ArbCamp, Unconferences, and the appropriate uses of a Community Brand

I live in the MidWest, specifically South-East Michigan. For four years I lived in a sleepy small town in the Commutershed of Metro Detroit. What this means is that there is little to no "Geek Community". For years (decades?) the Metro Detroit area has seen a brain-drain of its brightest to sunnier (or at least better connected and funded) climes such as San Francisco & Boston. Almost anyone interested in technology is usually either locked up within a big corporation (or somehow affiliated with such), or has just left. The remaining live in the star of South-East Michigan, Ann Arbor. Did you that 4 of the Google Management team went to the University of Michigan - including Larry Page?

I moved to Ann Arbor in March and have since found a really great, if small, tech/entrepreneur community in the town. I've been wondering why there aren't more tech groups, communities, hack-sessions, and whatnot. There are some, but they're disjointed - and typically focused solely/primarily on 'enterprise' more than 'cutting-edge'. Therefore, I was excited when initial talk came up around having a BarCamp in Ann Arbor.

However, when the actual details of ArbCamp were announced, things immediately seemed odd. $15 admission fee and a $50 keynote speaker, and only 9-4 schedule. There was immediate discussion within the community about the appropriateness of a keynote speaker and hefty fee for a BarCamp styled/themed/named event. From my perspective this is exactly what I've felt is wrong with the South-East Michigan Tech area. It has a lot of potential, interest, and energy, but is very quickly (and sometimes subtly) wrapped in corporate shroud, commercialized, officialized, and repackaged to appeal to suits - and at the expense of the truly innovative tech community.

I've been to several BarCamps, all of which have been incredible (if hot, stuffy) and free. I've also been to FooCamp, from which BarCamp itself derived its name, but retained the concept. The concept is terrific and given the option between attending a professionally run conference and a BarCamp (assuming both free/low-cost) I would take the BarCamp.

Where am I going with this?

My point - besides a small rant - is that I still think its great a small group of people have taken the initiative effort to put together a community event and tried to garner interest. I am still going to attend and have encouraged others to do so too - and do our best to ensure it truly is an open, interesting, innovative, collaborative, provocative event. And I'm also trying to get people to go out after the 'official' event ends at 4PM (and the expensive, book-toting keynote speaker begins) and continue the geekage.

However, I think the entire debacle brings up the question of how to ensure community-driven brands maintain their level of quality and expectation. How does the 'BarCamp' community make sure that events that use the BarCamp resources, concepts, and good name follow the general tenants that the community prescribes (and no, that does not mean making everyone happy, the loudest are not the majority). The same holds true of other community standards. What would happen if there was a Microformats+, or GeoRSS 2.0 (ok, there is that, but just a confusion caused by Yahoo documentation).

There isn't really legal recourse - and I really hope it wouldn't have to be that. The community probably doesn't actually hold trademark (though in some cases they do, like OSM I believe). Is it just public ranting? Black-ball by the community? Counter-action?

I'm not sure. I don't think there have been a large number of challenges to these brands yet - but there probably will be in the future. Forking of communities, and not code.

I really do want the local community to succeed. However I think the suits, and geeks, need to really look at what the underlying problem is and why there is a such a brain/talent drain to the coasts. And no, its not because you're missing some key 'Java training course'.

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.