Podcamp Halifax 2015

From the main staircase to the coat check and all the places in between. A privileged white woman attempts to distil the essence of Podcamp, a volunteer's perspective. Written by Hub co-founder Tracy Boyer.

Podcamp organizers and Hub Halifax co-founders Joanne Macrae and Tracy Boyer @ Podcamp. 

Podcamp organizers and Hub Halifax co-founders Joanne Macrae and Tracy Boyer @ Podcamp. 

For years I’ve been involved in helping organize Podcamp Halifax. Each year, there is something that keeps me coming back.

This past Sunday, I sat with Ian Conrad, Breton Cousins and Joanne Macrae for an exhausted after event drink. We basked in the afterglow, a hazy fatigue and the satisfaction of a job reasonably well done. It always feels better when it’s happening and then over. The run up time to the event is sort of insane. I feel a combination of guilt and excitement. There is never enough time to do all the things you want. Things get missed but wonderful gifts of sessions and sponsorship appear. Regardless, the imperfection, the informality and the openness help make Podcamp what it is.

Podcamp is unique to other events I have attended in the city. I took some time to consider the unique qualities of the event I really enjoy and what it is I love about it.

To figure this out I went back to a fundamental question. What is Podcamp? I thought that answer would come easy. I’ve only regurgitated a blurb about what Podcamp is to 100s of people over the years. Working the coat check this year after 12pm, we were in front of the public who were tentative, curious, suspicious and intrigued by what was going on. Ok, yes the snacks out on the neighbouring table were a big draw, especially for big bags, but we responded to a lot of questions about Podcamp. On our list for next year is a new communication now in conceptual design – What is Podcamp?

Where do you start to answer that question? I usually start by explaining my interpretation of an unconference. Unlike the conference norm, Podcamp is intentionally non-hierarchical; the attendees are also presenters. We invite anyone interested in sharing something they know to host a session, regardless of background or skill level. There are no content or character judges.

The unconference approach creates an openness to the unknown, resulting in an agenda which is diverse in its content and changes each year. This makes it interesting for both the participant and organizer. There are always surprises.

The barriers to entry as a volunteer, presenter or attendee are low. We like to think Podcamp is an inclusive and welcoming unconference. But this year, via Twitter we heard something that contradicted that sentiment:

The class divide is absolutely evident when you look around #PodcampHFX, even though it's a free event it's for privileged people.”

As an organizer your initial reaction is to be defensive about a tweet like this (“It’s free, it doesn’t get more open than that.”) There are many ways to consider the tweet about privilege and the ensuing comments in the thread that followed it.

When I got over my defensiveness, I was able to really consider and hear this view for what it was. It takes courage to ask questions and make statements that rock the boat. I think it is very important to point out where you see something not working well in our community.

This tweet, the content of our conversations, and the discussions in the sessions themselves helped me see something I love about Podcamp. It’s something I feel doesn’t happen enough in our community: honest and respectful discourse.

I think people who come to Podcamp not only believe in this, they live it on various social media platforms and come together and live it at the event.

There is truth in the tweet about privilege, even if it was a criticism about something we work hard to create. It’s a hard truth to unpack for many of us who live with privilege every day. Months earlier a friend on Facebook who lives in the UK posted an article by Joyce Miller: Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean. It says a lot and was a reminder of something I take for granted. That tweet speaks to a larger, broader truth within but also outside of Podcamp in our society.

To me, Podcamp creates a place to be open, honest and challenge what you see, hear and what is happening. If this is true, critical, controversial or just different views should always be welcome and understood as part of the wisdom and insight of a community that is inherently diverse.

So again, what is Podcamp? From the website:

“Podcamp is an unconference for people interested in social media, blogging, mobile, web design and all the internets in between. It’s free to attend and anyone can host a session.”

It gets described as a digital unconference but I think the part that makes it really special is the piece about “all the internets in between.” To me, that is an invitation to bring something precious and important forward that perhaps doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else. What does all the internets in between mean? It could be anything and everything. I think it’s the wonderful crack in the digital infrastructure for something to get through.

It was interesting to look back later and see that the tweet about privilege was retweeted by 5 people and favourited by 20. That means something. I think I’ll leave the analysis of that to folks like Giles Crouch at Thistlwood. From Giles session it was interesting to see that the environment, women’s issues, and bullying were leading content in conversation on social media. That’s a change from last year–we are venturing into content that is more complex.

Podcamp also creates a space where technology and social values collide in a beautiful way.

In my experience with the Hub Halifax, I have seen the explosion of technology startups and more recently the emergence of many more social enterprises. Have a look at SOCAP or closer to home, the Centre for Social Innovation.

Unfortunately, I see too much divide in emphasis and investment between technology and socially oriented ventures. At Podcamp, the blend of these two things are prevalent. I think this is in part to do with a broad invitation however imperfect on the privilege front. Two sessions this year looked directly at technology and social values: Does Twitter build social capital? by Ryan Deschamps and Social media as tool to overcome the Digital Divide by Andrew D. Wright. Of course, there was some straight out digital content which is also totally fine but there is a healthy blend happening.

To finish up, it was great to have Ryan Deschamps, one of the Podcamp Halifax founders, in town all the way from Regina. It was a particularly special year for Ryan because he worked for the library when he started Podcamp with the vision that it would one day be held in a new central library space. That day was January 18th, 2015, a dream realized.

After talking about the journey, his question to all of us, as I heard it was:

“The dream of a central library venue has been realized. What is the next dream for Podcamp Halifax?”

There are a lot of possibilities and challenges, what could we do for 2016?

In chatting with Jeff White of Kula Partners (who hosted a great pre-Podcamp party!) we both wondered if there could be more Podcamp-like unconferences in Halifax. Some people have asked for more than one day or multiple events in the year. This year there was even a request for a kids Podcamp! Maybe we just need more of this kind of event or people might consider changing their more traditional conference to a Podcamp-like experience.

That’s it. Thanks to everyone who made 2015 another great year to be at Podcamp Halifax.