A personal take on various topics

Why I Was Disappointed With Pune Blogcamp 2

I had a funny feeling as I was getting to leave the blogcamp. A feeling of incompleteness. A feeling that something had gone inconsistent with my expectations. A feeling of disappointment. Maybe it was unreal expectations. After all this was the first blogcamp I had attended. But it certainly wasn’t the first conference I had attended. Soon after I expressed that feeling of disappointment, I did get a few DMs n tweets wondering why. Sure seemed like I was one of the less excited people at the end of the blogcamp - a small minority perhaps. But there was an event, an event which I decided I had to act upon and express. For no other reason, but that it was the right thing to do. And if I ruffle any feathers along the way, so be it - with one caveat. I still think the unorganisers did a tremendous job of just putting the act together and providing a platform for so many people to come together and interact. Nothing I mention is meant to replace or override my deep appreciation and gratitude towards the unorganisers for that. I am certain there were other positives as well, but when you are writing a rant, its important to focus on the rant. So here were some issues that contributed to my disappointment at the blogcamp.
  • Understanding of Audience segmentation : To me for any event of this size, the audience is the king. The organisation of the sessions needs to be conducted towards maximising the audience value. There existed segments of diversity in the audience here. Part of that diversity actually already showed itself up in a thread prior to the blogcamp on the post Why you should attend BlogCampPune - 2. Some bloggers were already less than keen to attend a blogcamp. In general, I have gathered that there seem to be three primary blogger profiles. The expressionists focus on blogs as a vehicle for their creativity and expression. The amateur enthusiast value drivers focus on treating a blog as a vehicle to provide a substantial value to their audience and often end up classifying themselves into specific niches to be able to maximise that value. Finally there are those who treat blogs as a vehicle of commerce. There was no apparent attention to any of this segmentation. And as any person especially with a marketing background will tell you - segmentation is critical, to be able to provide maximum value. I have to be speculating here, but I felt this camp could’ve been run better if this segmentation had been addressed. Have global discussions spanning all, followed by birds of feather separation. Separate threads running for each segment of the audience. It would still not provide the maximum potential value for each audience member, but certainly would at least contribute to optimisation. Due to lack of concrete data, I am going to proceed on an uninformed conclusion. That the audience (there were 125+ of them) was predominantly non commercial in focus and was there to learn how to make their blog content superior. Blog marketing, page views, SEO was not at the top of their priorities. And yet the first two talks in the primary room devoted extensive attention and time to these topics. I have no issue with the topics, but given my uninformed conclusion, I just thought that it was a poor fit for the large audience.
  • Logistics and Infrastructure : While SICSR is a great patron of local events, one has to understand that its architecture is not particularly suited for Open Space based events. Two classrooms - one large and one small with small exit points don’t allow for easy movement of people. So attempting to conduct a set of sessions based on Open Space Technology (something I shall question later) in that architecture was definitely something to ponder upon. This was not an insignificant issue. It was an important issue which led to a substantial dilution of one set of sessions and a suboptimisation of the net result whichever way one looked at it. Instead this very architecture could’ve been leveraged by focusing on conducting separate session threads, each collectively addressing a different audience segment. An opportunity that was missed. There was also another way to segment in this case. The projector in the second room did not work with many laptops due to a faulty cable. One could’ve classified the presentations as “projected” and “non projected” thus helping reduce the substantial downtime in booting up each individual talk. But that was not to be either.
  • Time Management : A fair amount of time was spent upfront in every blogger introducing himself at some length. I think thats a great idea for a group of say 25 bloggers. But in a group of 125+ people the rule no. 3 in the Barcamp rules should’ve gotten applied - only 3 word intros. There was even a amusing situation I saw of one presentation extending itself with no intervention from the unorganisers, and finally one of the audience actually started playing the ringtone from his mobile just to hurry up the closure. If that was an isolated session it wouldn’t have been important. But combined with the fact that there was no segmentation based on audience interest, along with the fact that simultaneous presentations were scheduled with parallel time slots, and one of the two rooms started to be behind schedule, meant people’s planned juggling between the rooms also went for a toss. I for example had to leave before Navin’s presentation ended and had to miss Vishal and Sandy’s presentations, as the other room was apparently on schedule and I had to reach there well in time to prepare for my presentation and then struggle with the faulty cable for a long time. I don’t know if that disruption happened for others or not.
To me personally the biggest factors for my disappointment were :
  • The lack of focused threads (BOF) meant that I ended up attending the commercial / success focused presentations and missing the content or blogging experience focused presentations eg Sandy’s.
  • I felt a strong focus on marketing, pageviews, SEO etc. in Ankesh, Ankur and Jim Karter’s presentation - focus I thought was perhaps not why a majority of the audience had come there. I heard Navin articulate reader value and content. (I missed Meeta’s presentation entirely and Aditto’s partially). But what came across as the overriding impression was that there was a big imbalance between, the % speakers focused on blog success through tactics (SEO, Marketing) and those on content and readers vis. a vis. the same percentage spread from an audience interest perspective. I must admit that I enjoyed Jim’s presentation thoroughly as a manager and not as a blogger - at the clean and incisive way of approaching blogging as a commercial enterprise. However this was also the strongest element in my disappointment - that blogging is being viewed at so very commercially. I have sufficient commercial considerations in my daily activities. It was just completely disappointing to see bloggers discuss pageviews, clicks and SEO as the goal and content as the vehicle to reach the goal, with value to readers being just the necessary component for the ecosystem. Raised in me exactly the same cynicism that I have such an abundance of, when I come across managers discuss a P&L as the goal, with the commercial offerings as a vehicle to reach the goal, and customers being a necessary participant in the ecosystem. I shall leave the reader to decide where the cart is and where the horse lies.
  • The changing rules had me confused. I first prepared for a half an hour presentation, then changed it due to an apparent statement in the media that no presentation would be allowed to go beyond 10 minutes only to find again that the time slots were 30 minutes. Add to that the necessity of having to leave an interesting presentation and struggle with the setup for some time. (I really detest ever keeping an audience waiting for more than a minute - seems like I ended up keeping them waiting for ages). I am not quite sure what exactly the rules were as far as the presentation time slots was concerned.
Trigger I did refer to the fact that there was an event that happened which actually triggered this response. It was the publication of this ”Post BlogCamp Pune Self-Analysis kit” (especially starting with slide 13). So I did the self analysis. And I did not restrict my analysis to self - I pulled in the whole blogcamp and the notion of blogcamp and the rules around a blogcamp and Open Space Technologies. I did an analysis on the whole set. Barcamp, Blogcamp, Open Spaces are all new terms for me. But when I am faced with “Laws”, the first thing I generally do is to try to do my homework. So I decided to explore these laws on Wikipedia. Turns out the four rules and law of two feet are an essential tenet of the Open Space Technology. Also turns out Open Spaces help especially in the following context as per Wikipedia :
Proponents[who?] claim that OST suits groups of any size; groups ranging from five to several thousand participants have used it. According to its proponents[who?], it works best under the following conditions: 1. the topic of the meeting involves a real business issue (however one defines “business”) 2. the participants really care about that issue 3. the issue has so much complexity that no single person or small group can fully understand it 4. the issue requires highly diverse skills and people for a successful resolution 5. the participants have genuine passion about the issue; which can often include conflict (compare criterion 2) 6. the issue requires immediate action (a “decision time of yesterday”)
Aside: Incidentally a nice example of what could be an application of Open Spaces is the elaborate description of process of formalising the constitution of Mars in the Mars Trilogy by Kim Robinson. The entire sequence is built around attempting to formulate the constitution of Mars using a very large number of participants (unlike the committee driven formulation of the Indian constitution). I would highly recommend the trilogy not just to those who like science fiction, but also to those who are excited by political dynamics.
There was no issue that required immediate action here in the blogcamp per se, that we had to focus on. There was no decision we had to reach. So was this a completely inappropriate choice? Not really. Unconferences share many characteristics of Open Spaces, and BarCamp introduces a further variation. Interestingly the page on Barcamp states (emphasis mine)
FooCamps and BarCamps are based on a simplified variation of Open Space Technology (OST), leaving out some key elements like the 4 principles and the Law of the Two Feet but maintaining the self-organizing character of OST.
Now I am confused - are the 4 principles and the law of 2 feet applicable to bar camps ? Apparently those are the Laws we should’ve remembered while conducting the self analysis. And theres one more set of rules for a Barcamp. This includes the 3 word introduction as one of the rules. It also states “Presentations will go on as long as they have to or until they run into another presentation slot.” I would interpret that as stating that presentations should get terminated once a time slot is over. And while a time slot is flexible, that it varies between 10 minutes and 30 minutes is inconveniencing to say the least. So exactly what are the rules and the Law here ? I’m confused. And with regards to moving around etc. may I suggest the architecture of the location simply wasn’t the most conducive. If I may put forth the thought that under a classroom situation, it might just be better to move around the speakers and their time slots to suit the audience rather than expecting the audience to move around. So next time we have a bar/blog camp, am I likely to refrain from attending it ? Far from it, I would like to see if I can contribute positively. But not as an unorganiser. As an organiser. There are some situations and contexts where the highly unstructured plays work. And there are some where they don’t. The important thing is to not focus on the structure of the event - focus on the value to the attendees. 125 people for 6 hours is 750 person hours of attention. Its important to use it most effectively. Suggestion Next time we hold a barcamp / blogcamp, lets take cognisance of at least two factors. If it is a classroom structure lets adapt to it. And if the audience is diverse, lets work to figure out how it can be segmented and Birds of a Feather colocated. And finally lets understand the audience a bit better and encourage content which satisfies their needs and tickles their imagination in appropriately proportional terms. And lets have rules. We need rules. But if the audience isn’t satisfied, lets screw the rules and service the audience. And if you are wondering where audience entered the barcamp vocabulary - when you have 100+ attendees and about 10 speakers, it means you have a 90+ audience at the minimum. Not what barcamps were perhaps designed for.