BarCamp Philly 2020

I went to a virtual conference this weekend called BarCamp Philly and had a really good time. The way they ran the conference was new to me. They somehow made the experience feel enjoyable and inspiring, which I thought was really impressive because I've had a hard time getting excited about virtual conferences this year. I've been to a dozen or so since everything got cancelled back in the spring, and this was the first time I stayed until the end and left feeling more energized than drained, fired up with lots of new ideas and inspiration and even a new acquaintance, which is super exciting to me because I find it so hard to meet new people during a pandemic.

This post is about a few of things that I think helped make this conference so much fun to attend. I think it would be really awesome if there were more events like this. Needing to do everything online makes me sad, but one obvious upside is that is makes a whole world of new experiences accessible. I probably wouldn't have travelled to Philadelphia for this conference, but I got to experience it this year remotely.

I also want to add a caveat that I am not a conference organizer and am certainly not knocking any other conferences. I have no doubt it takes an incredible amount of work to deliver a conference online, and I'm super grateful for all the amazing people who spent their time (often for free) making all the wonderful conferences I've been to this year happen.

I think we're all figuring out how to adapt to this crazy new world and it's just going to take a lot of experimenting and trial and error to land on the best solutions for different types of events. So in the spirit of learning together and optimizing our collective online existence, I wanted to share some things I thought the BarCamp Philly crew did particularly well, and that made my experience as a conference goer so awesome I felt like I couldn't not rave about it here.

Well Organized Discord Server

I had never really used discord until this year, but it seems to be catching on as a popular platform for groups and events. After seeing the way BarCamp Philly used it, I think it's a pretty ideal platform for virtual conferences. These are some ways they used it that I found particularly clever.

Helpful Welcome Messages

With discord it's somehow possible to set up an introduction flow that forces people who are new to the group to see certain information and click buttons to move on to the next steps. I have no idea how it's done, but BarCamp Philly did this and it forced me to read some info about the conference that I'm pretty confident I would have missed if it hadn't been the first (and only) thing visible when I logged in. It simulated the check in experience at a real life conference, which is something I didn't even notice was missing from most other virtual conferences until now.

At a real life conference you don't just materialize in the middle of a lecture hall where someone's about to start talking. You show up, pick up a name tag, check out the schedule and get your bearings, then wander about aimlessly for a little while until the talks start. Maybe you even start awkwardly introducing yourself to strangers or bumping into acquaintances.

BarCamp Philly's discord welcome flow approximated this nicely. By the time I had clicked through the whole process I knew what to expect from the day, what talks were happening and when, where to go if I just wanted to socialize or relax, and where to get help if I needed it.

They also had the conference code of conduct prominently featured in this welcome flow, and it was modelled after this safer spaces one, which was really great to see. I always appreciate seeing these kinds of ground rules explicitly laid out up front, myself being in an unfortunate demographic that seems to attract a disproportionate amount of harassment.

Clear Schedule and Sign Posting

One of the main struggles I've had with a lot of my other virtual conference experience is trouble figuring out where to go at what time. To be fair, this is a struggle at a lot of real life conferences, too. But at BarCamp Philly I always knew exactly where to go at what time and was never surprised I was in the wrong talk. Even though having to awkwardly step out of a room because you accidentally went to the wrong one is a slightly less awkward on zoom, it's still not great, so I was happy to have avoided it all day.

They had a discord channel for each talk and the channels were grouped by the time the talk was happening, since there were multiple ones in each time slot. At the top of each channel there was a post describing the talk with a useful abstract, links to more info about the speaker, and a list of things to bring or prepare. The next thing in the channel was a fresh zoom link for each session. I really liked how this setup made it super easy to figure out exactly what was happening at what time in which zoom room. That's a lot of stuff to coordinate, especially because there were usually 5 talks happening at the same time! They did an amazing job.

Non-conference-talk Spaces

Another thing I loved about the conference discord server was how they set up some spaces that weren't just about the conference talks themselves. A cool thing about discord that a lot of other chatroom type apps don't have is voice and video channels. They're conceptually similar to regular channels, except when you click on one instead of switching the message feed to show only messages from that channel and giving you a text box to type into, you basically are jumping into an ongoing voice or video call, like a zoom room. I found this a little jarring at first, but then I realized everyone is used to people dropping in and out of these rooms.

They had a few channels like this set up to simulate the in-between spaces that are everywhere at real conferences. They had a couple of "hallway" rooms, a "quiet space" room, and even an ongoing "crafting area", where you could literally bring some crafts to work on to take a little break from conferencing and just hang out with people. There was even an after party where a bunch of people stuck around for some drinks and conversation. I thought these spaces were a really great way to bring some of that conference magic to this new virtual space.

Lots Of Interaction

The best parts of real life conferences always happen between and after the talks. I think this is probably the hardest thing to replicate online, which is probably why it feels like it's the main thing missing from virtual conferences this year. BarCamp Philly did an amazing job giving attendees lots of opportunity to interact, which I think contributed a lot to making the day so enjoyable. There were those informal spaces like I just mentioned, but the way they organized the talks also helped a lot with facilitating interactions.

Small-ish Groups

There were usually 5 or so talks happening at the same time, so each one had a relatively small group of people attending, like a dozen or two-ish. I really like being in these smaller groups. It sometimes feels kind of pointless being one of a few hundred people on a zoom call. This is different than in real life. If you're one of a few hundred people in a lecture hall, you'll still be sitting next to a smaller group of people you can turn to to chat or discuss the talk. To make that work online you kind of just need to have smaller groups.

I didn't get the impression the organizers planned any particular group size, but it ended up working out so there were just a few people attending each talk. It's actually possible to have some conversation with like a dozen or so people in the same zoom room, so we had a chance to say a few words before the speaker started and to chat after, which made me feel really nostalgic because it felt pretty close to what it's like in real life.

Well timed talks

Another thing I really appreciated was that the talks only took up about half the time in each time slot. There was tons of time after the speakers finished to ask questions that led to follow up discussions. I love these discussions where you get to hear about what other people think and collectively process the talk. It really makes the message sink in for me. There was also a pretty generous amount of time between each talk, at least 15 mins but sometimes more, which might not sound like a lot I guess but it felt pretty ideal to me. It was enough of a break to make it feel like I wasn't just jumping from one zoom room to the next all day long, but not so long it felt like I wasn't "at" the conference anymore.

Great People

Great speakers and a great community are really what make conferences what they are, and Philadelphia clearly has both in spades. These are, unfortunately, the kinds of things you can't just magic into existence or replicate at just any conference, but I think they're ultimately what made the day so awesome.

Diverse Topics

The talks at BarCamp Philly were a total grab bag of miscellaneous interesting things. I really like these kinds of conferences where there's something for everybody. Obviously a lot of conferences have more focused talks just by their nature. It's totally fair to expect mostly technical clojure talks at a clojure conference, for example. But even at special-interest-specific conferences I think there's a lot of value in having a track of more general interest talks for those times where you need a break from diving deep into technical details or want to expand your world a bit.

The speakers at BarCamp Philly covered a lot of what I call "intersection" topics – ones that overlap the boundaries of a few different fields. I love these kinds of talks because they attract people from a wide range of backgrounds who all bring interesting and unique perspectives. I got to learn about Wardley maps for mess management (because who doesn't have several ongoing messes to manage?), web accessibility, goal setting, polymath as a legitimate life path, career development, spam, and working from home. I ended the day with tons of recommendations for books, courses, ted talks, and other resources to dive deeper into the things I found interesting and felt inspired to actually do that after the conversations we got to have after the talks. It's been a long time since I felt motivated to do anything, honestly, so this was huge for me.

Amazing Speakers

One main takeaway for me from this conference is that small, independent creators are where it's at. A lot of the speakers ran their own consultancies or other small businesses and spoke with genuine interest and experience in their thing. I love learning from people who are really into what they're teaching. It makes such a difference.

There's also something about small-time self-employed people. They're so down to earth and seem to speak more authentically and authoritatively than a lot of hot shot business or tech people you'll hear at bigger conferences. I honestly felt like I did not hear any bullshit all day, which frankly is too rare these days. At a lot of conferences it feels like there are at least a couple flavours of koolaid being sneakily passed around, but I didn't get that vibe at all at BarCamp Philly. It really felt like I was just learning a ton of useful new things from people who legitimately knew what they were talking about. They were even all super keen to talk about their thing after the talks. It was great.

This new world of online conferences is hard to navigate, and I can only imagine infinitely harder to create. There are some things I think should be ported from real life to online conferences, like showing everyone around, setting some ground rules, and setting up spaces to meet strangers. There are some other things that I think don't translate all that well and should be left behind for virtual conferences, like big lecture halls and big-ego, big-name star speakers. Then there are some completely new things that we need to figure out how to incorporate and use most effectively for virtual conferences, like discord and zoom and remote-friendly games and digital art.

In my humble opinion, BarCamp Philly struck pretty close to an ideal balance between porting the important things from the traditional conference model, ditching the broken ones, and inventing some completely new ways of running things. I really hope they keep at it and would be super excited to go to more events like this one! This conference will definitely be on my radar now and who knows, maybe it'll be a good excuse to visit Philly someday 🙂