Conferences can be emotional. Hundreds of people, egos on the line, passionately arguing for what they feel is right. Of course, I’m not like those people. I only argue for things I know to be right, like the principle that the attention of BarCamp participants is not for sale.

This isn’t a totally black and white rule; sponsors get their logos posted on the sponsor wall. If they’re really generous, maybe they get a shirt-sleeve logo or a bigger sign. But there is a line. You can’t corner the attention of 150 BarCampers and pitch them on your office complex for 10 minutes. Like teaching a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

You see, BarCamp is born from a broadly shared disdain for conferences where attendees experience a painful three-sided humiliation:

  1. You pay (in time and money) to attend the conference.
  2. You sit and listen to speeches in big halls from people who paid the conference organizers so that they could spray a sales pitch at you.
  3. Despite all that, the real value of the conference is in the hallways, between sessions, with the other attendees.

BarCamp is about short-circuiting to #3. You don’t pay, you spend time only at discussions that you learn from or contribute to, and the whole schedule is generated by the people at the event, not the people who want to pay money to shout at the people at the event. So if Wellesley Management (Monster‘s landlord) says, at the last minute, that they’d like to give a 2-3 minute spiel about their space during the lunch break, you will at least want to squirm. When the speech, covering a riveting history of how four civilizational revolutions have transformed Clock Tower Place, runs to 5 or 6 minutes before the speaker segues from a Maya Angelou quote to introduce the “Leasing Czar,” you might even feel enough apprehension to stand up from your seat, approach Joe Salemi, and explain that an advertisement this long is neither expected nor appropriate. When a colleague of his subsequently asks you what the hell else you had to do — in fact, you are just sitting there, eating a sandwich made of veggie and pepperoni pizza slices while chatting with old and new friends — you might explain that yeah, this is exactly why we’re here. But if he responds with an insult about how you didn’t get the memo, you might just have to admit that someone hasn’t quite gotten the spirit of BarCamp.

I have to get this off my chest: 99% of the room found this ad speech presumptuous and painful. The speakers insisted on getting everyone’s attention, thus preempting dozens of active discussions. It went on for longer than they said it would. And it wasn’t even that great for them. Were a few people in the audience interested in learning about their office space leasing options? Yes (at least one approached them right after the spiel). But there was a much better option available: lead a session. Teach some hackers about renting office space. Answer some questions from the people who care most, without aggravating the hundreds who don’t care. The precise reason the ad speech was so bad is that it overlooked this option and simply forced everyone’s attention. At a BarCamp, that will never fly.

Luckily, although the delivery was more confrontational than I would have liked, the result seems right: Wellesley will lead a session for interested people tomorrow. Also, Mr. Salemi went out of his way to personally apologize to me for the misunderstanding. Looking back at it now, it does seem like the confrontation was due to misunderstanding rather than any intentional desire to waste our time. So let this be a lesson to BarCampers of the future: if anyone ever expects the sort of special treatment BarCamp was invented to preclude, say no clearly and right away. Explain the BarCamp process and welcome participation within it, but don’t bend the rules for anyone. It wastes your time, and annoys the pig.