The Spirit of BarCamp (Part 2): Principles of REBarCamp

Sherry Chris at REBarCamp San Diego, 2009

In part 1, we explored the controversies and the issues surrounding what a Real Estate BarCamp should or should not be, and explored the rules and principles of the original tech-focused BarCamp.  At the end of that, I asked three questions:

  • What goals are we trying to achieve with REBarCamps?
  • Who benefits from REBarCamps?  Who should benefit from REBarCamps?
  • What principles and rules help achieve the answers to the above questions?

The answers have been varied, and interesting, and I appreciate the dialogue, y’all. 🙂

The heart of the dilemma comes out in the responses as well.  Kathleen Buckley (@kvbuckley) writes:

# What goals are we trying to achieve with REBarCamps?
In my mind REBarCamps aim to help RE Professionals learn about and leverage a wide range of new, largely technology driven tools to enhance performance.

In contrast, Andy Kaufman (@andykaufman) writes:

# What goals are we trying to achieve with REBarCamps?
As organizers, I think we should strive to provide a friction-less setting where participants can meet face to face with their peers who are passionate about the space can interact. As a participant, I want to meet people, strengthen relationships, learn & share knowledge without ‘being sold’.

Is REBC about “helping RE professionals learn about technology”?  Or is it about peers meeting to share their passions?  Can it be both?  If so, how?

Thesis: Education of RE Professionals

The reality of REBC today is that it is largely a free educational seminar for realtors.  RE professionals often pay hundreds of dollars to attend conferences where they would be told the exact same thing they get at a REBC about using blogs, social networking tools, and other technologies to improve their business.  Professional coaches charge thousands of dollars to provide largely the same advice that people at REBC give away at no charge.

REBarCamp Virginia

From the attendee’s perspective, then, REBC represents an incredible bonanza.  Not only does the realtor get free advice and education, she is often fed for free by the organizers too who raise sponsorship dollars to do such a thing.  But from the perspective of those who “teach” and lead such sessions, what is the value?

There is no monetary value, since no one is ever compensated for teaching a session at a REBC, no matter how much it looks, sounds, and functions like a Continuing Ed class.  There may be personal satisfaction for some people, who simply enjoy sharing knowledge.  For others, there may be downstream benefits of being branded as an expert in a particular area as that leads to consulting gigs, job offers, and the like.  Still for others, they may see social benefits from being seen as one of the “cool kids”.  But without some value, psychic, social or economic, there is no reason to think that anyone would spend the time and energy teaching other people for free.

Now would be a good time to pause to point out something obvious, and yet not discussed fully.

REBarCamp is NOT a charity; it is not concerned with providing a “social good”.  We’re not coming together to figure out ways to feed starving children, or to work on eliminating homelessness.  Every single person who attends a REBC is doing so for a commercial purpose: improving his or her business in order to make more money.  A few attend for a purely social purpose, to hang out with their online friends, but even they’re not getting together to try and make this world a better place.

The anti-commercial streak that REBC has inherited from the original tech scene that spawned not only BarCamp but the Open Source and Creative Commons is entirely inappropriate in the context of real estate industry. None of us are trying to create some new piece of technology or knowledge for the benefit of the global community.  We are not artistes, but businesspeople.  This fact sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

From an organizer’s perspective then, just as one has to work hard to provide the education to the attendees, one has to think about what the benefit to the presenters/teachers is. Personally speaking, I will not incur the costs of attending a REBarCamp (flight, hotel, time, etc.) for the sake of teaching others for free.  Sorry, that simply does not compute.

Antithesis: Gathering of Peers

@gingerw, @ines, and @nik_nik at REBCSF 2009

On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that REBC is a gathering of like-minded peers, all of whom have something to offer to each other.  This is far more in tune with the original “collaboration” intent of BarCamp.

This was how the first REBC was — all of us there were at least bloggers.  We didn’t necessarily know what the right or wrong way of blogging was; but we had been writing a blog for some time.  To meet with other bloggers and talk about what each of us had done, share ideas (like Twitter, which I had heard about first at that first REBC), talk about challenges (like dealing with negative comments), and so on was truly refreshing and engaging.  Each of us brought something to the table; some where better at design, others better at technology, and still others better at writing.  All of the ‘peers’ hunger for something like that experience.

A certain amount of anti-commercialism can be expected here, since no one actually needs to be taught anything to learn it, and everyone is equally willing and able to give and to receive.  An unspoken assumption is that if one of the ‘peers’ really wanted to know more about coding CSS, she can pick up a book and learn it.  All of us are technophile enough and open to experimentation enough to not need structured instruction.

The value in these collaborative sessions is largely self-referential.  I might be working on a particular angle in blogging; someone else might have a suggestion or criticism that helps me improve my blog.  Another person might bring up an issue that I hadn’t thought about, forcing me to come up with an answer which helps me down the road and possibly clients of mine (given my profession).

A true collaborative collective looks askance at freeloaders — people who come and suck up knowledge and information, but give none in return, whether out of a lack of skill, lack of knowledge, or lack of desire.  Experienced realtors rarely care to have brand new licensees come and ask them hundreds of questions; it’s no different in the

Synthesis: Gathering of Peers to Teach and Learn

The synthesis between Education and Collaboration, then, begins with understanding the different values being offered.  If you are one of the ‘peers’, there is value in collaboration on a sticky problem or two — but you have to be willing and able to give as well as receive.

For the peers interested in collaboration, then, they must come to accept that no one owes them vibrant conversation.  They have to proactively create such opportunities.  It is unacceptable for people who know better to sit around hoping that the REBC organizers put together a high-level session for their interests.  They can just as easily put a topic on the board and seek opinions and input from the other peers who gather to help.

A session at an unknown REBC, 2009

A session topic like, “Problems with Incorporating Posterous Feeds” can easily draw those who may have experience in doing that, and the ad-hoc group can collaborate with each other and with you to come up with solutions.  But it’s on you to post that topic and seek that conversation.  Blaming organizers for failing to anticipate the interests and needs of the peers is just rank silliness.

At the same time, the organizers want to help the RE professional who wants to learn about new tools, techniques, best practices, and the like from those who have gone ahead, experimented, made mistakes, and learned.  An understanding must be reached here on the part of these “student-attendees”: no one owes you a free education, especially on subjects intended to help you make more money.  If someone is kind enough to spend time and energy doing it, then he or she is looking to get some sort of value out of that — whether future business opportunities, personal satisfaction, or social status.  If the lesson sucked, and you got nothing out of it, well, your opinion — while interesting — is irrelevant. By all means, vote with your feet and leave uninteresting sessions, but understand that you are not paying customers whose demands must be met by service providers.

The organizers and the ‘teachers’ must also come to an understanding about these educational sessions.  The organizers have to recognize that these sessions are not your collaborative sessions, that they may need to be scheduled ahead of time, with appropriate teachers who may want to use such sessions for their own benefit.  Considering the immense benefit that the students are getting — free education on someone else’s time and someone else’s dime — taking an overly hostile attitude towards commercial messages is, I think, inappropriate.

Principles of REBarCamp

Based on the above, we can think about what the general principles of REBC ought to be.  I’ll put forth five principles as candidates for the community to consider.  They are what I consider to be suited to advance the goals of Education and Collaboration, with an eye towards benefiting all participants to a REBC.

1.  No One Owes You Anything

Code of Hammurabi, Fragment

Whether you are a ‘student-attendee’ who doesn’t know squat and is eager to learn, or a guru only interested in working with other gurus, we all should recognize that no one owes us a damn thing.  You will get out of REBarCamp what you put into it.  If you’re a newbie, then you need to go listen, observe, and learn — ask questions if you have them, take notes if you don’t.  If you’re an experienced REBarCamper and a member of the cognoscenti, then you need to take some responsibility for organizing the conversations you want to hear.

Put up sessions where you present your blog and get feedback; put up sessions to solve a tricky technical problem you have (as long as you’re prepared with an outline and a description of the problem).  Do something, but don’t just sit there and complain that the organizers didn’t provide enough ‘advanced’ sessions or some such nonsense.  No one owes you a damn thing.

2.  Know Yourself, But Respect Everyone

Part of the challenge is knowing when you are sitting with your peers in collaborative and open conversation, when you’re the most expert in the room and can educate others, and when you’re learning from someone who knows more than you do.  Because REBarCamp attempts to bridge the two goals of Education and Conversation, resentment of “elitism” or some such is inappropriate.  It isn’t elitist to want to talk with others who have something to offer to an issue you might be working on.

At the same time, part of what makes REBC special is the community that forms between the “experts” and the “newbies” — the social element of REBC is important as well.  Attendees should be encouraged to mingle, to socialize, to get to know each other as people no matter what their respective level of knowledge or expertise is.  It may not be elitist to want to collaborate with a select few, but it is damned elitist to look down on someone because he doesn’t know the latest and greatest techniques for SEO.

3.  Collaborate With Your Peers

Whatever your level of knowledge, collaborate with your peers.  Just because you can’t build a website in 48 hours doesn’t mean you don’t know the basics of blogging; just because a group is in the corner going through CSS code doesn’t mean you can’t interact with people who are at your level of knowledge and competence.  Just because you don’t know the first thing about technology does not mean you’re not an expert on doing real estate transactions.

Pipe up! Opine away, ask questions, criticize — whatever it takes to engage and cooperate.

4.  Appreciate Those Who Give

If you are in a session where the purpose is to educate, have some appreciation for the person sharing their knowledge and expertise.  Chances are, they’re giving of themselves on their own dime and on their own time.  Maybe they want to tell you a little bit about their company’s products or services — refrain from wrinkling your nose at them.  Recognize that we’re all there for business, not to save the world, and get off your high horse.

If someone brings a problem to be discussed by the group, appreciate their courage in bringing it forward.  It isn’t easy to stand up and ask for help, to seek collaboration, to get opinions from other people.  Help them if you can, offer opinions if you have them, but above all, appreciate them for adding to the REBC experience.

5.  Respect for the Person, Not What They Say

Whether it’s Education or Collaboration, have respect for the person… but not for what they’re saying.  Even if the organizers hand-picked someone to teach a class on a topic, that doesn’t mean you owe them any deference.  Appreciation for their sharing and for their initiative does not mean you have to sit still and listen to a bunch of nonsense.

Vote with your feet and leave a session if it isn’t for you; or just challenge the hell out of what he’s spouting.  That too is collaboration — preventing everyone else from being misled is a positive thing.  Or learning that your own views were in fact wrong helps you get more out of a REBC.

Important Corollary:

A strong corollary principle is: Your House, Your Rules.  It is difficult work organizing an event that tries to synthesize all of the competing demands and values.  The people who are putting on a REBarCamp deserve the community’s support and understanding, even if not everything they are doing meets with your personal approval.  If you don’t like how someone has organized her REBarCamp, by all means, organize your own however you see fit.

What do you think?  I know… too wordy.  But that’s where collaboration comes in 🙂  Someone better than I at being concise can tailor whatever we come up with into few succinct words.


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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9 thoughts on “The Spirit of BarCamp (Part 2): Principles of REBarCamp”

  1. Thoughtful, thought provoking, and well put. I look forward to REBCNY and appreciate all the efforts that LSSMC is putting into it. Thanks to you all.

  2. Interesting ideas Rob. My first was San Diego. And i enjoyed the sessions a lot. I'm planning to attend the 2nd half of NYC to get a better idea of the culture of BC's.

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