When is a conference not a conference?

by Mathew on March 27, 2006 · 18 comments

I apologize for having conferences on the brain lately, but as you may or may not know, some friends and I are organizing one (it’s called mesh, and it’s in Toronto May 15th and 16th), so it’s kind of been eat, sleep and breathe conferences lately. And there’s also been a lot of talk about the subject over the past few months, the most recent instalment of which was Jeff “Buzzmachine” Jarvis’s post about the successful “unconference” on journalism he attended in Philadelphia.

Jeff clearly hates traditional conferences, as many people – including me – do, and so he is totally down with the idea of getting rid of the usual PowerPoint presentation crapola and letting the “audience” become part of the show. As he put it:

“There’s a meeting coming up about linking and I was quite obnoxious in my response to the invitation, pitching the Winer gospel of the unconference. I told the organizer to blow up the panels and tear down the essentially insulting distinction between panel and audience and get the people in the room to truly link.”

Jeff’s comments are just part of the ongoing discussion about how (and how not) to have a conference about Web 2.0 topics, since Web 2.0 is all about the conversation, interactivity, and so on – which the “unconference” idea is all about. And this discussion covers the spectrum from the BarCamp end of things, where the event is more or less a get-together of like-minded people in a room somewhere, all the way to the more organized and traditional ETech or New Comm Forum or whatever. And, of course, it also covers the spectrum from free all the way to those $1,200 a day mega-conference/trade shows.

For the record, mesh is not an unconference, although the benefits of those are obvious. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a boring old mega-conference riddled with PowerPoints either. We’ve been wrestling with how exactly to do it (and using some Web 2.0 tools while doing so, as Rob describes), but we think that there is a Third Way, one that mixes the best of traditional conferences – the organization, for example, which can help those who might not be quite ready to become part of the show – with the best of the unconference, such as the interactivity and openness to ideas, and the desire to get a real dialogue going with the participants (not attendees, and not “the audience”). Others seem to think that a combination is also a good thing.

And that’s why we plan to have an “unconference room” set aside, one that will be open to all to talk about whatever they wish, as well as workshops loosely organized around themes, where debate and ideas can really get flowing, and some other cool ideas that I can’t give away just yet – including a different approach to keynotes than you would get at a standard conference. We’ve got lots of things in the works. In the end, it comes down to letting people become part of the dialogue in as many ways as possible. That is what I think Jeff wants, and that is what we want. And we think that is what you want.

Got any thoughts? Let us know. Send me an email, or post a comment here or over on the conference blog.

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  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Matthew: I think it’s easieir to make the conversion than having a separate unconference room. It’s about blowing up the panel and making the room the panel (Dave Winer’s words): Start with the end of the session, with the questions. And turn the questions around and ask the people in the room to share their knowledge, which is greater than that on the panel. Doesn’t mean it’s anarchy; it’s still a directed conversation. But it’s a conversation.

  • Mathew

    Thanks, Jeff. And we definitely want the panels and the keynotes and the workshops to be conversations — I’m just not sure our audience (or at least not all of them) are going to be as knowledgeable as the ones at the unconference you went to, and so we want to strike a balance between blowing up the panel and still maintaining some structure. That’s why I said we’ve been wrestling with it — it’s definitely a work in progress. Thanks for the comment.

    Mathew

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  • Andrew

    I run a small non-conference for designers called Design Engaged. We’ve also dispensed with the audience/speaker division, but have found that imposing certain other structures really does make the event run smoothly, and forces everyone to participate in ways they feel comfortable. You can look at the event blog at http://www.designenaged.com. I’ve written about the conference structure in 2005 here and about the 2004 version here.

    I think it’s great that people want to disrupt the boring conference form, but that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Structured presentations, typically prepareed in advance, give people time to plan and craft a presentation of ideas. Leaving room for discussion and real interaction between audience and speaker is the trick. Design Engaged also builds in lots of other *sizes* of group interaction: we spend about a day in small groups of 6 or so, outside the conference space, and then spend some time in those groups doing actual work. Leave lots of time for lunches dinners and breaks, and everyone who wants to can find time to meet and talk to everyone.

  • Mathew

    Thanks for the comment, Andrew. I think you are right, and that it is useful to have some structure, provided there is lots of room for discussion and engagement and so on built in.

    Mathew

  • http://www.paradox1x.org Karl

    Hi, Mathew, I’m Karl Martino and I helped organize the structure of the norgs: unconference we just had in Philadelphia.

    “I’m just not sure our audience (or at least not all of them) are going to be as knowledgeable as the ones at the unconference you went to, and so we want to strike a balance between blowing up the panel and still maintaining some structure.”

    The act of trusting your participants (note they are no longer the audience), doesn’t preclude structure. In fact, you still very much need it. We used Dave Winer’s BloggerCon cheat sheet as a starting point [1]. Jeff summs it up very well when he says “Start with the end of the session, with the questions. And turn the questions around and ask the people in the room to share their knowledge, which is greater than that on the panel.”

    We’re there some who knew the subject matter more than others? Yes. But that *helped* the exchange that occured here. It was eye opening.

    You’ll need a good moderator to kick things off and hold things together – a tough job to be sure. Food and as Andrew suggets and breaks – because discussions are intense (I can’t imagine falling asleep at one of these).

    1. http://www.bloggercon.org/iii/newbies

  • Mathew

    Thanks, Karl. And I think we are definitely shooting for something along those lines — not sure whether it will meet the official definition of a “unconference,” but we want to get as much conversation and discussion and input going as possible.

    Mathew

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  • http://www.paradox1x.org Karl

    A pleasure and good luck with Mesh 2.0.

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