BarCampCHS – Not Hu-gone Forever

photo by Joel8x https://www.flickr.com/photos/8×7/

By all accounts, the BarCampCHS has a lot in common with Hurricane Hugo. It stormed on the scene ahead of a huge expansion in the technology sector (Blackbaud moved here in 1992). Everybody claims that they were there, but can’t remember the exact year. It is spoken of in reverent and nostalgic tones as a time when people gathered to share and learn. Like Hugo, the event was followed by a long period of relative quiet, leaving in its wake a yearning for that sense of unity that followed. Well, the big storm is back, not quite with the category four intensity that some had come to expect, but with an impact nonetheless.

What happened?

BarCampCHS 7 was by most accounts a big success – record attendance, sponsors, and quality talks. BarCamp 8 is another story. Despite this hopeful tweet:

Even the all-important .org domain for BarCampCHS seems to have fallen in the hands of Russian hackers attempting to influence the outcome of the talk voting:

BarCampCHS 8 never happened and the BarCamp surge withdrew from the estuary. The Holy City was not alone here, though. Interest in BarCamps has dropped off notable worldwide.

(see https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=barcamp)

As Thomas Jerome Baker points out in his Let a Thousand Models Bloom: The Unconference is Dead, the BarCamp idea caught on too well and came to be perceived as part of the corporate spin machine.

Where did all the energy and enthusiasm go? Maybe some of it was channeled into SyntaxCon. Possibly, DIG SOUTH took up some head (and calendar) space. Or, more likely, the lavish parties and influential talks of PrawnCon were all Lowcountry nerds could handle. CharlestonTechSlack may also be partially to blame. With area geeks constantly in touch, the need for an annual gathering dropped off a bit.

Can’t start a fire without a spark

Not everyone was resigned to leave the glory that was in the past. For some time now, The Thug of Labs has been keeping the stories alive as part of our Slack-based oral tradition – posting memories of times past, loves lost, and JavaScript frameworks eclipsed by ES2015. Others in the community regularly noted that it had been some time since a camp, con, or fest took place in between pints of craft beer and scrolls through Instagram. Into such tinder one needed only throw a single ember.

Strangely enough, the thing that has kept us most apart is what finally brought BarCampCHS back together. The pandemic hit like a roller-derby team on a rampage. There were shortages of toilet paper, N95 masks, and Star Trek Original Series themed bathrobes. Tabula Rasa ran out of ones and had to write an entire middle-ware tier using only zeroes. Some DBAs from Booz Allen were spotted hocking black market transactions under the 26 overpasses.

After months of working from home, working out at home, and entertaining ourselves in our homes, the masses were crying out for nerd connection. Adam “The Gnome” Romer offered to use the Charleston Technology Group’s MeetUp to organize. Heather “Han” Solos offered to send an email blast with FeedBlitz. Consensus quickly built up around a format of ten minute lightening talks – long enough to convey some information but short enough to fit into a free Zoom. Talks were pitched and voted upon using a custom-designed on-line form one week in advance.

A modest new beginning

We won’t try to sugar coat it – four ten minute talks given to an audience of sixteen people is a far cry from the multi-track, all-day, robot-rich, live-coding, corporate-sponsored happenings of the not so distant past. Attendees didn’t come away with a pirate’s booty of lanyards, t-shirts, and not-quite-big-enough-to-install-ubuntu USB sticks, but it’s something — and something worth being happy about.

The gathering started with some social time allowing people to trickle in after work and dinner. A big thank-you was made to the Palmetto Project, which had allowed contributions to be tax-free donations since the early years, and dutifully guarded the funds in the intervening years. (Palmetto Project has since indicated their mission has diverged from STEM oriented ventures to other worthy goals and would like to pass the torch.)

The talks were impressive — skewed 50% tech and 50% other. On the tech side, we got a good introduction to HAM Radio and Haskell. On the social interest side, we got an introduction to sailing races and a missive on how to form a correct opinion, which was proven wrong.

But, to be sure, no one was allowed to go on and on and on and on as memorialized in this pithy epigram:

“very glad that BarCampCHS has returned, even if it was in a limited fashion. Having a forum that respectfully allows for the expression of ideas, while maintaining time limits, has become an increasing rarity over the years…”

— le thug du lab

And maintain time limits it did. At the appointed time, the joyful participants bid farewell and 73s, vowing to reconvene monthly, or maybe quarterly, and maybe on a weekend since nobody has anything to do on Saturdays anymore. There was no need to leave town for this one, but by all accounts you have to have a thunderstorm warning on the way to an evacuation order.

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