Mashup goes un-Camp

Slightly against the spirit of a true unconference, the Mashup Camp scheduled for next month in Mountain View has gone commercial. From an email that I received late last week from David Berlind, one of the organizers:

If you’re a Mashup Camp veteran, the you know that Mashup Camp and Mashup University have traditionally been free events to attend and Doug and I have worked hard to keep them that way. However, given the number of no-shows as well as the number of non-sponsoring solution providers that come to Camp to commercially engage the mashup community, Doug and I are instituting a tiered fee structure that our research with you indicates is very fair.

Although the fee is nominal ($35) for developers, I don’t actually develop much code so have listed myself as an “observer” at past events: I attend primarily to learn and contribute ideas, and to blog about the experience. David and I exchanged some email, and he said that it was cool for me to attend at the developer price as long as I wasn’t there representing a corporate entity trying to sell something to the developers (as if I’d pick people with no money as a target market 🙂 ). Non-sponsoring private companies pay $495, and $995 for VCs and public companies.

Something doesn’t quite jive with the literal content of his letter, however: the two Mashup Camps that I attended last year were sponsored by deep-pocketed companies like Google and Yahoo, and I’m unaware of any great financial shortfall in running the unconferences (unless David and Doug want to start taking all-expense-paid trips to Tahiti). Furthermore, the no-show rate seemed to be well within expected parameters: keep in mind that there’s no-shows at paid conferences, too, and the loss of $35 isn’t exactly going to incent a developer to travel across the country if something better comes up. I’ve been involved in a number of Camp events here in Toronto, and yes, there are no-shows, which means that there’s some extra food at the end of the day; deal with it, or maybe stop pretending that there’s not tons of food thrown away at corporate facilities in Silicon Valley every day. I’ve also found the ratios of developers:non-developers pretty good at Mashup Camp in the past, so I don’t think that this is strictly to discourage non-developers.

It appears that they’re really doing this to encourage sponsorship of the event: I’m sure that the companies that do kick in some money might be a bit peeved that other companies could just show up for free and schmooze around with the developers, dangling job offers. Basically, the $495/995 amounts to an entrance fee to a talent fair, since many of the developers are attending Mashup Camp — at least in part — to showcase their talents in front of exactly those people from commercial organizations who might want to hire them.

Personally, I don’t think that this is the right way to go about it: I’d prefer to see a consistently low pricing structure (or free) but restrictions on the number of non-developers allowed. Sure, someone could lie and say they were a developer when they’re really a recruiter for Google, but it’s just as easy for someone to do that now, and just sign up for the $35 package. If you’re going to call something a Camp, it really should follow unconference guidelines to some degree, which traditionally includes free (or nearly so) admission, and completely participant-driven content that’s not determined in advance. If you’re going to run a commercial conference, then it’s unreasonable to expect people to pay $500 or $1000 for an event that doesn’t even have an agenda published: in other words, you can’t really do a commercial unconference event since many companies could find it difficult to justify the cost based on a complete lack of information about content in advance.

That being said, I found the two Mashup Camps that I attended last year were great, and I’ve already signed up for the one in July. And I’m not just saying that because I ran into David today at Enterprise 2.0

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