I’m a little freaked out about the size of PodCamp NYC, coming up on April 7th at the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, New York. I’m worried that the very heart and soul of PodCamp, the sense that everyone who comes has the power to actively affect the experience, won’t scale when there are over 800 registered participants. How do you scale community? This is a long post, but might be of use to conference and unconference organizers. And one last thing: I’m not telling PodCamp NYC what to do. I’m thinking out loud for all PodCamps on how we might keep community at the core.
I Work for a HUGE Conference
First off, I work for Video on the Net, Jeff Pulver’s conference about the impact of the broadband Internet on TV, film, and broadcasting. This event, combined with VON (which talks about the voice communications industry), brings over 10,000 people together for a few days. And yet, the word “community” is plastered everywhere in the signage and brochures, and the event has a community orientation plus two community developers on staff. If VON can get it done, if Jeff believes so much in community that he pays me and Carl Ford to represent the very nature of community, I can figure this puzzle out for PodCamp as well.
Is “Community” the Flexible Schedule?
PodCamp NYC is so large that speakers and schedule have been mostly turned solid already, whereas in previous PodCamps, one of the appealing features was that anyone at the event could spontaneously schedule a session, provided a room was available, or a suitable space could be found to gather. Well, with over 800 people, that won’t work well in NYC.
The key asset here is PARTICIPATION. I want the people who come to feel that they can drive the content and the direction it takes. Maybe latecomers can’t schedule formal sessions, but how about this?
Recommendation: Build a large bulletin area and designate unassigned spaces where latecomers can schedule ad-hoc sessions onsite, either for follow-on from existing sessions, or to try new things.
Protecting the “Little Guy”
One of my pride-and-joy feelings about PodCamp is that we had LOTS of new people: a 12 year old boy, school teachers, a straight male knitter, and plenty more folks who felt they weren’t exactly the “A List” of new media. But by the end of the event, I’d like to think that EVERYONE felt they had been transformed into superheroes. Sure, we had some podcasting “royalty” in the room, and yes, I was very proud that our inaugural event brought them together under one roof. But the homeschooling mom and the shy guy with the great baritone voice he kept hidden in a whisper got the same, if not more, attention from me as did the folks getting 300,000 downloads a day.
Recommendation: Praise and raise up the new blood, the uncertain, and the fringe players. The rockstars will get their level of fawning without you. Treat everyone as important, as the main reason you’re there, because that’s the truth of it. You’re there to make community happen.
Be Kind to Sponsors as PART of the Community
Every time Christopher Penn and I talked about sponsors, we mentioned in the same breath that we wanted to treat them like the Public Radio model, where you give them love and credit, but feature them more like underwriters than flashy ad brands. We learned as we went that it’s important to give sponsors appropriate love, and treat them all very well, but from the start, we had ideas on how we’d rather see them be treated.
Recommendation: Invite sponsors to offer sessions, to share how-to with their products or services, or to record podcast materials (audio or video) that talk about what they do. Give them reasonable signage and link love online. But be up front from the start that the event is for the larger community, and that you answer to the community first. I imagine most sponsors will get that. (Would any sponsors like to comment about this?)
The PodCamp that seemed to do the best press to date was PodCamp Pittsburgh. Justin Kownacki and Eric Schark especially really got a lot of press to cover the event ahead of time, and PodCamps tend to well, press-wise, after the event left to their own. But there was nothing ever said or done about what to do with media coverage AT the event. Why? Because as far as I was concerned, anyone from the press who was at PodCamp was there as a participant first, a journalist second. That’s all I can say about that.
Recommendation: Press are people too. Sure, give interviews, but let them learn the same way everyone else is: by experiencing it.
Encouraging Conversation and Communication
If you step back about what the event is about, the most important part of community is getting everyone to talk and convey thoughts and feelings and information about what it is you’re all passionate about. That doesn’t require scheduling or planning or special considerations. It just requires humanity. But you can help it along. Stay attentive at all times for opportunities to connect one person to another, especially if they might benefit from knowing each other better. At the last Video on the Net in San Jose, I had some great opportunities to do this, and every time, it felt rewarding.
Recommendation: Put your best “connectors” to work, getting people to meet new people, and encouraging conversations about the experience. Leave “air” in the schedule for things like this. Encourage group meals and activities.
This is a picture of the day Christopher Penn and I met, shot by Bryan Person, who was also impactful on the creation of PodCamp. That day, we had no idea we’d pull off a really exciting event that would bring together hundreds, but inspire THOUSANDS. No clue. And yet, two guys with the help of plenty more people, got this event going and then let it loose for everyone to take a swing at producing. We don’t have much more experience than you. We have some experience. We learned SOME things. You’ll pick up more, too. All this above are just thoughts and suggestions, based on what I hope I’ve learned.
You might not have run a PodCamp, but maybe you’ve put on another event. Maybe you’re a conference junkie. Did you attend VON or Video on the Net? Whatever. I bet you have thoughts on the matter. Please let’s open up the comment section to a discussion and an enrichment of the post overall. And thank you.
Chris Brogan is co-founder of PodCamp, a free unconference about using new media. He is also community developer to Video on the Net, as well as a startup, Network2, a guide to the best Internet TV. He blogs at [chrisbrogan.com]
(photo credit, Bryan Person. Used without permission, but I hope he gets back to me.)