Attending last weekend’s BarCamp in Sydney, it was hard to escape the conclusion that a certain “dot-com bust” flavour had seeped into the kool aid previously being drunk by Australia’s web 2.0 and early stage start-up sector.


As I made my way around, taking photos and joining in the sporadic and free-flowing conversations engendered by the ‘unconference‘ format, I heard the words “economic” and “recession” mentioned quite a few times by the attendant digerati. Although there was a lot going on at BarCamp, my impression was that there was a cloud hanging over many people’s heads.

One attendee wryly commented that they would be happy when someone finally came up with an acronym for what most people have been calling the “global economic crisis”. That way, at least the issue would be much easier to Twitter (I’m here) about.

In general I expected the event to be a lot more spontaneous and chaotic than it was; something more like WebJam. In fact, I walked away with the impression that BarCamp wasn’t that much different than a conference such as Gartner’s Symposium; only with people who were generally a lot younger, more flexible, and with more modern haircuts and dress sense. And running Ubuntu.

Disclaimer: This is a subjective opinion; I was only at BarCamp for a few hours, and I’m sure it doesn’t represent the experience a lot of people had.

Of course, the fact that this sort of atmosphere should exist in any form isn’t really a surprise. Australia’s ICT industry has taken massive precautionary measures over the past couple of months to stave off what so far are unclear local consequences of the US credit crisis. There aren’t many large companies who don’t have a hiring freeze or workforce reduction plan in place.

The start-up and early tech adopter community, which partly exists through support from the mainstream IT and marketing industries, obviously isn’t immune to the pervasive climate of pessimism.

But before we all start crying into our chai lattes about the impending death of the great dream, let me offer technologists a ray of hope.

The buzz that has built up over the past couple of years is not about to dissipate.

One of the things that BarCamp made clear to me is that the Australian start-up community is, and will always be about two things. Firstly, the potential to achieve riches beyond compare by selling your fledgling company to Google for mega-dollars, has clearly suffered a blow with the GEC (witness the acronym creation process happening live).

But the second, and more important facet of the community, is clearly here to stay: the glorious technological tinkering it focuses on.

I remember in particular talking to a couple of students (still at university) who had found their way to BarCamp and were avidly discussing how to try and scrape data out of the NSW government’s 131500 public transport website so they could mash it together with other sites.

In other conversations I had, people discussed getting their software into Apple’s iPhone App Store, or how best to use the OLPC laptops, or even how to socially subvert what some described as the stodgy, male and product-dominated atmosphere at major tech trade fairs such as CeBIT … you get the picture.

It’s this spirit of hacking everything (even the mind itself) that pervaded BarCamp and that will continue to be felt in the Australian scene, irrespective of what the financial situation looks like. It costs nothing to tinker with technology; optimising it, linking it together, trying new things. There are always old bits and pieces lying around, and the internet is cheap.

That spirit, driven in part by open source software, burgeoning web standards and social networks like Twitter, is here to stay, and places like BarCamp are where people worship it. The buzz that has built up over the past couple of years is not about to dissipate, although it might return slightly to its underground status.

Next week: back to our regular schedule of evaluating start-ups.

This blog is syndicated from ZDNet Australia, keep fully up to date with Renai at bootstrappr’s home.