Understanding the Unconference

Understanding the Unconference

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By Jonathan Follett

Published on August 8, 2006

Unconferences are gaining popularity in the high-tech community as self-organizing forums for idea sharing, networking, learning, speaking, demonstrating, and generally interacting with other geeks. The unconference format is based on the premise that in any professional gathering, the people in the audience—not just those selected to speak on stage—have interesting thoughts, insights, and expertise to share. Everyone who attends an unconference, such as those put together by organizations like BarCamp or BrainJams, is required to participate in some way: to present, to speak on a panel, to show off a project, or just to ask a lot of questions. As an event, the character of the unconference falls somewhere between that of a bazaar and that of an intellectual salon. It is, to borrow a phrase, a free “marketplace of ideas.” There are no themes or tracks to guide you, as in a typical conference; the whole event is centered on what might be called the discussion group. The ad hoc nature and the low cost of this forum (they’re usually free, compared to the hundreds of dollars needed to attend some industry gatherings) make the unconference accessible to many.

Creative Structures: The Unconference, Open Space, and the Jam Session

Unconferences may not have a set agenda, but they still possess a defined structure that provides attendees with a set of tools for navigating the event. The guiding tenets of the unconference are directly influenced by the work of consultant and author Harrison Owen, who describes a method of organizing group interaction, called Open Space Technology. Owen, in his piece Opening Space for Emerging Order, explains the Four Principles of Open Space: 1) Whoever comes is the right people, 2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, 3) Whenever it starts is the right time, and 4) When it’s over, it’s over. The accompanying Law of Two Feet states, “[I]f at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing—use your two feet and move to some place more to your liking.” The Open Space method has been used successfully to organize meetings of Fortune 500 business executives, scientists, and even political rivals in South Africa.

While the ad hoc philosophy of Open Space may seem like a strange way to run meetings, if we examine other areas of creative practice, the self-organized forum emerges as a more common method of interacting than we first realize. The Open Space meeting and the unconference have strong similarities to long-established gatherings in the world of music: in particular, the jam session in jazz and rock. During a jam session, musicians bring knowledge of particular standard pieces—which provide them with a system for playing in a specific time signature, musical key, and so on. These standard pieces and the rules for playing them set expectations about how the players will interact with one another. While the jam session may include hours of improvisation and solos—requiring the players to listen carefully to one another and react appropriately—the overall experience remains a highly structured one. The rules of the jam session include one similar to the Law of Two Feet as well: If you’re not contributing to the sound, you should lay off and let the other players explore the musical space.

BarCamp Boston

To give you an idea of how a real, live unconference functions, here is a snapshot of the recent June 2006 BarCamp Boston:

Prior to the event, the BarCamp Boston unconference was organized online via a wiki, where attendees could register, tell a little about themselves, and float ideas for sessions. As the date for the unconference neared, the registrations on the wiki page increased—the final count was more than 150 people. The wiki was extremely useful, in that it provided a sense of community and interaction, in addition to useful information, before the event began. Attendees coordinated rides to the site, and even places to stay if they were not planning on camping at the unconference location.

The hub of this unconference—the place where people made decisions about the types of sessions to offer and attend—was a large cafeteria at the Monster Worldwide offices. BarCamp Boston opened with a meet-and-greet period, where BarCampers could sign-in, mingle, and drink coffee. People used this time to test the waters and discover the backgrounds of the other attendees. The atmosphere was collegial and friendly: Everyone seemed genuinely interested in learning about other people’s projects and proposed sessions. Present at the event were designers and developers of every stripe, not to mention bloggers, podcasters, venture capitalists, project managers, HR recruiters, and a host of entrepreneurs. There was a huge range of ages and experience levels, from kids fresh out of college to gray-haired computer gurus.

The coffee time was an excellent warm up for the next event—the BarCamp kick-off—during which participants passed a microphone around the room, introduced themselves, and gave brief synopses of their proposed talks. This rapid-fire group interaction enabled attendees to find like-minded participants and make further connections. While people were introducing themselves on the microphone, other attendees were posting the titles of their presentations and general descriptions of their topics—on oversized bright yellow sticky notes—to an eight-by-twelve-foot brown paper schedule grid. Attendees chose the locations (large room or small), durations (usually a half hour), and formats (panel, discussion, demo) for their talks. To gauge interest in a particular session, other BarCampers were encouraged to make a tick mark on the sticky note if they planned to attend. People crowded around the board, frantically writing down in laptops, PDAs, and even paper notebooks the names of talks they wanted to attend. As the sessions solidified and the overall schedule became clear, a helpful volunteer posted the order of events and their locations to the BarCamp Boston wiki. While the activity lasted less than forty-five minutes, it enabled everyone present to get a feel for the overall group, the topics in which other people were interested, and the schedule for the day.

Session topics at BarCamp Boston included: Startup 2.0: The New Landscape, Podcasting 101, Open Document Format, User Interface Workshop, and various demonstrations of beta and pre-beta software and web projects. One of the most useful sessions I attended was a group discussion of recommended “cool tools” for everything from content management to database administration to mapping local Boston-area restaurants using GPS software. About half the people in the room presented their favorite cool tools and explained their benefits, sometimes hooking up their laptops to the room’s projector and directing the audience to online resources. A group of facilitators helped organize the session, sending participants to the front of the room when it was their turn to speak, and moving the discussion along when it got bogged down.

Difficulties with the Unconference Format

The biggest challenge for unconferences may be in setting expectations for the participants. Until you have attended one, it’s difficult to appreciate the improvised nature of the event. The lack of managed direction can be something of a shock if you’re used to attending more traditional conferences, and may be off-putting to some. And, of course, since everything is put together on the fly, there’s a strong chance that finding the right sessions will be hard. Without one theme to guide the happenings of the day, the overall feel can be chaotic.

The unconference can also be unpolished and raw, because participants speak about topics they’re passionate about, not ones in which they are necessarily established experts. But this fluidity, and the challenge of finding your place in it, is part of the fun. When you have a free moment, you can walk up to others, and ask them what new ideas they’re in love with, what projects they’re working on, or how they might solve a particular problem.

A New Form of Social Organization

In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, sociologist Richard Florida describes the evolution of occupations such as designers, programmers, and scientists that drive the economy. According to Florida, the Creative Class is not only the catalyst for economic activity in the information age, but is actually reshaping the way our society is organized. The nature of work is changing: Creative occupations require longer hours, but also feature perks such as flexible schedules and increased mobility. This means that we require and demand a different set of support systems and activities from our communities. Strong-tie organizations such as churches and community clubs have traditionally defined our social interactions. Those ties, however, are loosening. Our weak-tie relationships (colleagues and acquaintances) may be a more effective avenue for interaction.

The unconference seems an obvious step in that direction. Because they do not require the infrastructure and organization of a full-blown industry gathering, unconferences can happen more frequently. Because the cost to attend is minimal (or non-existent), anyone who wishes to can come. And because everyone at the unconference participates in some fashion, interaction, networking, and the exchange of ideas is a given. It is possible then, that the unconference is not only a unique alternative to traditional professional gatherings, but also a method for the high-tech creative workers to construct a new weak-tie community.

As the movement grows in popularity among the Creative Class, some of these gatherings will naturally gravitate towards societal issues. Rather than join Kiwanis International or the Lions Club, people may turn to the unconference system to provide a forum for open discussion and collaboration aimed at solving complex problems. Evidence of this trend can already be seen in another BarCamp-influenced event: WineCamp, which brought together geeks and non-profit organizations in the hopes of providing better open source tech tools for the latter.

How can you participate?

Unconferences are springing up all over, and you’re absolutely encouraged to get involved. Here are some places to look for unconferences near you:

If you are inspired to organize your own unconference—whether it be to save the world or save your data—the BarCamp website is a great place to start. In addition to general support from the BarCamp community, you can find a host of helpful materials and manuals there that outline the important points to consider.

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Jonathan Follett is a writer, designer, and musician living in the Boston area. He loves moo-shi pork, Underworld, and that cool Poang chair from Ikea.