Long before BarCamp, there were conferences. And they sort of sucked in various ways. Lots of people found that the interesting content at conferences wasn't so much the formal presentations as the discussion that took place in the hallway, the "lobby track" as it has come to be known. It seems quite strange: you pay sometimes quite a sizeable amount of money to attend a conference, and then you don't spend any time actually listening to the material presented at the conference. But there is a problem with the lobby track that doesn't exist with the formal tracks: it doesn't necessarily scale to include everyone. If you are a little bit shy or socially awkward, perhaps you don't get talked to if you try and enjoy the lobby track. What if there were events where the formal track and the lobby track were very, very similar?
Enter the unconference. The unconference is a conference that every attendee is allowed to participate in, much like anyone can have a blog, or anyone can edit Wikipedia. The distinction between speakers and listeners is blurred because if you are attending, you will probably be speaking also. Sessions are less like lectures and more like conversations. There are lots of small groups. To use an academic analogy, it is more like a seminar than a lecture; organisers and speakers are more like convenors than lecturers. The traditional conference panel is rarely present in unconferences.
There were plenty of unconferences before BarCamp. Since the 1980s there have been "open space" events. The blogger and technologist Dave Winer ran an event called BloggerCon in the early 2000s, which was often described as an "unconference". Winer describes the format of these events like this:
We don't have speakers, panels or an audience. We do have discussions and sessions, and each session has a discussion leader. Think of the discussion leader as a reporter who is creating a story with quotes from the people in the room. So, instead of having a panel with an audience we just have people.
There are other rules: generally, explicit pitching of companies and pimping of products is discouraged. The unconference format is malleable though and is more like a general description of an overall style or genre: much like rock music or painting covers a wide diversity and variety of things but have some common threads or family resemblances between them. For instance, the Pecha Kucha format is one format that has evolved that is also considered to be an unconference format, where participants speak while twenty slides are shown for twenty seconds each before automatically changing.
Conferences and unconferences are not avowed enemies: there have been unconferences held as tracks within larger conferences, like the Web 2.Open section of O'Reilly's Web 2.0 Conference.
The birth of BarCamp traces back to 2005. Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Publishing, a tech book company, had organised "FooCamp", the Friends Of O'Reilly Camp, and invited select people to attend. But there were people who did not get an invitation...