going to be organized into an online mind map).
Speaking of things that were great, how not to mention the gorgeous products offered by San Lorenzo? Barolo-drunk cheese (?!?) was simply great! Actually my only proposal of the day was “let’s italia.it be just a redirect to www.san-lorenzo.com”. Not too much I reckon but if you taste San Lorenzo products you will agree with me, I think ;-)

Summary. There are some lessons we can learn from RitaliaCamp, the simplest one is “never ever organize a barcamp in an University, and surely not in frontal rooms with non-movable chairs”. In fact, best conversations happened in the corridor or on the back of the huge 450-seats rooms where we move some of the free chairs and had presentations there.

Anyway, besides these problems, 90% of which caused by the University setting I think, the event was worth the long trip from Trento to Milan because I had a chance to meet friends and know some new great people. It was great to meet again my friends Bru, Folletto (great presentation “ask the way” mashing up also on CouchSurfing) and Jtheo and to meet for the first time my other Bzaar pals Gianandrea e Simbul. It was a chance for meeting again Bonaria, and for meeting for the first time some of the people I spoke with in the permanent organizational SkypeSwarm such as Tara Kelly and David Orban.
It was also very interesting to discuss with Frieda Brioschi, President of Wikipedia Italy which offered some interesting points about the possible role Wikipedia content and model can play in Ritalia. Later we took the train together and discussed a bit also about what does it mean to be a girl on the Internet and why there are so few women at barcamp and similar events and of language and culture facets on wikipedia. It was also great to meet for the first time some blogger I’m following since some time: Orientalia4all, Luca Conti, Robin Good, Lele Dainesi and Nicola Mattina.

Again, let me be clear, it would have been possible to better organize this RitaliaCamp (it is always possible!) but I totally and deeply appreciate the organizational work of all the volunteers. I could have helped more myself and I didn’t. I could have forecasted some of the problems days earlier and warn about them and suggest something and I didn’t. So the intention of this critiques is to learn from the development of this event in order to possibly organize future events in a better way.
I really want to thank all the organizers for donating efforts and ideas for what they believe in. It is now time for everyone of us to make ritalia a success.
Contribute on the blog, the wiki and in the Bzaar Swarm. This evening there is going to be a SkypeCast.

(*) Barcampization (verb: to barcampize) is constructed in the same way as balcanization and finlandization. I like to propose new words, I would have loved to be the proposer of the word “podcast” and don’t worry I’m sure this one is not going to make it in Wikipedia too ;-)

12 thoughts on “On the impossible BarCampization (*) of Universities and other lessons learned from rItaliaCamp

  1. Old Jacques

    Don’t really know if it is the opposite or not, exactly, but I remember in the first session of Marco Ottolini one lady towards the twentyminutemark got up loudly and walked out protesting that if she wanted to think and discuss only about “touristy” stuff she wouldn’t have bothered coming. She expected something completely different. So I think it all depends on where you are coming from as to what you see (remember the old joke about the group of blind guys describing the elephant: Long, wet and tubular [trunk], flat, round and thin [ear], fat, bulky and heavy [rump], thin, short and bony [tail], just like a tree trunk up to about one meter [leg])?

  2. paolo Post author

    Hi old jaques, I was not attending Ottolini’s presentation but I surely entered the room when I heard the loud protests. Anyway I didn’t understand precisely the points. Surely, as you said, different people had different expectations.
    Are you following the BzaarSwarm? It is very interesting, especially now.

  3. Folletto Malefico

    I’ve just made some contributions to the italian wiki page you created. Great idea, and good starting point maybe for something ‘bigger’. :)

    Nice analisys, indeed. I’ve to say that some of these problems were predicted, but in the end some other choices were made.
    For example, the big room has been chosed for the ‘fear’ of a huge attendance…

    I’ve got to say one more advice, before: FIX THE NUMBER OF ATTENDEES BEFORE ANYTHING. :) 300 is the top limit for a BarCamp, and I think it’s really hard to do a good BarCamp with those numbers.

  4. Boh/Orientalia4All

    Should I think that universities are more institutional and stiffy than pubs?:) Shame on you!:)

    Anyway. Well, more or less I said the same thing, that RItaliaCampa was kind of stiffy. Despite the effort and the energy spent by the organizers, every and each of them, the tremendous amount of work and so on.

    Ciao, and please to meet you, too!:)

  5. paolo Post author

    Hi Orientalia4all! It was a pleasure to meet you as well, you are somehow not the typical blogger I read and I actually didn’t expect you to be as you are ;-) It was a pleasant surprise ;-)

    about “Stiffy”, I think your slang is much more advanced than mine.
    I tried to search “stiffy” on google
    and urban dictionary
    but they refer to “floppy disk” or “uncontrollable erection whilst on a bus”. Uhm, I’m a bit confused ;-)

    Have you seen this?
    “La bicocca e’ una scorreggia di cemento”

    Mai parole furono piu’ appropriate ;-)

  6. paolo Post author

    ciao Folletto!
    the changes you made to the wiki page are great! thanks! I think we had to translate in the barcamp.org site as well later on.

    “Nice analisys, indeed. I’ve to say that some of these problems were predicted, but in the end some other choices were made. For example, the big room has been chosed for the ‘fear’ of a huge attendance…”
    I know, I was lurking some conversations in the SkypeSwarm and I know how the decision came from and, at that time, I was thinking it was the only possible option. Today, after the experience, I think I have learnt a lesson: “even if you wait 1000 people, don’t go for a room like that! It is better for instance to do it in a gym with movable chairs.” Then, of course, it is not easy to find a gym with internet connection an available and for free…

    “I’ve got to say one more advice, before: FIX THE NUMBER OF ATTENDEES BEFORE ANYTHING. :) 300 is the top limit for a BarCamp, and I think it’s really hard to do a good BarCamp with those numbers.”
    I’m not sure I agree. But anyway, how would you limit the number of attendees? First registered on wiki, first served? And if someone who didn’t register come are we going to tell her “go away”? And there is not the risk of being perceived as esclusive, precisely the reason why barcamp was first created as a complement to foocamp?
    All questions for which I don’t have an answer of course ;-)

  7. Folletto Malefico

    Heh, that’s a real problem. If I’m not wrong, some BarCamps just “locked” the numer on a first-come-first-served ranking… but you noticed, that’s a real problem.

    Also, thinking ‘big’, BarCamps are growing, so it will be a recurring issue the number of attendants. If the numbers are not fixed, how is it possible to organize an event correctly? If I take 3 rooms with 50 seats, how I could handle 400 subscribers?

    I wonder if there is a way… :P

  8. paolo Post author

    modular rooms? or even better, big gyms with hundreds of chairs you can move around? total anarchy also about how the location will develop? what I see as fundamental i that everyone MUST give a talk (even 5 minutes) … high percentages of lurkers change the atmosphere for everyone. Anyway I have no clear idea as you can see. I tried to find something in barcamp.org ut beside this http://barcamp.org/OrganizeALocalBarCamp and the resources linked there I found nothing ;(

  9. paolo Post author

    I guess that since I write in English, you might think I know English well. But sadly this is not true ;-( but I’m here to improve, so thanks for “corpse” and “uptight” ;-)

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