Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
February 9, 201211:22 AM

The Death Of The Unconference

Does anyone remember the unconference?

There was hope for collaboration and self-organizing groups, but it seems to have gone the way of the corporate spin machine. I was a massive proponent of the unconference movement (I still am!), but that word has been used so poorly by so many groups that it seems to have all but disappeared. In short: calling your conference an "unconference" just to sound young, hip and with it, actually makes you sound old, out-of-touch and stupid. This past month, I've seen a handful of events that are billing themselves as unconferences when, in reality, they're just very shabby and cheap events.

Your conference is not an unconference if...

  • There is a pre-set agenda. The whole point of an unconference is that group comes together to create the agenda/slate together.
  • The organizers decide on the agenda. Organizers can help organize the day in terms of logistics (when there are sessions and breaks), but should not be setting the agenda in terms of the content.
  • The organizers are doing everything. The organizers aren't there to make the event good for everyone else. The event is actually being "run" by everyone. Everyone participates. Unconferences are not about bystanders or attendees. The organizers are there simply to ensure that a venue is secure and that everyone knows where they are going. I'd even argue that this task can be done by the participants as well.
  • You're charging for it. This will be a contentious issue, but the best unconferences I have been to, have been the ones where everyone took both individual and group responsibility for the event. If the venue requires a fee, everyone chips in equally to pay for it. If you're hungry and want to eat, either bring food or go out and buy some. The true spirit of the unconference movement is that this is NOT a traditional conference. Bring your own nametag, notebook, snacks and drinks. If this is a self-organizing event why should any one individual have a financial risk attached to it? Think about getting sponsors instead of charging for it (if you really have to).
  • You're attending but not speaking. If you're showing up to consume and not contribute, stay home. Many people don't like to speak in public, that's fine. No one is asking you to give a keynote address. An unconference is a place where like-minded people come to share and challenge one another. Try sitting in circles and think about the event as a live interactive environment, instead of just sitting there hoping the next speaker can entertain you.
  • You don't enact the law of two-feet. If you're not learning, get up, use your own two feet and go somewhere you can learn. Hallway conversations are great for this. If your unconference isn't littered with spaces for sudden collisions of conversation, it isn't much of an unconference.

Unconference are an amazing opportunity.

You would think that this Blog post should have been written and published five years ago. You would think that unconference are so passé. You would be wrong. After attending close to seventy events each and every year, the handful that stick out in my mind are the more intimate unconferences that I have taken an active part in. An unconference creates an egalitarian moment in time where people from all walks of life (and all levels within an organization) can simply share, learn, communicate and grow. To run a conference and call it an unconference is a disservice to the unconference movement. Many people don't understand this because an unconference looks and acts nothing like their traditional definition of a conference (hence the name of it ;). It saddens me to see how many people start with the right spirit of an unconference but quickly get stuck in all of the trappings of what they think will create a great event (and this - unfortunately - looks a lot like a traditional conference).

If you've never taken part in an unconference, I would encourage you to look into it... or better yet... start your own.

By Mitch Joel


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