OK, So you’ve got your own blog. You’ve started taking pictures and posting them online. But what’s more, you’ve also trained some of your friends, family, and neighbors how to publish online. And, via the blogosphere, you’ve been able to get to know others in your city who you otherwise never would have met. Great!

It gets even better. Through this new online community and conversation you have discovered that many of your daily concerns are also the concerns of your neighbors and friends. You want better public transportation. So do they. You think it would be cool to organize a weekly independent movie night. So do they. You think your community needs more venues for young musicians. So do … ok, so you get the idea.

Great ideas are often the easiest part. But … then what?

Well, if you have an extra $5,000 in your pocket you could go to a conference like TED or Pop!Tech. Or, if you’re deemed important enough you might even get invited to the most exclusive gathering of them all, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There you will meet all the important politicians and business leaders who can help turn your brilliant ideas into sustainable social change.

But then, what about for those of us who don’t have an extra $5,000 in our pockets? Where do we go?

Enter BarCamps. The first BarCamp, held in Palo Alto in late 2005, was organized in friendly retaliation against Foo Camp, an exclusive by-invitation-only gathering of Silicon Valley movers and shakers who are one way or another connected to Web 2.0 superstar Tim O’Reilly. According to Tantek Çelik, the first BarCamp was organized in less than one week. Its organizers had no idea that it would spread across the United States, much less become an international phenomenon. But these days you hear more about barcamps in Mumbai, Buenos Aires, and Bangkok than traditional cybercities like Seattle and Austin.

One of the defining characteristics of barcamps is their “unconference format“, which allows attendees to shape the agenda and discussion topics. There are few rules and they perhaps can all be summed up by the popular slogan “no spectators, only participants.”

Bringing the ‘unconference’ movement to the developing world are bridge-bloggers like Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian Web 2.0 enthusiast now living in Berlin who plays a pivotal role in describing the nuances of the former Soviet Union world to a mostly Western audience. In October 2007 Morozov teamed up with Ukrainian bloggers to host the region’s first barcamp in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. That then gave birth to last week’s BarCamp Baltics, held in Riga, Latvia. As Morozov describes the gathering:

For many of our participants, attending BarCamp Baltics was the first time they ever saw what young people from other ex-Soviet countries look like: think Ukrainians meeting Latvians, or the Kazakhs meeting Lithuanians, or the Azeris meeting Belarusians — it is thanks to BarCamps that many of them finally heard about the problems of each other for the first time. I still remember the puzzled faces of many young Latvians when they heard about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from the Azeris — obviously, a subject they barely hear about on their national TV or radio. While I am saying this without even a pinch of nostalgia for the Soviet times, I still find it a bit sad that nowadays the actual social and cultural connections between all these countries — some of them already in EU, having so much to teach their neighbors — are kept at minimum. It was good to see us somehow trying to address that, and, I believe, quite successfully.

Given BarCamp’s tech-centric beginnings, most gatherings still focus on open source technologies, but increasingly the discussions are about how open source software can be used to affect social change. For example, from Mike Stopforth’s summary of BarCamp Johannesburg, we learn of SchoolNet Namibia, which partners with Namibian schools to help support them with open source software solutions, wireless internet access, Creative Commons-licensed educational content, and even solar-powered school computer laboratories. Kenyan blogger Wilfred Mworia tells us that November 2007’s BarCamp in Nairobi focused largely on encouraging innovation in Kenya’s tech sector.
Video game maker Wesley Kiriinya gave a presentation there stressing the need for company-school partnerships, noting the weak curriculums in local computer science departments. Meanwhile, at BarCamp Buenos Aires, which could only accommodate 150 of the 550 registrants, Alejandro Marticorena gave a presentation on how participatory media tools offer important support networks for individuals suffering from the same disease. (Marticorena has chronic kidney disease and regularly writes updates about his health and treatment status on his blog Diary of Dialysis.)

Evgeny Morozov and the organizers of BarCamp Baltics took the encouragement of social innovation one step further by organizing an “Innovation Incubator“ session in which attendees applied for micro-grants to help get their projects off the ground:

The idea was to solicit project applications from our participants, show them to potential investors that we know, and see what happens. I was surprised that we received around 70 applications for ideas in all fields, from journalism to tourism. More than half of the applications were non-commercial projects, which I think is a very good sign. In the end, we decided to devote a few hours for meetings between the applicants and the investors — we spent most of Sunday on this. I think this was one of the most productive sessions at BarCamp Baltics — those who didn’t get funding got TONS of feedback, both from investors and other participants. We have definitely created more good with these 3 hours than we could ever have with 3 hours of presentations …

Despite all these powerful examples and important discussions, it should be noted that the unconference format isn’t without its pitfalls. Neha Viswanathan, who attended BlogCamp 2006 in Chennai, notes that there is a big difference between an unconference and a disorganized conference. In fact, organizing a successful BarCamp requires at least as much work as organizing a traditional conference with big-name speakers. Morozov also blogged extensively about his lessons learned during BarCamp Kyiv and BarCamp Baltics.

If you would like to organize a BarCamp in your city, there is no better starting place than Crystal Williams’ “Ten Steps to Organizing a Barcamp.” (With German, Portuguese, and French versions available.) Barcamp.org, of course, also has a valuable list of resources.