Unconferences work — but maybe not for the obvious reasons

For the past five or six years, I’ve been attending “unconferences” like Seattle Mind Camp. I love them because you never know what’s going to happen — only that you’re going to meet, work with, argue with, and perform in front of some of the brightest, most creative minds in the local technology community. (Here’s a great site for the Toronto Mindcamp that captures the experience.)

A year or so ago I brought my friends Hank (a computer engineer) and Tom (a community organizer) along to Mind Camp and they, too, were enchanted. We jumped into spontaneous volunteer activities, played games, learned to swing dance, argued about the future of technology, joined a large group of people scratching their heads over a new Google product, and engaged in a team-building activity that had three groups of people fighting each other over how to arrange a pile of folding chairs. I led a session called “Do Non-Profit Websites Have to Suck” and we actually solved one of the major reasons why they do.

Tom was intrigued by the way the unconference broke down barriers between organizers and attendees, presenters and audience. As a result, he’s about to try the unconference model — on a group of traditional-conference organizers. They have, in the past, held annual traditional conferences and are not wholly on board with the unconference model.

OK, what’s an “unconference”?

The key to an unconference (aka a user-generated conference, open environment learning, barcamp, etc.) is the way the program sessions are created and arranged. Instead of choosing panels of bigwigs in advance and assigning them to pontificate (or debate) topics the organizers think are important, the unconference team simply secures a space, time, food, and other basic conference structures — and gets the word out.

The attendees arrive, register, and are given sheets on which they can write a proposal for a session. They describe what they’d like to present, discuss, or inquire into (in two or three sentences). After an hour or so of registration and meet-and-greet activities, the hand-written session proposals are put up on a wall, and each attendee is given a batch of stickers — usually one for each time slot. A one-day conference might have 6 or 7 slots. Attendees affix a sticker to the proposal of any session they’d want to attend — and they also leave notes to indicate if they’d like to join the panel, or help moderate the session, if appropriate.

After the stickers go up, the event organizers pull the proposal sheets and sort them so that popular sessions can be assigned to large rooms, smaller sessions to smaller venues, and similar sessions don’t conflict.

They then re-post the proposal sheets on the wall in a traditional grid (by time and room), and the unconference begins.

The way in which the conference session content is generated is so unusual that it’s become the definition of an unconference. And I realized that we are all assuming that this unusual generation of content is why unconferences are so refreshing, energizing, and generally successful.

But, as I prepare to go to the unconference Tom has organized, I realized there may very well be a completely different factor playing a major role here.

It’s attention.

Gotcha!

I’m not a major conference organizer, and I’m more or less tagging along to Tom’s conference. It’s my birthday, and I was thinking to get some shopping in, do some yoga, have coffee with some friends in the San Jose area…or, in short, cherry-pick a couple of conference sessions and blow the rest of it off.

That’s a common strategy for traditional conferences. We’ve all done it.

But it’s impossible at an unconference! From the point of view of an uninvolved slummer like me, there’s no way to find out in advance when the good stuff is happening. The unconference requires you to be present! To be involved! To be committed! To bring your whole self, the whole time.

And now I realize that’s possibly why people get so much out of unconferences. The other participants are engaged and contributing. Everyone is responsible for everyone else’s experience.

So much for shopping, yoga, and coffee. I’m going to attend all the sessions, even if one of them is “Pros and cons of unconferences.” At least I know I’ll have something interesting to contribute to that one.

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