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"Conversation. What is it? A Mystery! It's the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest, of pleasing with trifles, of being fascinating with nothing at all. How do we define this lively darting about with words, of hitting them back and forth, this sort of brief smile of ideas which should be conversation?" Guy de Maupassant

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I had a good time in Chennai at BlogCamp over the weekend. The best part, as is with most conferences and unconferences, was meeting folks from a wide array of fields. And the gupshup that always occurs when you catch up with old friends in person and are able to shake hands (and hugs) with your favourite urls. And the IRC which I did enjoy a lot and thought was really useful - thanks Bala and Ange for setting it up - a lot of questions for speakers came from there and much fun was had. And meeting folks you fight censorship battles without even meeting, like Jace, who is not only smart, witty and insightful, but is a fantastic photographer who makes his subjects look sooooooo good. I've grabbed most of the pics here from his Flickr feed.

It was fantastic to soak in the enthusiasm and energy of the young guys at Chennai, who couldn't contain their joy as you see in this pic, and who's hard work made this event possible. Adel, Aswin, Hitesh, K Shyam, Raghu, Andy, Kausikram , Ganesh, Varun, Vignesh... and all the others I didn't quite get to meet .. you rock!

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Peter, Neha and I briefly shared our experiences on Disaster Relief Blogging and I was part of the Corporate Blogging session, where we had 6 speakers in about 1.5 hours .. and so we all got 10 mins each. Instead of getting into more detail on Brands and Blogs, I just thought I'd share one aspect of it .. which are the risks involved, through the Kryptonite and Chevy Tahoe Apprentice cases ... the first company which ignored the blogworld and got a lot of flak for it, the second case an example of a company that preferred to manage the risk they took in asking ordinary folk to create ads for them, using stock files the company provided. Some learnings I shared on new 'rules' emerging for brand managers:

  • ïRisk Avoidance to Risk Management
  • ïSpeed, Real-time
  • ïEmergent not pre-determined
  • ïOpen, trust, transparency
  • ïConversation not Silo
Its a pity I missed the Blogging Outreach session, as it was parallel to the Corporate Blogging one. I really enjoyed listening to Rajesh Shetty share his tips for bloggers, and was amused by how Amit fielded questions on how much he really earns through blogging, in his Q&A session on Professional Blogging. I also enjoyed Sunil Gavaskar's session - he was erudite, humble and honest in his sharing of his experiences with podcasting and really engaged the audience. Sessions that annoyed me were those that were boring PPT's or those that were pitching their products blatantly. I think, as Indians not so accustomed to such events, we have a lot to learn about how to engage the audience and recognize when to carry on and when to stop.

In the closing session, before the quiz, Kiruba, Peter and I, with Veer's inputs thought we'd like to hold an open discussion with the whole group, on some of the deeper issues around blogging - responsibilities of bloggers, blogging as an addiction, Jace's neat insights into the overlapping of our public, private and secret selves as we blog, and on what popularity means. I thought that went off quite well and was happy to hear many many views.

It was quite a grand show with sponsors and kits and free wifi and back channels. However, there are some things I feel we need to re-examine as we go into more BlogCamps in India which is something Peter, Neha and I talked about over many cups of sweet coffee, where we felt we should have them more frequently, in different cities, and with more focus areas.

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Unconference as a Format
The first thing I was uncomfortable about was what Bothack calls this whole obssession with unconferences - he makes some neat observations and useful suggestions:

"I feel, Chennai bloggers are obsessed with the term ëunconferenceí. After the phenomenal success of the BarCamp, every other meet here is in the unconference mode. Unconference is a good thing, but not for all kind of meets. I would suggest narrowing down the content and more importantly having workshops instead of ppt sessions.

Also instead of having a BlogCamp 2007, I would suggest BlogCamp should follow the BarCampís steps. It should become global and initiate other cities to have their own BlogCamps. They can transfer their existing site to say chennai.blogcamp.in and have a registration page similar to BarCamp.org, so that other cities can register and share online resources."

While I don't feel unconferences are overrated, they do have a time and a place. I've been part of a pure Open Space Meeting coordinated for NPR by the amazing Rob at the New Realities Forum where the agenda was set completely by participants - if I remember right, there were more than 300 participants. However, it had a core theme - a very clear objective - and was really well-organized in terms of a lot of care taken in figuring out the venue, the rooms, making it easy for people to navigate through the free-flowing structure, and run by a real maestro in Johnnie Moore, who Rob describes as "an exemplar of calm courage and astonishing presence" which is a really perfect description of Johnnie.

The absence of organization around content does not mean its an unconference. For an event that has folks from all over the country and a wide array of bloggers -- we had tech bloggers, livejournal-ists, professional bloggers, mainstream media, corporates who blog and who don't, newbie bloggers and those who've been blogging for many years now -- perhaps the classic unconference might have been one big pool of chaos with participants having difficulty navigating through. I think our attempt at a classic unconference might have been disaster at this level.

Although there was some planning out of sessions, and those who wished to 'speak' on a topic had a space online and on a 'paper-wiki' (term coined by Kiruba) I do believe depth in content suffered as a result of the diversity in participants, the fact that this is the first time such a large event is being organised by bloggers for bloggers, the absence of a basic theme, and most importantly, the resistance to have sessions moderators and coordinators prior to the event or any sort of scheduling. Now this is alright when you're running a local event for a homogenous bunch of folks, or when the agenda is single-minded, but in our case, there were people who had invested time and money in travelling to Chennai for the event, and needed an agenda and a little structure. Here's a shot of the paper wiki Neha took:

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This last area is what might have made BlogCamp truly great --- where the session coordinators might have planned a little in advance how many 'speakers', whether to have ppt's (yucky) or speeches (yuckier) or conversations and dialogues (yummy). With a focus on depth of discourse rather than width which is what we achieved. We realised this while there, and tried to get some folk to moderate sessions - while some did a great job of it, others had much to learn. And we would have retained the spirit of an unconference by veering away from formal presentations and lectures .. to conversations and dialogue.

Venue - conference hall!

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The venue wasn't right for an unconference .. the auditorium was too large, too formal in its set-up and the sound system was quite horrid. The smaller conference hall on the first floor, where many of the tech tracks were, was much better in evoking participation from all.

Where are the women bloggers?

More needs to be done to bring in women who blog to such events. Suggestions? All-night beach parties aren't really motivating for all of us :):):).

I think we've all learned much ... I certainly did in the area of what needs to go into planning events at this scale!

Here are links to tons of pictures and blogposts on the event.

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