BarCampNorthEast: Day 1

Last weekend I took a drive to Newcastle for BarCampNorthEast – 350+ mile round trip for the region’s first BarCamp. If you don’t know what a BarCamp is, the wiki describes it as:

BarCamp is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos and interaction from participants.

It’s a form of Unconference which are growing in popularity and now happen in cities all over the world. The by-the-people, for-the-people ethos is what makes BarCamps different to virtually all mainstream conferences.

The organisers of BarCampNorthEast had booked out the Art Works Galleries for the two days to provide plenty of space for informal discussions as well as four areas for sessions.

IMG_2990After the initial introductions the the schedule board was opened for bookings. Here you write your proposed topic on a piece of paper and stick it in the timeslot/location combination of your choice. Over the two days there were over a dozen slots giving enough variety in the sessions.

IMG_2984My first session was Ian Forrester’s Get started with a Diablo. If you think this has little to do with the web, you’d be right! But that’s part of the attraction of BarCamps – they mix marketing, development, non-web technologies along side unrelated topics. Ian demonstrated the basics using a Diablo and got people up to give it a go with varying degrees of success.

Next up for me in the session before lunch was Glyn Wintle representing the Open Rights Group. The sunlight made seeing the slides impossible but the message was clear enough. The ORG is a British equivalent of the EFF and are actively involved in raising awareness of digital rights issues.

It’s pretty obvious when people appear on TV promoting the use of DRM that they’re representing big industry, but who’s promoting the alternatives? That’s the ORG. They act as a press clearing house to hook up journalists with experts to talk about issues like electronic voting, DRM, ID cards and loss of personal data.

If you can get The Sun to run with a techie article, you’ve won.

Recent activity has included signing up as election observers at electronic voting trials to report on problems (and there were problems!) and pushing the recent story about Doctor Who knitting patterns. All very interesting stuff.

I scheduled my session – 10ish five-minute ways to improve your website – for straight after lunch. This was a mistake. I had two and a half people turn up, but these things happened so I flicked through the slides and had a pretty interesting discussion around the topic.

The reason for the low attendance was a combination of the timetable running a little late, people finishing their lunch and, probably most critically, me attempting to go head to head with a world famous biomedical gerontologist. Aubrey de Grey has spoken at TED and appeared on the Colbert Report so has a slightly higher profile than a web developer from Lancashire 🙂

I managed to catch the end of his session titled How to become a successful heretic and I’ll be watching some of his other talks when I get the time.

Next up, Jon Sidnell’s managing cross-browser styling in CSS with no conditional comments. There’s a demo of the technique online but the basic idea is that JavaScript is used to add classes indicating browser and platform to a top level element (such as the BODY tag) which can then be used to base browser- or platform-specific stying on. While Jon used JavaScript to apply the class, it could also be done server-side by inspecting the headers sent. The technique is not going to be 100% reliable as some browsers spoof their User Agent but it’s pretty accurate.

Yahoo! Europe’s Community Manager, Cathy Ma went back to a previous life researching the social dynamics of Wikipedia to give a session titled Wikipedia’s Trust: Social Deep Dive. Here’s the slides:

Professional pirate Tom Scott did a great session on viral marketing but his opener was a bit of a kick in the teeth 😉

Sturgeon’s Law: Ninety percent of everything is crap.

In the absence of a copy of the slides to crib from, I’ll mix bulleted notes with more of my comments.

  • Let ideas come naturally
  • Brain thrives on connections – don’t try and overthink
  • Make it now; make it quickly; make it cheap

Tom told a number of stories to demonstrate successful techniques. The first one was a parody of a government website Preparing for Emergencies where he noticed on the day of release the they registered only and not the version of the domain. The spoof website resulted in a lot of publicity, interviews with newspapers and take down requests. The lesson was that acting quickly and not thinking too much about the details meant he was able to make it work.

My favourite slide was a graph showing effort to awesome ratio. You can do this yourself on the back of a napkin: linearly chart awesomeness against effort; shade in one half; use this as the basis for all decisions you make.


  • Get a tripod
  • Get room tone
  • Film more than you need
  • Film cutaways
  • Edit three times
  • Be merciless in cutting out everything that’s not required
  • No titles at the start of the film

The second story was about the video You cannot remove your fingerprints with pineapple. He used it to demonstrate some of the videoing techniques like cutaways. Basically how you lie to the viewer 😉

The third part of the talk discussed what happens after you’ve produced a cool viral concept:

  • Send it to your friends
  • Say yes – interviews, links
  • Say no – advertisers
  • Moderate or deactivate comments [I’d go for moderation rather than deactivating – only need to look at YouTube to see that open comments can be abused]

The third example showed the growth of Tom’s UK branch of the Talk Like a Pirate movement

  • 2003: Three radio stations call
  • 2004: Dozen
  • 2005: Marie Curie Cancer Care & 2 dozen radio stations
  • 2007: Charity Single
  • 2008: Alton Towers workshop

My final notes:

  • Make sure you can handle the feedback and after effects
  • £10 or £1,000,000 are still likely to fail
  • Social Media Optimisation
  • Create an atmosphere where ideas can be suggested
  • Make sure not embarassing if it fails
  • Monetisation – self promotion

My final session of the day was lurking at the back of a discussion group led by Tara Hunt talking about mind hacks. My notes for this section don’t make so much sense which probably means I should be taking on some of the ideas! This kind of session is one of the things that makes BarCamps completely different to traditional conferences and gives a real balance to the event.

That was all for my first day – I left before the BBQ and evening socialising to meet up with a friend and so managed to get a sofa to sleep on rather than the cold concrete floor (thanks Ali!).

In the next post I’ll be talking about day 2 of BarCampNorthEast and reflecting on some of the ways it ran and how these can be brought into the HE world!

3 thoughts on “BarCampNorthEast: Day 1

  1. Hi Mike

    Was vainly googling, and noticed you’d mentioned my session at BarCamp 🙂

    I’m going to be writing something up a bit more substantial than that demo page (not that it’s complicated!), but I’ll let you know when that’s done if you’re at all interested.


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