Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILs (part 1 of 2)

Here is the first ever guest post on this blog, by Reed Esau of Skepticamp. Watch soon for a note from me about future guest posts and then Thursday for the conclusion of this two-part article.

Five years ago last weekend an experiment began in Denver, Colorado with a few dozen local skeptics assembling for an unusual day of talks.

This wasn’t a traditional conference event with celebrity speakers flown in from afar, but rather an event with talks drawn from the local participants themselves. The eleven talks covered a range of topics, from the abuses of attachment therapy to claims that the Apollo Moon landings were hoaxed. We saw a hilarious talk detailing the bizarre conspiracies surrounding the Denver International Airport and a presentation by local paranormal investigators Bryan and Baxter.

Nor was this event organized in a traditional manner. It deliberately adapts a successful conference model from the tech community called Barcamp, a model that places substantive events within the reach of amateur organizers. We called this Barcamp for skeptics a “SkeptiCamp“.

The experiment didn’t stop there. As of a recent weekend with Edinburgh’s fourth event, we now stand at 51 events in total, spanning three continents, five countries and this year with the first events in a Spain with talks given in the native language.

With such a track record, this novel experiment in introducing peer education to skeptics could be considered a modest success. With continued steady growth, SkeptiCamp’s future looks bright, especially as more of us grasp how the model works and realize the benefits these events can bring to one’s local group and its individual members.

Growing pains have been expected with many events suffering from various small failures, from overburdened organizers to participants who arrive with expectations of attending a traditional lecture event. This article (in two parts) highlights the most common of our mistakes.

So in the spirit of incremental improvement, of building on our successes and avoiding mistakes, welcome to a listing of the “Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILs”.

#10 FAIL – Overwhelmed organizers

More often than not, these events are spearheaded in a new locale by one or two individuals who assume the ‘lead’ role in the event’s organization.

If we as leads have little experience in marshalling others to volunteer for the organization effort, we might find that entire effort resting exclusively on our shoulders. That same problem holds true if we find ourselves unable to delegate tasks and collaborate with others.

Adding to this burden: first-time organizers often forgo simplicity and pursue the trappings of traditional events. Insisting on a fancy venue, t-shirts, sponsors, lunch, website, badges, etc. adds complexity that can easily overwhelm.

To avoid this burden of complexity simplify and focus on the essentials. That starts with asking what’s the least we can do to have a successful event. This buys us a plan that stands within reach and can help to enlist others to organize our first event.

#9 FAIL – Collecting registration fees

Events in the traditional mold often collect fees or donations to raise funds or cover expenses, such as speaker honoraria, venue fees, catering, etc.

SkeptiCamps by contrast are intentionally free to attend, or at a nominal fee in certain high-priced cities to cover the cost of the venue for the day.

Why do we do this? The reason may surprise.

Handling money is a barrier to organizing events. It must be raised through sponsors or from attendees. Those dollars must be tracked, especially where confidence is needed that donations are being put to good use. But this particular barrier is not the central reason.

Many potential participants are on a tight budget. Free events can better accommodate them, requiring that they only find a way to get to the venue. However, this also is not the central reason.

The reason we want these events to be monetarily free: to reshape our expectations of open events and why we might participate.

At SkeptiCamp events, we wish to set the expectation that we ‘pay’ by helping to organize the event or by giving a talk to our peers. Asking for cash up front dashes these expectations and returns us to a skepticism where few will feel inclined to engage and take ownership in the event.

#8 FAIL – Lack of transparency

Some of us organizers will keep our cards close, making decisions privately for reasons that might not be apparent to others. Even if done with the best of intentions, this approach risks resentment and deters others from taking on roles as organizers.

This is not the way of open events. Instead we favor practices in organizing that can produce recurring events that can grow and spread to every corner of the world.

Fortunately the practices of organizing in the open are straightforward.

Schedule regular meetings via Google Hangout (or a similar free video conferencing service), encouraging anyone who is interested to attend and participate in the organization of the event. In Colorado we’ve had such conferences every two weeks leading up to the event.

Maintain an agenda on the event wiki so fellow organizers can come prepared. Allow anyone to add items to that agenda. Use the wiki to keep track of what needs to be done, who is carrying the ball and their progress towards completion.

#7 FAIL – “Let them have their say!”

Be wary of those who insist that speakers be extended the courtesy of being permitted to complete their talk before the floor is opened to questions.

This might be fine for curated events where speakers can be vetted to reduce the risk of misinformation, but it’s stands in opposition to the goals of SkeptiCamp.

First, it’s a rare speaker who can be trusted to finish on time. Ensuring they finish with sufficient time for questions is overly optimistic.

Second, relegating questions to the end of a talk will lose the context of the question. Having questions in the moment may disrupt the speaker, but does capture the context.

Third, misinformation whether intentional or not on the part of the speaker risks establishing itself in the minds of listeners should it go unchallenged. By setting the expectation that the participants serve as the quality control of these events, we should (in theory) be more attentive and likely to raise our hand to question the odd assertion.

Or to put it another way, SkeptiCamps are not speaker-oriented events. Rather, they are interactive, discussion-oriented events. No one offering a talk has a right to circumvent this basic goal of open events, even if it means they run out of time to finish their talk! If the speaker does wish to continue, please take it out into the hallway.

#6 FAIL – “Where the heck is everybody?”

As organizers we might go to the time and effort of acquiring a nice venue but are unable to attract interest to fill it up. Or perhaps we’ve had a sufficient number of registrations to fill the venue where many don’t show up come the day of the event?

Our first mistake may have been in choosing a date that conflicts with the schedules of our potential participants, such as the day of a popular local sporting event. Don’t do that. Have respect for the schedules of our potential participants.

Second, how did we promote our event? Did we merely announce a date and location along with a brief description of the event? Such a lackluster promotional effort is typically not sufficient. Instead we might find that our event will benefit from a collaborative promotional effort that leverages the strengths of social media. (More on promotion in Part 2.)

What about those who sign up that don’t show? Any event will suffer from attrition, but for an event that’s free to attend where expectations haven’t been properly set, we can expect a significant number of no-shows. How do we avoid this attrition—to keep it down to an acceptable level and make the best use of our venues?

Many event organizers have eschewed the wiki and instead feature a fancy website or ticketing system to register attendees. Bad idea. To understand why, consider that SkeptiCamps are social events that we attend not only for the content presented, but also in anticipation of who will be there.

Hiding the list of attendees (or burying it on a page behind a link) defeats this social aspect of open events. Those who sign up via our fancy website won’t feel the least bit compelled to show on the day of our event should a more inviting opportunity arise. In contrast, being listed prominently as a participant creates a social obligation to attend, especially if friends and acquaintances are looking forward to our talk.

To put it another way, our central asset in promoting our event is our list of participants. For those of us serious about combating attrition, that list should be front and center on our website. This is why Barcamps and the Colorado SkeptiCamps have always favored keeping the participant list highly visible.

Please return this Thursday for the second and final part of the Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILs.

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About Reed Esau
Reed Esau is a software architect in Denver who started thinking about BarCamp and skepticism shortly after attending TAM5, his first skeptic conference. Along with Rich Ludwig and Crystal Yates-White he organized the first Skepticamp event that occurred on August 4th, 2007.

5 Responses to Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILs (part 1 of 2)

  1. David Rice says:

    There have been at least three talks at SkeptiCamp Denver that were anti-science, anti-skeptical, pro-conspiracy nut-ball propaganda (specifically, two presentations that claimed human-caused climate change did not happen, and one presentation that claimed an evil cabal of scientists are preventing millions of human lives from being saved from disease). This is probably a good thing because even crazy paranoids can participate, but it’s also a bad thing because it sucked up time that could have been used for presentations from sane people.

    • Reed Esau says:

      So long as questions can be asked during the talks themselves, the excesses of these unorthodox speakers can be kept in check. My head spins at granting them an audience for a full 25 minutes without challenge!

      Perhaps too we learn a bit as skeptics by seeing first-hand how questions can turn what might be a talk chock full of misinformation into a fruitful discussion.

      More on curation in the second part.

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