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Unconferences FTW!

(This article was published in the Linux For You magazine, November 2008 issue.)

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Let’s face it. Conferences are boring. Really. Those massive, sponsor-centric events are for the white-collared executives listening to a possibly even more boring person on the stage. Now, this might not hold true for everyone, but it certainly doesn’t gel with the current times. Our lives have become faster and time is always short… which is why the conference needs a makeover.


From Wikipedia, "An unconference is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose". It is not a specific event, rather, it has been applied to a range of gatherings which follow this style. Unconferences are audience-centric events, compared to regular conferences which are speaker-centric events. They are 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. Traditionally, the funda of a conference is -

"The sum of the expertise of the people on the stage, is more than the sum of the expertise of the people in the audience."

That’s the primary reason why a regular conference is not a discussion, but more of a monologue. But not an unconference! Everyone who attends an unconference 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. 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, hence participation, fun and above all exchange of ideas is a given.

How it all began

In his 1997 book, "Open Space Technology", Harrison Owen discussed many of the techniques now associated with the modern unconference, although his book does not use the term "unconference". The term itself was popularized by Dave Winer, the organizer of BloggerCon. Owen in his book gave the following principles that can be applied to unconferences: Whoever comes is the right people. Whatever happened is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts, is the right time. Whenever its over, its over.

I know, some people will have an issue over the 2nd principle. People say "no, no, so much more could have happened…". But no, it could not, at least not in those circumstances :-) Owen also gave an accompanying ‘Law of Two Feet’ which says: "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."

This is very important to an unconference. People don’t need to sit and listen to all the talks. They can move out, gather a group and start impromptu discussions etc. Such freedom reduces time wastage a lot.

After Owen’s work, this method has grown to a wild popularity and is used to organize many such events around the world. Some examples are BarCamp, BloggerCon, OSScamp, FooCamp, Open Hack Day etc. The format is immensely popular in the technology community for idea sharing, networking, learning, speaking, demonstrating, and generally interacting with other geeks.

Let’s attend one

Since the format is so unconventional, people have difficulty in actually believing that such an event can be feasible and successful. In fact, I remember one of my friends who was to attend an event; he refused to believe that there was no schedule! Unfortunately you have to participate in such an event to know how wrong you might be thinking! Lets attend one right now…

  • Before the event, people usually add their prospective sessions to a website, like a wiki. People might also need to add their name to the attendee list so that its easier for the organizer to keep track of logistics (seating, food, goodies etc.)
    • Note: No schedule is decided before hand.
  • On event day, people start assembling at the venue. Usually bubbling with activities and anticipation, people get to know each other, have coffee or just hang around.
  • Some time later, people get together and decide the schedule of sessions. This process is completely open so that anyone can chip in. Many times, new people add their sessions at that moment itself.
  • The format of sessions differ slightly per event. Some events have just one room, others have multiple rooms. Nevertheless, all sessions are very informal and promote participation. People shouldn’t feel that they are being taught or lectured!
  • Lunch is usually free for all participants. Yaay!
  • After the end of the event, all participants usually get together and discuss what else could have been done and how the event could have been even better. Sometimes, goodies are distributed around, and if the event is multi-day, the next day’s plan of action is decided.
  • Some unconferences include other types of fun events like hackathons, lightning talks and BoF (Birds Of a Feather).

I hope you got the gist of the whole process. It is meant to involve everyone. No use sitting and staring. Get up, learn, share. After all, not everyone can be an expert on everything!

Challenges involved

Like everything, such events have shortcomings as well. I am not saying these are the negatives of an unconference -- these are simply challenges that some people might face. Like the fact, that until you attend one, you can’t imagine what its like. Some people think such events are "direction less". Others think it's difficult to find the right session, as everything is done on the fly. And since most of such events are based around a very basic theme, some might feel slightly chaotic.

The Indian scene

India has its fair share of unconferences as well. The BarCamp series around India get around 300 people per event, and are held in many cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai etc. These BarCamps focus on varying topics and have a theme per camp, like "Collaboration", "Social Media" etc. The participants consist of a wide range of people like business heads, technology geeks, freelancers, students & academia. Another such series of events is OSScamp. These focus purely on open source software and philosophies. They have been held at Delhi & Mumbai. Bangalore saw the first OSScamp Mobile! which focussed on embedded and mobile technologies. OSScamps see programmers, hackers, F/OSS business people from across the country as well. Here, attendance is around 150.

Unconferences are not just events. They are now being seen as a new form of social organization. Its the "we, not I" factor that makes these events what they are. Attend one to experience it yourself!