A wiki for your thoughts

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Rows of people huddled in sleeping bags across the hall, conference guests standing up to declare they want to make a presentation, presenters actually agreeing to perform the dissertation duet.

This is hardly your run-of-the-mill corporate conference.

It’s what its sponsors call an “un-conference” or a BarCamp .

A Barcamp is a grassroots-driven, wiki-aided, free-for-all, ad hoc networking, gabfest that is fast becoming popular around the globe. (A wiki is a Web site that can be quickly edited by its visitors with simple formatting rules. “Wiki wiki” means “quick” in Hawaiian).

A BarCamp was recently held in Toronto, another will take place in Sudbury, Ont. next month and other cities around the world for BarCamp’s upcoming first year anniversary.

“All you need is space, a WiFi (network), and a wiki,” says Ross Mayfield chief executive officer (CEO) of Palo Alto, Calif-based enterprise wiki firm Socialtext Inc.

BarCamps are organized largely through the Web using a Web 2.0 communications tool kit.

Web blogs are used to promote the conference to a community not necessarily limited to tech savvy developers and artists. With the aid of wiki networks, a venue and date is set and interested parties communicate their intentions on what topics they want to talk on.

The name is a playful allusion to its origins, with reference to the hacker slang term, Foobar. Anyone can initiate a BarCamp, using the BarCamp wiki.

Attendance is free and generally restricted only by space constraints. Free network access, usually WiFi, is crucial. The venue also makes space for BarCampers, to literally camp out overnight. The movement relies on sponsorship ranging from venue and network access to beverages and food.

The idea made it into the wired world of developers and tech savvy artists largely through word of mouth and an organizational process that utilized a codified wiki that is publicly available.

Since first introduced last year in Palo Alto, it has been adopted in 31 other cities around the world.

Just as any Web blog, the list of speakers and topics is in a constant state of flux.

Schedules continue to change even as presenters speak. Throughout the conference, content is appended and amended in the blogs of participants.

BarCamp is the anti-thesis of a conference as we know it, according to Stefan Dubowski, analyst and editor for the research firm Decima Reports Inc. in Ottawa.

“It’s very essence is grassroots and not-for-profit, totally different from the profit-driven conferences set up by established firms,” said Dubowski.

The first BarCamp is a spin off from Foo (friends of O’Reilly) Camp, by invitation only annual tech gathering hosted by Tim O’Reilly, publisher and supporter of free software and open source movements. People who didn’t make it to the list, met at a bar and planned out a BarCamp.

Chris Messina, one the original movers of the BarCamp idea saw it as “an open invite alternative” to O’Reilly’s exclusive bash.

Messina credits himself, his roommate Andy Smith, Ryan King and Tantek Celik, chief technologist for the Web blog tracking firm Technocrati Inc. of San Francisco, for the original concept of BarCamp. “Among other things it would serve as a demonstration of the decentralized organizing potential of the Web 2.0 Generation.”

Messina is a communications designer who together with partner Tara Hunt of Toronto set up the Citizen Agency, a group of consultants from diverse fields.

Messina and friends set out to prove that what could be pulled off in a year with sizeable financial backing could be cobbled together in a week by a crazy gaggle of savvy geeks, leveraging only the Web and social networks.

“We don’t have much time, money or space at the moment, but we’re scrappy and committed to making this happen,” wrote Messina in his blog days before the actual conference.

“And yes, this should be a seriously good time – really,” he assured prospective attendees.

The first BarCamp was held in the Socialtext offices on from August 19 to 21 last year. It took less than two weeks to set up from concept to launch and it attracted more than 200 people.

Since then BarCamps have been held across Canada and the United States, Europe and Asia. To mark its anniversary, organizers will hold BarCamp Earth in multiple locations around the world from August 26 to 28.

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Read Part 2 of this article: Barcampers shed traditional rules – and inhibitions

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