Twittering Types Share Ideas Offline

Monday, October 20, 2008

About 120 self-described geeks got together Saturday in a Georgetown basement to discuss the merits of JavaScript, toss around ideas about improving the Web and, in one session, learn the art of juggling.

The event was the second iteration of Washington's version of BarCamp, a technology workshop meant to demonstrate new business ideas and promote discussion of the top tech issues: social media, open source and how to actually make money, to name a few.

Attendees call it an "unconference," which Wikipedia says is actually a word, and it's meant to be an informal gathering. So informal that the makeshift schedule was made with blue masking tape on the wall.

"It's where you can get a lot of start-up-oriented business people in the same place so you can get some ideas," said Charlie Park, 29, who drove from Williamsburg to attend. It's his way of staying in touch with the region's larger tech community. "You need to actually connect. Twitter only goes so far," he said, referring to the microblogging tool.

Park was getting ideas for his start-up,, a tool that lets people manage their expenses for $3 a month. Jeff Brown, a Web design teacher at Damascus High School in Montgomery County, was there to find guest speakers for his class and pick up a few design tips.

The name BarCamp may be a play off the hacker slang term "foobar." BarCamp was a spinoff of Foo Camp, an invitation-only conference hosted by tech publisher Tim O'Reilly. The first BarCamp was held in Silicon Valley in 2005.

Justin Thorp, one of the BarCampDC organizers who also works at local start-up Clearspring, told a slightly different story. Legend has it, he said, that BarCamp was started by a few bruised egos who didn't get invited to Foo Camp. They started their own unconference with the acronym of "Bay Area Rejects."

Many of the attendees hailed from social media firms that specialize in social-networking widgets and interactive marketing. But the government contracting world was also represented: One organizer works for CACI, and another works for L-3 Communications.

In one session, Adam Boalt shared the story of his business,, which had $5 million in sales in its first year. In another, Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs explained the Apps for Democracy contest he's hosting with the District government. Web developers are creating mobile and Web applications designed to give residents more access to city data, like Metro train schedules and neighborhood crime statistics.

But the fact that there were predetermined sessions went against the whole "unconference" idea, a few attendees said. For them, it was still too much structure.

-- Kim Hart

© 2008 The Washington Post Company