Is there a perfect kind of conference?

Since I’m involved in organizing one in May, my eye always gets caught by any mention of what makes a good conference versus a bad one, which is how I wound up reading Euan Semple’s post on his blog The Obvious, about a forum on blogs and society that he is attending in May. In it, Euan (former head of knowledge management at the BBC) says that he has grown wary of “being taken advantage of by commercial conference organisers,” and was also concerned about “being associated with yet another money-spinning, bandwagon-joining, pointless exercise.”

As are we all, Euan, as are we all. That’s why I keep writing about how with mesh we are trying to create something part-way between a traditional conference and an “unconference.” Can’t get enough of my thoughts on that topic? Here’s another one. I think Euan and I share a similar thought — that boring, stale, PowerPoint-filled conferences are useless, but also (as he puts it) that he’s kind of irritated by “a small group of people who have attended mind-boggling numbers of conferences… over the past four years in the US getting bored with themselves and declaring conferences dead.”

And what would a post on conferences be without a reference to Dave Winer? Euan includes in his post a reference to the fact that the idea of an unconference “wasn’t invented by Dave Winer,” and gets a comment from — naturalement — Dave Winer.

Update:

My fellow mesh organizer Mark Evans has some thoughts about the perfect conference too, and so does Stuart at the mesh blog and Mike. We may not hit perfection but we’re certainly going to try 🙂 Stowe Boyd, who is coming to mesh, says he isn’t tired of conferences, he’s just “tired of tired conferences.”

The mesh wiki — create a workshop

I’ve written before about the debate over conferences versus “unconferences” — which Dave Winer and Jeff Jarvis and some others (including the whole FooCamp and BarCamp gang) feel is a better way of organizing things. As I’ve said before, I think there are benefits to both approaches, whether it’s the free and self-organizing approach or the more structured, charge-a-fee approach. And with our mesh conference in Toronto on May 15th and 16th, we’re trying to do a little of both.

So our keynotes — with Om Malik, Tara Hunt, Paul Kedrosky, Steve Rubel and Michael Geist — are not going to be traditional keynotes; instead, they will be more like interactive interviews, with (hopefully) lots of audience participation (and Tara is planning to make hers even more interactive, which I can hardly wait to experience). The panels are also going to be unconventional, with a lot more participation and a “No PowerPoint” rule in force. We’ve also got an “unconference room,” which will be available for anyone to host a demo or workshop or whatever they wish.

And, as Stuart MacDonald writes on the mesh blog and Rob Hyndman writes on his, we’ve got a new wiki set up (thanks to David Crow and the TorCamp gang) that is open for whatever kind of ideas you might have — about what you want to do in the unconference room, about where to stay when you’re in Toronto, about where the good Wi-Fi hotspots are, or whatever. Giddyup. Mark Evans has more, and so does Mike McDerment of SecondSite.

When is a conference not a conference?

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.