Six Hundred Peas In A PodCamp
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Six Hundred Peas In A PodCamp

PodCamp began as an unconference on podcasting, but quickly branched out. Photo by Eva Blue.

No one expected nine hundred people to show up to PodCamp. Sure, that many people signed up on the PodCamp wiki, but, last year, only three hundred people had attended the weekend-long “unconference in all things podcasting, blogging, and new media.” Connie Crosby, one of the organizers, figured since PodCamp was free, there’d be a good chunk of no-shows. She projected attendance at four hundred.
On Saturday morning, six hundred people crammed into Ryerson’s Rogers Communication Centre for a day of sessions that included a workshop on using audio editing software Audacity, a discussion on social media in the public service, and a talk on incorporating social media in traditional media. In total, over forty-five sessions ran on Saturday and nearly twenty ran on Sunday, all organized and given by volunteers.

Normally, a traditional conference would cost hundreds of dollars or more, says Crosby, but PodCamp was free to promote participation within the community. She thinks in this economy, a free event is “perfect” as it provides a learning opportunity when many companies may be cutting back on conferences. “The city is hungry to connect and learn from each other.” In addition, “there are lots of small events,” but a large event like PodCamp helps to bring existing and new people together.

Connie Crosby, one of PodCamp’s organizers. Photo by Rannie Turingan.

The sense of community is a sticking point for Toronto tech events. Among the six hundred participants, there appeared to be two predominant groups: geeks and PR people. The goals of each group were disparate. Generally, the geeks wanted to hear about new applications for technology (such as video conferencing software Oovoo, shown last year) and analysis on how existing technology was being used. The PR practitioners appeared focused on using the unconference to learn how to do their jobs better, such as pitching story ideas to bloggers and learning how to monitor social media. (All a session needed was the key term “metrics,” or even “social media,” to be packed with eager PR folk.)
Usually, Crosby notes, for any unconference to work the “law of two feet” is important: if you don’t enjoy the session, move to another one. “If there are no sessions on what you want, start a session,” she suggests. However, at PodCamp, the mood was more collective and became a feeling of “us-versus-them.” A quick search on Twitter suggests the geeks found the PR people too one-minded, too focused on finding the return on investment of social media. Sample tweet: “bla bla bla social media bla bla bla ROI bla bla bla PR bla bla bla. $20,000.”
The issue was inevitable: geeks and PR practitioners come from different perspectives. Geeks usually work for themselves, producing content that interests them. On the other hand, for PR practitioners, it’s a job: they are working for clients, pitching content, looking for something—anything—to report back. For example, at a panel on building word of mouth, a PR practitioner noted that a site with even ten unique visitors a day was important to him. When a prominent blogger heard this, he scoffed: “ten people? That’s like a math error.”
A problem arises then as PodCamp faces two different directions: it needs complex, meaty technical sessions to satisfy the geeks and more general, return on investment–based sessions for the PR practitioners. One solution may be to split the days according to theme: one focusing on content and technology, another on measurement and monetization. Another move could be to create a spin-off camp that is more specialized and caters to the tech crowd.
Either way, this year will stand as the fork in the road for PodCamp. It’s not to detract from the hard work and successful execution of PodCamp. In fact, PodCamp’s popularity comes from how much it gets right, such as donating proceeds to charity—this year, to carbon offsets. However, as with anything that becomes more mainstream, there is the risk of losing the early adopters to something newer. It’s poetic that PodCamp faces the same struggle that so many geek brands do: how will it grow while keeping everyone happy?