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


Comments Comments Feed
  • Mitch Joel

    Nice post Mitch. I agree that it's the true unconferences that stand out in my mind. Having run an unconference, they really work when the majority of the audience understands what an unconference is and how to participate. Lots of corporate folks seem to just attend and watch. It alters the vibe and I think the organizers (or hosts) then get itchy and try to accommodate the conference people and the unconference setup. Never a great mix.

    Reply
  • Posted by Steve Garfield
    Mitch Joel

    Same thing goes for LobbyCon. When you, as the conference organizer, start requesting a donation, to a charity, for the privilege of sitting in a lobby and talking with people, you've missed the point.

    Reply
  • Posted by Brett Tabke
    Mitch Joel


    We started Pubcon in 2000 in a "Pub" in London as a group of about 100 folks with like minded webwork that needed to talk shop (hence the name, "Pubcon'ference" a conference in a Pub). We found that often the best things at the conference where at the bar after the formal part ended. It was only after a few of these 'unconferences' or Pubcons that it became very clear that without an agenda, chaos ensues. Even the value of the networking fades quickly. If you try 'be the agenda' or 'hint at the agenda' people simply don't come back because there is little focus to talk to peoples needs. We axed the 'unconference' format in early 2003 as unsustainable (we had about 400 attendees to our 'unconferences' by 2003).

    In the last 3 years, I have been to about 10 of these unconference things in Austin and Up the 'the valley'. They have all been chaotic, unstructured, meandering affairs with little value other than the networking. Even the networking at these becomes suspect because you rarely get high caliber talent out to those events. Why would I got to an 'unconference' to meet 5 people I'll never work with, when I can get on twitter and meet hundreds I do end up working with? The only ones who show up at "unconferences" are those who are not in a position to go to a 'real' conference.

    I think the 'unconference' as a structured, but unstructured event is going to continue to die out (except for the mom & pop bloggers who don't get out much). Professionals time is far too valuable to go to an event where you might find a tidbit of value.

    Reply
    • It sounds like a quantity issue. I don't think an unconference can work at 300 people. To me the idea that everyone sets the agenda first thing in the morning allows everyone to contribute the parts that most interest them. It's also important to note that not all people go to these types of events to find future work projects. I went to both discuss the issues that were important to me and learn new ideas from others.

      My experiences have been very different from yours. From my perspective, the attendees were not those who don't go to "real" conferences, but rather real people.

      Reply
  • Posted by Elfie Hayes
    Mitch Joel

    Such a shame Joel. As a real promoter of all things Mitch Joel, I'm sad to hear this. I have had several unconferences and found them to be very energizing. Your book, 6 pixels is one of my all ti-me favs and I promote it on my website so others can gain what I have from reading it.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
    Elfie Hayes

    Reply
  • Posted by Billy Delaney
    Mitch Joel

    Yep!
    I even think that the undressed part of these conferences is well past it too. T-shirts, sloppy pants, dead sneakers and shoes, and hair!
    Come on, bring something more than conformity to the game. I would listen to more of the thinking from some of these people who espouse the un-thingy, but I cannot get past the lack of effort in dress.
    I've been to my share of conferences and they-are-duller-than-2pm-on-a-sunnyday indoors.
    I like the idea of having my own. I will! Here in Akron. I will do it in the Fall. If you like you can come and witness it.
    It will be at the Direct Marketing Institute of Akron University: The Taylor Institute. It is a one of a kind education in America, I think the only direct marketing institute in America.
    It will be very un-conferenced... thanks for the challenge I will see what I can produce.
    Billy

    Reply
    • Best of your luck with your event, Billy. If I did show up, it would be jeans... but that's just how I roll ;)

      Reply
      • Posted by Billy Delaney
        Mitch Joel

        Jeans don't bother me. I am a baby boomer, they where the standard item of clothing for a lot of us, and they come with a good history.
        People who wear dead, worn out, trashed clothes as an un-statement detract from what might be going on between their ears: it might be brilliant!
        And I will see how you roll in April at the SoSlam, and I will be paying attention to what you have to say too!
        Billy
        PS if you did come to an event I put on you would be, hands down, better dressed than most of the people who made a big effort; isn't it just the way things have gone?
        Billy

        Reply
  • Posted by Zachary Frazier
    Mitch Joel

    Hi,

    I helped organize an InfoCamp this year at the University of South Carolina. It was most definitely an unconference, and we'll be hosting another one in the spring of 2013.

    We charged for it, but it wasn't an idle decision and the price point was purposefully kept low. I think a small fee for an unconference is a good way to make sure that people coming are willing to participate at the level that an unconference needs to be successful. It shouldn't be a barrier to entry but it can be a needed reality check for those who aren't sure said unconference is for them.

    I definitely think the unconference movement is alive and well. but posts like this one are needed to keep people honest. I would say that the most important parts of what makes an unconference and unconference are the lack of structure, the law of two feet, and the participation of those who attend.

    Reply
    • I knew my point about charging would be contentious. As someone who was there at the beginning when the PodCamp folks started charging, I had no issue. I think it's a good tool to "keep people honest." It's hard to organize a venue when you don't have a committed number of attendees.

      Reply
  • Posted by BawldGuy
    Mitch Joel

    Hey Mitch -- If we shouldn't go there unless we speak, yet we know next to or less than nothing about the topic, should we avoid that particular unconference, and miss out on a solid opportunity to learn? Thanks

    Reply
  • Posted by Brent Calcum
    Mitch Joel

    It makes sense to me... I'm just a bit concerned with how this plays out with more than say... 10 people. Any insight on this or am I way off?

    Reply
  • Posted by Adrian Segar
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, a great post that has inspired interesting comments. I agree with you that the word "unconference" has been stuck as a sloppy synonym for "cool" onto many events that are basically traditional conferences. I wrote a post about this just last week:

    http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-design/2012/01/why-i-dont-like-unconferences/

    Conferences are supposed to be about conferring; something that is mostly left to the hallways at traditional events. Unconferences, when done well, are really the true conferences. That's why I avoid the word, and use the term "participant-driven" to describe event designs that allow participants to create the event they want and need.

    What many don't know is that there are more participant-driven event designs, than just the hip Open Space & BarCamp models, which, unfortunately are sometimes poorly implemented. For example, I developed mine (Conferences That Work) over the last twenty years and only wrote a book about it a couple of years ago because the thousands of people who have participated in my events loved them. Sometimes described as a "structured unconference" my design uses the first half-day to uncover why attendees are there, what they want to discuss and learn, and their relevant expertise and experience, leading to a conference program that is optimized for the actual needs and available resources. Facilitated closing sessions provide dedicated time for participants to consolidate what they have learned, determine what they consequently want to change in their lives, and communally decide on next steps.

    Other participant-driven designs that are in wide use include Future Search, World Cafe, Democracy Circles, and Art of Hosting. There are many more; check out "The Change Handbook" for a fairly comprehensive list.

    One mistake that organizers make is to assume that participant-driven events can scale in the same way that traditional broadcast-style learning events. When your model is having one person speak at the front of the room, the model works when the room has ten or a thousand people in it. Participant-driven events, with their emphasis on uncovering and supporting relevant connections with the people at the event you really want to meet and spend time with, cannot scale in this way. Most event organizers, conditioned by the belief that the more people attend the more "successful;" their event is, don't design for this, leading to the large, chaotic, meandering affairs mentioned by Brett.

    The other issue that is rarely addressed is the value of explicit ground rules at the start of the event. The term "unconference" has become synonymous with anything-you-say-may-be-streamed/videoed/tweeted/quoted. This tends to favor extroverts and inhibit folks who really want to talk about sensitive topics or express controversial opinions. Renaissance Weekends (high-level conferences that have been running for thirty years w/heads of state, top CEOs & all manner of interesting attendees) and my conference use confidentiality defaults that encourage and support all kinds of really intimate and informative sharing and learning. Because what happens at these events is not broadcast to all and sundry, they are far less well known than shout-it-to-the-world style events like O'Reilly conferences or SXSW, but they are extraordinarily valuable to participants.

    Mitch, thanks for making the case for bringing what we think of as unconferences back to their roots and remaining positive about their potential.

    Reply
    • The focus on the attendees is critical too. I think these unconference models work well when you have active participants. We tend to forget that there is a vast majority of people who simply want someone else to tell them what they need to know (and the attendees don't really want to think all that much). So, spending a half-day uncovering what people want is amazing and I love this, but I'm sure there is a strong majority of people who feel like it's the conference organizers job to already know this. To me, it those divergent attitudes that really highlights why so many unconferences fail - attendees don't really know how to be active participants.

      Reply
      • That has been my beef with unconferences. Folks show up and want to be feed, instead of asking how they can contribute.

        Our world of sheeple makes it hard to generate successful unconferences. With so many everyday folks having not been exposed to an unconference they come and sit there saying "I came to learn I do not know enough to get up and talk."

        Having a good facilitator to help guide folks who are not aware of this idea helps to move it forward. And I agree with Brett way too many loosey goosey events being called unconferences giving them bad name here in Texas

        Reply
        • I was at an unconference and people were complaining that no one was there with the name badges. Meanwhile, the table with the nametags and markers was right there... they couldn't figure out that it was DYI. Sad.

          Reply
    • Adrian we need more than one of you ;)

      Reply
  • Hey Mitch. We met at an unconference (BookCamp Toronto 2009). That was the first time I attended an event like that. I was surprised at how approachable you were and am glad we had a chance to chat.

    I've been to several other unconferences. They have an energy I haven't found anywhere else. Participating is the best part. There's something special about people who attend. I even liked putting tables and chairs back in place at the end of the day. There's something nice about being able to pitch in and make a difference.

    PS If "unconference" now has stigma, how about "crowd-sourced conference"? Yeah, I know ... stick with the day job :)

    Reply
    • I think it's my stylized photo that may have thrown you off - LOL. I hate it when people seem unapproachable, so I make a strong effort to not give off that impression. I'm usually the person at events standing there alone, so I know what it's like.

      The bigger paradigm shift for unconferences is that people shouldn't see it as just "pitching it" but taking true ownership of the event. That's the only way it all comes together.

      Reply
  • Posted by Jeffrey Cufaude
    Mitch Joel

    I have yet to hear anyone refer to Open Space as hip as Adrian mentioned, but I do agree that meeting organizers seem particularly prone to adopting the name of whatever conference approach they think is the current darling. They don't, however, embrace its principles and organizing constructs or executive them as intended.

    I've been to quite a few events billed as unconferences or Open Space that were anything but. If people have an inferior learning experience at one of these pseudo-events, they eave thinking Open Space (insert name of any other format/concept) sucks when in reality they didn't really experience it. That's meeting malpractice on the organizers part, and they should be called out on it.

    Reply
  • Posted by Amanda Jones
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch, I'm one of the organisers of a social enterprise unconference (a real one, too, given your definitions above!) and we would love to re-post this piece on our site. Drop us a line to let us know if this would be possible?

    Many thanks,
    Amanda

    Reply
    • The whole point of writing and Blogging for me is to get my ideas to spread. So, you can feel free to go ahead and use it, under these conditions:

      1) Please link back to the original post.

      2) Please end the piece with the following byline: Mitch Joel is President of Twist Image — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. In 2008, Mitch was named Canada's Most Influential Male in Social Media, one of the top 100 online marketers in the world, and was awarded the highly-prestigious Canada's Top 40 Under 40. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation (published by Grand Central Publishing - Hachette Book Group), named after his successful Blog and Podcast is a business and marketing best-seller. You can find him here: www.twistimage.com/blog

      3) My by-line must be: Mitch Joel - President, Twist Image & author of Six Pixels of Separation.

      If you need a photo or bio, you can feel free to grab everything from here: www.twistimage.com/press.

      Please let me know if you have any more questions.

      Reply
  • Posted by Debra Avery
    Mitch Joel

    I'm one of seven hosts for an Unconference that runs almost exactly as you describe the ideal. The schedule is very much a sketch. The conversations/breakouts aren't predetermined, nor are the gathering spaces.

    We are a group of entrepreneurial-minded religious leaders trying to reimagine our settings so whatever gifts come to UNCO are the ones we put to use. Even worship and after hours events aren't planned ahead of time.

    We've had microbrewers and winemakers attend and bring their latest. We had a caterer step up and handle organizing the snacks people brought to share, etc. A couple of UNCOs ago, some COSPLAY/RPGers attend so there was an impromptu tournament one night. If a pianist comes and wants to contribute to morning prayer, they do. Somebody showed up with a bin of fabric and offered to prepare the worship space. Somebody else came with a whole box of rhythm instruments.

    We believe it's this kind of serendipity that renews the imaginations and entrepreneurial spirit of those who attend.

    The toughest thing is to secure venue, lodging and meals as this is a multi-day event and we are a group of independent rebels without a fiduciary agent. (I know, I know, we should let that go too to be truly UN but some things die hard.)

    Reply
  • Posted by Robert Aguilera
    Mitch Joel

    Hey Mitch,
    I'm reading your Six Pixels book and I just came across the chapter about Unconferences. It sounds like an amazing possibility but I'm having trouble finding a true Unconference. Like you mentioned in your post, I keep coming across "shabby and cheap events".

    Any tips for finding any true unconferences in California?

    Thanks for all the info!
    -R. Aguilera

    Reply
  • Posted by Glennette Clark
    Glennette Clark

    Mitch, I have not read your book but I have been successfully running annual unconferences since 2010.

    I agree with everything that makes an unconference great as well as the things that make them suck.

    One of the things that I have found to be true is that, although it is an unconference, there must be a common theme. That way, the people attending will have some clue as to why they are there and what they can expect to talk about.

    Another thing is location. I have used the same location for since 2011. I have a great relationship with the venue. It's not free but I've found that nothing of any quality is free. People attending the conference pay a nominal fee but, again, nothing of quality is free.

    Another thing about location. I chose the location for three reasons--location to public transportation, location to a variety of restaurants, and the venue itself is a gallery and a school. Place makes a difference in how you want your attendees to feel as they are participating and networking.

    I also put a cap on the number of attendees of 150 - 170. There is a point wherein a large crowd is just that, a large crowd. It is hard for people to interact and make connections.

    Reply
    • Posted by Tim
      Mitch Joel

      Thanks Glennette for this! what city do you host your uncoferences and do you get pretty consistent numbers of participants year to year?

      Tim

      Reply
  • Posted by Tim
    Mitch Joel

    Is there a number of participants that moves an "unconference" away from its traditional intimate goal? and what do you think of a PWYW (pay what you want) fee model? having folks chip in what they want or can?

    Thanks for this insightful post.

    Reply
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