The Not-So-Great Barcamp Schism

on September 12, 2011

You’ve probably caught wind of it already. A snide remark here, a subtle eye-roll there. What started as vague muttering in the ether of the twitters has grown to a dull roar of complaints: Barcamp Nashville is not legit. Whether or not these complaints represent a growing sentiment or a vocal minority remains to be seen. Never one to ignore the elephant in the room, I thought I’d talk about it a bit. I’m somewhat uniquely positioned to comment on this all, perhaps, because I can commiserate with both sides here. Centresource is a long-time sponsor of Barcamp and has been involved from the beginning. I even spoke at the first one in 2007 about something-or-other. I’m also a huge nerd, friends with many of the detractors, and one of the most cynical dudes around. So hear me out.

So what’s at the center of this debate? A cadre of Nashville’s more technically proficient programmer/engineer types feel that Nashville’s Barcamp is overwhelmed by “non-technical” people: entrepreneurs, business-owners, and self-proclaimed social media experts that have organized the event such that it’s hardly in keeping with the original spirit of Barcamp. In a nutshell: too many business cards, not enough neckbeards. More specifically, as Rick Bradley put it:

< @rickbradley> @cwage my (and others’) annual complaints would be silenced by (a) changing the name or (b) following the rules:

Similarly, @BCN_Critic (an account created on twitter specifically to voice complaints about Barcamp Nashville) objects to the rigid scheduling coupled with the random session selection, among other things.

To be honest, I can understand this sentiment. When you read about the history and make-up of the original barcamps, Nashville’s event bears little to no resemblance. But Nashville has never resembled other cities. Nashville is not Palo Alto, nor Portland. In all likelihood if we “followed the rules” to maintain the true barcamp spirit, Nashville wouldn’t have a barcamp at all, because it would have never happened: the demand (and resources) weren’t there. We didn’t have the pool of nerderiffic talent in Nashville to pull it off — certainly not in 2007, and arguably not now. Nashville does have “open, participatory workshop-events” suitable for the level we’re at: it’s called JJ’s Market on Thursday afternoons.

To their credit, Barcamp Nashville has never pretended it was anything more than what it is: a uniquely Nashville event. The description on the website says it plainly enough, describing BCN as “new-media focused”. It’s very heavy on the social media aspect, yes, but there’s plenty of technical meat. Last year I saw a very good session covering the basics of Arduino. Your average ruby hacker might think banging out WordPress sites is beneath them, but it’s not non-technical. The worst offense you can justifiably level at Barcamp Nashville is that they’ve co-opted the name. Oh well. That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Nothing is stopping the neckbeards (I can say that because I have one) from creating their own event truer to the original spirit of barcamps. I hardly think anyone involved with BCN would mind — on the contrary, I think they’d encourage it. The people involved with Barcamp might be “marketroids” or self-proclaimed social media mavens, but they understand the immense value of Nashville’s nerdier contingent. Frankly, I think it’s time for the Barcamp-haters to realize the converse is also true: marketing, social media and entrepreneurship might not be your bag, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless. We need them. For every Steve Wozniak, there’s a Steve Jobs. These are the people that will keep interest piqued, businesses running, and investment capital flowing into the city while we nerds are too busy riding out 72-hour mountain-dew fueled hackfests. The ferocity of the criticism and eye-rolling directed at Barcamp and many other Nashville technology-related institutions (NTC, JSF, etc.) is undeserved, and it’s not cool. It’s easy to complain every year — what’s harder is to contribute or create a viable alternative. Don’t like Barcamp Nashville? Last time I checked, the organizational meetings are open to the public.

Don’t hate. Participate.