On PodCamp, Epic Parties, and Brand in Flames

On PodCamp, Epic Parties, and Brand in Flames

Over the past few days, I’ve received lots of feedback about PodCamp Boston 3, and I’m thrilled people had such a good time, had such an educational time, and came away in some cases transformed, ready to take on new challenges and make themselves and their communities more powerful. I want to highlight one shift that has also been noticed at PodCamp Boston 3, well said by David Fisher:

Perhaps I missed a thing or two, as you can never capture 100% of what is happening at Podcamp, but also there was an absence of epic parties, and just the raw excitement. I would describe the vibe best as more mature and more professional, which isn’t bad thing but certainly a shift.

David, thank you so much for noticing! That was exactly one of the goals of this PodCamp, and I’m glad we achieved it.

A few thoughts on this.

First, epic parties are the responsibility of PodCampers, as is all content. Whitney Hoffman, co-organizer of PodCamp Boston 3 along with the rest of the team, helped me to understand why epic parties are definitely something best left up to the wisdom of the crowd. In case you didn’t know, Whitney’s also an attorney, formerly of Madden & Patton LLC and author of Public Facility Law, and has a JD from Dickinson School of Law. There’s a thing, apparently, called dram shop laws, which essentially make any organization that serves alcohol liable for the behavior of its customers. Additional court cases expanded this scope to include social organizations, which means that if someone gets blitzed on drinks paid for in part by PodCamp, we the organization become liable and can be sued into next week.

This, by the way, does not extend to venue rental, like we did with Tequila Rain. The venue is responsible under dram shop laws, unless we contribute money towards drinks. The moment a dime from PodCamp as an organization goes to a drink, liability spreads like disease.

In past PodCamps, generous sponsors like Jeff Pulver have opened the bar and performed other acts of social kindness for PodCampers, but in those instances, Jeff would be liable for someone doing something stupid on his dime. Silly, but it’s the law, and it’s an area we refuse to get entangled with.

Second, and most important, as David noted, PodCamp is maturing. It’s growing up, becoming more professional – and by that, I don’t mean owned by businesses, but rather the folks who came to PodCamp Boston this year were far more focused on learning, sharing, growing, getting the most of the experience, and finding new ways to understand all of this stuff. Socialization, realspace social networking, and enjoying the company of your community are all super-important, but we as a community are understanding just how much reach we have, and the consequences of that reach.

One of the lessons I learned by watching SXSW from afar is how easy it is to damage your reputation when you’re caught up in the manic energy of a massive crowd who are encouraged to party by the conference. I jokingly called SXSW the single best opportunity to ruin your personal brand this year, as some of the drunken tweets of folks – respectable folks that we all know in our online community – wouldn’t even be fit for an episode of Taxicab Confessions. At the MITX forum, Mike Volpe of Hubspot dubbed this “Brand in Flames”.

When it came to planning PodCamp Boston, we made the conscious decision to deliver the best possible venue, the best possible schedule, with the most free space and freedom we could give participants, and then get out of the way. While we had and have no desire to inhibit any kind of more casual social interaction, we also don’t have to enable certain less responsible habits by promoting partying. Instead, we promoted and focused on learning, sharing, and growing your new media skills – and left the partying up to you.

We’re seeing things like podcasting leave the “ooh shiny!” phase and enter the professional, educational, and non-profit communities as useful, valid, important tools that contribute to an overall media strategy. The people who make up the PodCamp community are wonderfully positioned as veterans of these new media tools and technologies. With the right amount of focus on results and professional behavior, we will see folks we know well as friends in the new media community become true powers in their organizations, helping to enrich the opportunities for ALL of us to do what we love in a professional capacity.

That can’t happen if you Google yourself and the first result is a photo of you laying naked in your own vomit with a caption of “OMG PODCAMP BOSTON WAS AN EPIC PARTY MAN!!!!! FTW!”.

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  • http://www.jbspartners.com fairminder

    Chris, this is a great point and provides strong leadership for the community. As you extrapolate any chosen set of behavior or activity out to the extreme, it is often much easier to see whether that activity is sustainable and valuable. You position clearly passes the test.

  • http://stevegarfield.com stevegarfield

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for this post. I was wondering why I attended so many sessions and learned so much. Many of the sessions this year were of interest to me. Contrast that to SXSW last year where a lot of the sessions were similar to ones I'd seen before. That lends itself to hanging out in the hallways instead of being inside sessions.

    I did have some great discussions in the open areas and was torn between staying there and going to sessions… It's a conflict that will always be there.

    Thanks for your website makeover session. I learned a lot in that one and already implemented some changes. Turns out one of my links was dead, It's all fixed up now.

    The very top of my blog now says:

    “If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed.
    Learn more about Steve Garfield. Watch my videos.
    Want more frequent updates follow me on Twitter. Thanks for visiting! “

    http://offonatangent.blogspot.com/

    Great venue too.
    –Steve

  • robblatt

    Chris, I think you are a little misguided with your opinions about “epic” parties.

    As a group of people, we aren't looking for the Podcamp organization to throw thousands of dollars towards drinks for the attendees. If there is going to be a sponsored after-party in a bar, the crowd would expect that we can go enjoy a drink or two courtesy of the sponsor. Instead, a large number of people were wondering what mDialog even put money out for if we got to the bar and it was a cash bar.

    The after party in my eyes is an incentive to get all of the attendees to one place afterwards in a different, more relaxed setting. The way to get someone there is with an incentive. Not having to pay a $10 cover to a bar isn't an incentive for the attendees and I couldn't imagine it being an incentive for the sponsors either.

  • http://banannie.com/blog banannie

    Chris, I feel like there's maybe a bit more parenting going on here than necessary.
    Conference parties are part of the experience, and like everything else, it's up to individuals to behave professionally- or not.

    At both PodCamps I've attended so far I was able to connect with people at the sponsored parties that I never would have run into in the conference venue itself, and from those connections I've developed lasting relationships. The parties serve as a giant mixing bowl, the sponsored open bar (at least for a couple of hours) an incentive to get everyone into it.

    Leaving all the social activity to the participants has one large drawback- what happens to the newcomer who doesn't know anyone, looking around at the various groups here and there who appear to have known each other for ages? That can be very intimidating. An official social gathering is one where the newbie doesn't have to feel like he or she is crashing someone else's party.

  • http://mediabullseye.com Sarah Wurrey

    Very interesting post! I think parties are definitely a part of conferences and provide even more opportunity for socializing and networking in a relaxed setting, but I agree the organization throwing the conference shouldn't necessarily have to provide the drinks. It does become a liability issue, and I think you all handled it well. Anyone who wanted to get roaring drunk at Tequila Rain had the opportunity to do so, heh, just not on your dime. :)

    One thing on personal brand destruction though, I don't think a person needs Podcamp or SXSW parties to do that, party or not. If a person is going to “drunk-tweet” and make themselves look foolish, they will probably do so whether they're out with friends on their own time OR at a conference. Self-destructive tendencies know no bounds!

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    I totally agree that it's up to the individual to behave intelligently. I've seen people at Jeff Pulver's conferences ($2,695/ticket) act like idiots, too.

    I'm all for casual social gatherings and for the conference to provide a venue for that to happen, as we did. Everything else that happens after that… that's up to you!

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    For transparency's sake, the mDialog sponsorship was a package deal, consisting of shirts, two named things (breakfast and party), and, well, the rest is on the site. I'm sure we'd welcome their sponsorship of a drink or two, but that's not a course I can recommend in good faith to a sponsor, knowing what liabilities are incurred with our admittedly silly laws. Had the party been their only opportunity for promotion, I'd say you were absolutely right in questioning its value, but it was more than that.

    When you say “a large number of people” – how large? 5? 50? Just so I can get an idea.

  • http://banannie.com/blog banannie

    I get the liability thing to a point- I'm not sure of the legalities here, it seems that open bars are a common enough thing that the liability is minimal, and a 2 hour open bar really can't be a huge risk. I sense there may also be a public perception issue going on here- people Google PodCamp and find party photos, maybe that's not the image organizers want to project, but that will happen regardless, because people will tag those photos PodCamp whether the gathering is official or not.

    This is more about incentive. Why will I go to the official party and pay $10 per drink if I can go elsewhere for less with my friends? Will you then end up with an official venue full of newbies while those in the know are somewhere else?

  • http://gamepr.blogspot.com RickWeiss

    Chris,
    It's fair that there are liability issues that make sponsored drink a touchy subject. I completely appreciate that.

    What about other types of “freebies” or ad-ons to get people excited about the event and add value to it? Things like finger food, free pool or other games/activities for people to engage in while mingling.

    The general consensus among the group I discussed it with (about 10-15 people) was “I'm glad I didn't bring a friend. Sure they'd be supporting a good charity; but we'd feel bad that they're getting nothing out of their mandatory donation.”

  • http://gamepr.blogspot.com RickWeiss

    Chris,
    It's fair that there are liability issues that make sponsored drink a touchy subject. I completely appreciate that.

    What about other types of “freebies” or ad-ons to get people excited about the event and add value to it? Things like finger food, free pool or other games/activities for people to engage in while mingling.

    The general consensus among the group I discussed it with (about 10-15 people) was “I'm glad I didn't bring a friend. Sure they'd be supporting a good charity; but we'd feel bad that they're not really getting anything out of their mandatory donation.”

    Did I miss something at the Tequila Rain party?

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    Nope, and that's good feedback for next time. Rather than leave, say, all the prize drawings until the last day, we can space those out more.

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    As a sense of perspective, we had a 90 minute open bar last year and burned through – I kid you not, $7,500 worth of alcohol for approximately 200 people. I know this because the venue double billed both Jeff and PodCamp, and boy was that fun to straighten out. Did everyone drink $38 of alcohol in 90 minutes? Heck no. But enough people did that liability becomes a real question.

    Incentive is excellent feedback and something worth building in. To be perfectly honest, if I had more resources and time, I would have instead gone with a catered Saturday dinner at the venue and then set people free for the evening after that. We might consider that for next year, so that you get fed, you get together with everyone without having to go far, and then people can ad hoc break up without having to rely on social networking tools that not everyone is fluent in.

    What do you think?

  • http://www.whitneyhoffman.com Whitney

    For those of you who may be going to Amazon, the book is Public Assembly Facility Law; I am second author after Turner Madden, my former boss who is chief lobbyist for the International Association of Assembly Managers.

    There is a trick in throwing parties and maintaining fun. We're looking into (not finalized, so don't kill me if it doesn't work out) trying a Geek Bowling Night for Podcamp Philly on Friday Night, followed by a return to Triumph Brewing for Sat Night and if we get sponsors, we'll look into providing food and the like, but it depends on the finances.

    Other conferences have evening parties that come with a cover; sometimes the cover goes to charity and the sponsor pays for the party; other times the money goes to pay for prizes and the like. But these conferences also cost considerably more to attend than Podcamp.

    I'm really curious though- if you were running Podcamp or the conference of your dreams, what would you want the evening events to look like? What would make you want to attend? What are your expectations, and why? Do you want dancing? Guitar Hero Tournament? Fancy Dinner? What would you pay out of pocket for? And would you pay more for the conference if it also covered the parties? Because all of this stuff comes at a cost, and as an organizer, if this is what the community wants, it can be had, but the price to come to Podcamp will have to escalate accordingly.

    And the more money Podcamp has to charge to cover expenses, the more it costs to go, and the less and less it resembles the barcamp unconference model, and the more it becomes a conference with a more publicly accessible speaker's list. If this is what the community wants, it can be done, but there seem to be just as many people who want the conference to be more lightweight, less prepaid benefits, more organic.

    You kinda can't have it all ways- we all have champagne tastes, but you can't accomplish this on a beer budget. Please- let us know- what is your idea of a perfect new media Conference?

  • http://whatisnoise.com David Fisher

    You make really good points here. I'd much rather it be known as something useful more than just a giant party. I guess I always seek out a party (Tech Cocktail tonight! w00t!) but there do need to be some professionalish things out there too. I mean by no means was it a stuffy O'Reily conference that everyone paid $3,500 to get into, and it really was fun. I think i've done a good job at striking a balance. I'm going to pass along some of these notes of conversation to my friends who ran ROFLCon and who are considering running another one. It's one thing to try to balance something about a serious subject, but its simply insane to try to figure out the balance when you're talking about 4Chan and LOLCatz.

    Thanks again Chris!

  • http://banannie.com/blog banannie

    Things to ponder. I sense a blog post of my own coming along. Personally I prefer a more loose, lightweight conference. The venue matters little to me, all I need is power, wifi (hard to find I know), and a place to meet and mingle. But I do want it to be as easy as possible to connect with friends AND strangers, so incentives to get us all in one place are important (and free pens and t-shirts are not incentives.) While PodCamps are about sharing knowledge, they're also about making real life connections with people we've only met online, and people we haven't met yet but really should.

    Meanwhile Whitney you and the other PodCamp organizers might want to have a listen to the Push My Follow episode recorded at PCB3. Lots of feedback there. http://pushmyfollow.com/2008/07/episode-11/ (not spamming, it's really great stuff even if I wasn't there ;).)

  • http://www.jbspartners.com Jim Spencer

    Chris, this is a great point and provides strong leadership for the community. As you extrapolate any chosen set of behavior or activity out to the extreme, it is often much easier to see whether that activity is sustainable and valuable. You position clearly passes the test.

  • http://stevegarfield.com stevegarfield

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for this post. I was wondering why I attended so many sessions and learned so much. Many of the sessions this year were of interest to me. Contrast that to SXSW last year where a lot of the sessions were similar to ones I'd seen before. That lends itself to hanging out in the hallways instead of being inside sessions.

    I did have some great discussions in the open areas and was torn between staying there and going to sessions… It's a conflict that will always be there.

    Thanks for your website makeover session. I learned a lot in that one and already implemented some changes. Turns out one of my links was dead, It's all fixed up now.

    The very top of my blog now says:

    “If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed.
    Learn more about Steve Garfield. Watch my videos.
    Want more frequent updates follow me on Twitter. Thanks for visiting! “

    http://offonatangent.blogspot.com/

    Great venue too.
    –Steve

  • http://robblatt.com Rob Blatt

    Chris, I think you are a little misguided with your opinions about “epic” parties.

    As a group of people, we aren't looking for the Podcamp organization to throw thousands of dollars towards drinks for the attendees. If there is going to be a sponsored after-party in a bar, the crowd would expect that we can go enjoy a drink or two courtesy of the sponsor. Instead, a large number of people were wondering what mDialog even put money out for if we got to the bar and it was a cash bar.

    The after party in my eyes is an incentive to get all of the attendees to one place afterwards in a different, more relaxed setting. The way to get someone there is with an incentive. Not having to pay a $10 cover to a bar isn't an incentive for the attendees and I couldn't imagine it being an incentive for the sponsors either.

  • robblatt

    There's no need to have a completely open bar. It would cost much less overall and satisfy just as many people to cover just wine and beer or those two and well drinks. Or institute drink tickets. Everyone gets two drinks and that's all. Then the system is fair and you know in advance how much it costs. Options exist.

  • http://banannie.com/blog Annie Boccio

    Chris, I feel like there's maybe a bit more parenting going on here than necessary.
    Conference parties are part of the experience, and like everything else, it's up to individuals to behave professionally- or not.

    At both PodCamps I've attended so far I was able to connect with people at the sponsored parties that I never would have run into in the conference venue itself, and from those connections I've developed lasting relationships. The parties serve as a giant mixing bowl, the sponsored open bar (at least for a couple of hours) an incentive to get everyone into it.

    Leaving all the social activity to the participants has one large drawback- what happens to the newcomer who doesn't know anyone, looking around at the various groups here and there who appear to have known each other for ages? That can be very intimidating. An official social gathering is one where the newbie doesn't have to feel like he or she is crashing someone else's party.

  • http://mediabullseye.com Sarah Wurrey

    Very interesting post! I think parties are definitely a part of conferences and provide even more opportunity for socializing and networking in a relaxed setting, but I agree the organization throwing the conference shouldn't necessarily have to provide the drinks. It does become a liability issue, and I think you all handled it well. Anyone who wanted to get roaring drunk at Tequila Rain had the opportunity to do so, heh, just not on your dime. :)

    One thing on personal brand destruction though, I don't think a person needs Podcamp or SXSW parties to do that, party or not. If a person is going to “drunk-tweet” and make themselves look foolish, they will probably do so whether they're out with friends on their own time OR at a conference. Self-destructive tendencies know no bounds!

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    I totally agree that it's up to the individual to behave intelligently. I've seen people at Jeff Pulver's conferences ($2,695/ticket) act like idiots, too.

    I'm all for casual social gatherings and for the conference to provide a venue for that to happen, as we did. Everything else that happens after that… that's up to you!

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    For transparency's sake, the mDialog sponsorship was a package deal, consisting of shirts, two named things (breakfast and party), and, well, the rest is on the site. I'm sure we'd welcome their sponsorship of a drink or two, but that's not a course I can recommend in good faith to a sponsor, knowing what liabilities are incurred with our admittedly silly laws. Had the party been their only opportunity for promotion, I'd say you were absolutely right in questioning its value, but it was more than that.

    When you say “a large number of people” – how large? 5? 50? Just so I can get an idea.

  • http://banannie.com/blog Annie Boccio

    I get the liability thing to a point- I'm not sure of the legalities here, it seems that open bars are a common enough thing that the liability is minimal, and a 2 hour open bar really can't be a huge risk. I sense there may also be a public perception issue going on here- people Google PodCamp and find party photos, maybe that's not the image organizers want to project, but that will happen regardless, because people will tag those photos PodCamp whether the gathering is official or not.

    This is more about incentive. Why will I go to the official party and pay $10 per drink if I can go elsewhere for less with my friends? Will you then end up with an official venue full of newbies while those in the know are somewhere else?

  • http://rickweiss.ca RickWeiss

    Chris,
    It's fair that there are liability issues that make sponsored drink a touchy subject. I completely appreciate that.

    What about other types of “freebies” or ad-ons to get people excited about the event and add value to it? Things like finger food, free pool or other games/activities for people to engage in while mingling.

    The general consensus among the group I discussed it with (about 10-15 people) was “I'm glad I didn't bring a friend. Sure they'd be supporting a good charity; but we'd feel bad that they're getting nothing out of their mandatory donation.”

  • http://rickweiss.ca RickWeiss

    Chris,
    It's fair that there are liability issues that make sponsored drink a touchy subject. I completely appreciate that.

    What about other types of “freebies” or ad-ons to get people excited about the event and add value to it? Things like finger food, free pool or other games/activities for people to engage in while mingling.

    The general consensus among the group I discussed it with (about 10-15 people) was “I'm glad I didn't bring a friend. Sure they'd be supporting a good charity; but we'd feel bad that they're not really getting anything out of their mandatory donation.”

    Did I miss something at the Tequila Rain party?

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    Nope, and that's good feedback for next time. Rather than leave, say, all the prize drawings until the last day, we can space those out more.

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    As a sense of perspective, we had a 90 minute open bar last year and burned through – I kid you not, $7,500 worth of alcohol for approximately 200 people. I know this because the venue double billed both Jeff and PodCamp, and boy was that fun to straighten out. Did everyone drink $38 of alcohol in 90 minutes? Heck no. But enough people did that liability becomes a real question.

    Incentive is excellent feedback and something worth building in. To be perfectly honest, if I had more resources and time, I would have instead gone with a catered Saturday dinner at the venue and then set people free for the evening after that. We might consider that for next year, so that you get fed, you get together with everyone without having to go far, and then people can ad hoc break up without having to rely on social networking tools that not everyone is fluent in.

    What do you think?

  • http://www.whitneyhoffman.com Whitney

    For those of you who may be going to Amazon, the book is Public Assembly Facility Law; I am second author after Turner Madden, my former boss who is chief lobbyist for the International Association of Assembly Managers.

    There is a trick in throwing parties and maintaining fun. We're looking into (not finalized, so don't kill me if it doesn't work out) trying a Geek Bowling Night for Podcamp Philly on Friday Night, followed by a return to Triumph Brewing for Sat Night and if we get sponsors, we'll look into providing food and the like, but it depends on the finances.

    Other conferences have evening parties that come with a cover; sometimes the cover goes to charity and the sponsor pays for the party; other times the money goes to pay for prizes and the like. But these conferences also cost considerably more to attend than Podcamp.

    I'm really curious though- if you were running Podcamp or the conference of your dreams, what would you want the evening events to look like? What would make you want to attend? What are your expectations, and why? Do you want dancing? Guitar Hero Tournament? Fancy Dinner? What would you pay out of pocket for? And would you pay more for the conference if it also covered the parties? Because all of this stuff comes at a cost, and as an organizer, if this is what the community wants, it can be had, but the price to come to Podcamp will have to escalate accordingly.

    And the more money Podcamp has to charge to cover expenses, the more it costs to go, and the less and less it resembles the barcamp unconference model, and the more it becomes a conference with a more publicly accessible speaker's list. If this is what the community wants, it can be done, but there seem to be just as many people who want the conference to be more lightweight, less prepaid benefits, more organic.

    You kinda can't have it all ways- we all have champagne tastes, but you can't accomplish this on a beer budget. Please- let us know- what is your idea of a perfect new media Conference?

  • tibbon

    You make really good points here. I'd much rather it be known as something useful more than just a giant party. I guess I always seek out a party (Tech Cocktail tonight! w00t!) but there do need to be some professionalish things out there too. I mean by no means was it a stuffy O'Reily conference that everyone paid $3,500 to get into, and it really was fun. I think i've done a good job at striking a balance. I'm going to pass along some of these notes of conversation to my friends who ran ROFLCon and who are considering running another one. It's one thing to try to balance something about a serious subject, but its simply insane to try to figure out the balance when you're talking about 4Chan and LOLCatz.

    Thanks again Chris!

  • http://banannie.com/blog Annie Boccio

    Things to ponder. I sense a blog post of my own coming along. Personally I prefer a more loose, lightweight conference. The venue matters little to me, all I need is power, wifi (hard to find I know), and a place to meet and mingle. But I do want it to be as easy as possible to connect with friends AND strangers, so incentives to get us all in one place are important (and free pens and t-shirts are not incentives.) While PodCamps are about sharing knowledge, they're also about making real life connections with people we've only met online, and people we haven't met yet but really should.

    Meanwhile Whitney you and the other PodCamp organizers might want to have a listen to the Push My Follow episode recorded at PCB3. Lots of feedback there. http://pushmyfollow.com/2008/07/episode-11/ (not spamming, it's really great stuff even if I wasn't there ;).)

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    Good suggestions – we'll definitely add them to the feedback for next year – thanks!

  • http://robblatt.com Rob Blatt

    There's no need to have a completely open bar. It would cost much less overall and satisfy just as many people to cover just wine and beer or those two and well drinks. Or institute drink tickets. Everyone gets two drinks and that's all. Then the system is fair and you know in advance how much it costs. Options exist.

  • http://robblatt.com Rob Blatt

    There's no need to have a completely open bar. It would cost much less overall and satisfy just as many people to cover just wine and beer or those two and well drinks. Or institute drink tickets. Everyone gets two drinks and that's all. Then the system is fair and you know in advance how much it costs. Options exist.

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    Good suggestions – we'll definitely add them to the feedback for next year – thanks!

  • http://www.ChristopherSPenn.com Christopher S. Penn

    Good suggestions – we'll definitely add them to the feedback for next year – thanks!