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Kevin Cheng  

Unconferences are Overrated

August 28th, 2006 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

I’ll just say this first, I’m not against the idea of unconferences like BarCamp. I just think they’re ridiculously overblown in their value as a whole - especially in Silicon Valley.

First, what is an unconference? From Wikipedia:

> An unconference is a conference where the content of the sessions is driven and created by the participants, generally day-by-day during the course of the event, rather than by a single organizer, or small group of organizers, in advance.

So the idea is that you get a more dynamic, free flowing exchange of ideas not from a handful of selected speakers but from the audience instead. The topics are defined on the fly (with a small bit of suggestions beforehand) and perhaps conversations will shift as the content does. In addition, for the “Camp” variety, there’s often a stretch where the people remain in the same complex/building for an entire weekend - the isolation and concentration of people hopefully sparking even more creative energy.

Sounds great, right? I don’t think so. I think it’s the wrong way to achieve the desired effect.

When people are asked to speak at conferences, it’s true that many of them are poor speakers and don’t know as much as some audience members (or certainly all the audience members combined). The former is a problem with conference programming, the latter, in my opinion, irrelevant.

With conferences, you have an expectation. You know some of the topics that will be discussed as well as some of the speakers. In an “unconference”, you may know some speakers because they’re mentioned sessions they want to do on a webpage but really, it’s subject to change - and it may not even be a presentation. Maybe it’s just “I just wanted to talk about open source movement,” and open the floor. I can do that over a dinner.

I speak at conferences sometimes and when I do, I spend a great deal of time preparing my material both to be interesting in its presentation and content. I don’t imagine for a second that I know more than the audience but what I offer is a spark. The spark which creates the very conversations that unconferences hope to have with their open environment.

Why is it necessary to do away with planned and efficient presentations just to get the discourse going? Unlike dinner conversations, presentations are packaged to deliver clear messages (or ok, _should be_ designed to). Sure, unconferences can begin with presentations but because of the informality of it all, no presentation is ever thought out.

As for the topics, conferences end to spend time programming a diverse and interesting set of talks that relate to their target audience. Unconferences open up the floor to discuss _anything_. If one must be creative about how a conference is programmed to ensure interest, there’s always methods like SxSW Interactive’s Panel Chooser.

My time is limited. Of all the resources I have, it’s the one I can spare the least. Forgive me if the prospect of spending a weekend not knowing who I’m going to be listening to nor what is going to be discussed at large seems unappealing to me.

And yes, I don’t know about this year but last year, there really was a funk.

14 Responses to “Unconferences are Overrated”
Matthew Reinbold wrote:

All very good points. However, I’d like to point out the main difference between the two is that at conventional conferences there are lectures and at an unconference there are discussions.

Sure, somebody might grab you between sessions of a formalized conference. But in my experience these are usually some of the best moments - taking the ’spark’ that you described and using the enthusiasm of a great discussion to light some fires.

Sure, you can have a discussion about ‘open source’ over dinner. However, your dinner guest must be of a much higher quality than mine. ;) The opportunity to engage leaders in given technology areas is a rare one.

The whole amorphous format really is oversold, as you allude to. What should be emphasized are the opportunities to have conversations with really bright people.

Jared Spool wrote:

My friend, Andy Bourland, had similar thoughts: http://www.bourland.com/attending-unconferences-will-companies-pay-for-their-employees-to-go/.

Being in the business of creating conference events, I can tell you there is a lot of work to it. The idea that just getting the right people in the room and the conference will be amazing isn’t much different than anything else. Great movies don’t just happen because you’ve collected great actors. Great companies don’t happen because you’ve hired great people.

There’s more to it.

CS wrote:

I was “lucky” enough to attend BarCamp @ San Francisco. I wholeheartedly agree.

Ron Zeno wrote:

Sounds like a great places for conment to find dupes ;) Seriously though, I find regular conferences annoying enough when there are too many loud but charismatic consultants attending who aren’t kept in rein. “Oh look, there’s Jarod standing by the microphone to be the first person to talk in the Q&A portion of this session, which doesn’t begin for another 15 minutes.”

mir wrote:

I have been to exactly one Barcamp and had the same impression. I felt that doing away with scheduling made it harder for me to derive benefit (let alone get to know anyone) from anyone elses expertise, and since the experiental acrhitecture wasn’t there (knowing who is going to be where, when, and seeing, based on peoples attendance in various rooms, who I may want to talk to later) actually detracted from my experience.

Maybe it’s great if you’re some web2.0 impressario who likes having to muscle into a room of strangers and make a big splash but I appreciate a little orgnaization now and then ;)

Ben Metcalfe wrote:

My time is limited. Of all the resources I have, it’s the one I can spare the least. Forgive me if the prospect of spending a weekend not knowing who I’m going to be listening to nor what is going to be discussed at large seems unappealing to me.

Yeah, I agree if you’re that busy then it’s probably not for you. But equally, if you’re that busy then maybe you should re-examin your lifestyle, priorities, etc.

I actually love the BarCamp/Unconference idea. I’ve sat in enough crappy traditional conferences listening to boring speakers but enjoying the ‘hallway conference’ (the other attendees) that BarCamp was a natural fit. Cut out the boring speakers — most of which I can grok online anyway — and touch flesh with the community.

It works for me, it’s a shame you’re too busy to be able to value it.

Jackson Fox wrote:

I’ll just say this first, I’m not against the idea of unconferences like BarCamp. I just think they’re ridiculously overblown in their value as a whole - especially in Silicon Valley.

Ah, to be a geek in Silicon Valley! As someone who is very interested in unconferences, has helped organize one (BarCampRDU) and is looking to organize another, I will readily admit that unconferences can be hit and miss. However, I don’t think that regular conferences have a significantly better level of quality.

More importantly, there are large parts of the country that aren’t on the conference circuit. Unconferences can give these communities the chance to meet, make connections and learn from each other without having to fly to San Jose.

Steve Portigal wrote:

I attended (and spoke at) dCamp, and my thoughts are at http://www.portigal.com/blog/thoughts-on-dcamp/

I find the DIY and bottom-up spirit to be remarkable, but think the quality of the experience is extremely unpredictable. Logistic planning is hard work and for some of us, it reduces stress and loss of focus during the event; but when you throw things together, it can create a lot of chaos and distraction around where we do go next, where are the chairs, who is supposed to be here, etc.

There’s certainly a trend in our business to show that these sort of things - presenting, designing, researching, innovating - just require a good attitude and gettin’ everyone involved, like that old saw about the gang putting on a show! My mom has some old costumes we can use! And the results can be charming and entertaining, but they aren’t Broadway.

They aren’t meant to be Broadway, of course, so if you go to dCamp expecting DUX (not that the bar is so high in that example, since DUX really sux’d IMHO) you run the risk of being disappointed.

There was this wild cult vibe going forth at dCamp, from the organizers, with lots of dCamp is…diagrams and scrawled visions of trees and organic evolution of discussion and so on into the future, t-shirts, an immediate reunion, and I think that spirit is much of what is being offered, a sense of participation, of reclamation, of collective ownership.

Saying it, of course, doesn’t make it so. And some coaching for a discussion leader or presenter or whatever we’re gonna have at an unconference would probably make things more valuable to more people.

But expectation management is probably a big part of it.

Steve Sherlock wrote:

Good points all. I have been to several conferences, some better than others. I am going to PodCamp Boston so I will be able to experience an unconference in person and will be able to judge for myself. In the meantime, I expect it will be akin to the old GIGO principle, you get out of it what you are willing to put in.

Calybos wrote:

Are we on a Labor Day break, or am I jumping the gun by expecting the new comic too soon?

Jeffrey Fredrick wrote:

I’ve been to exactly one unconference so far and that was one I helped organized (CITCON Chicago - http://www.citconf.com/archive/chicago2006/). I wouldn’t have thought to use the format but for the co-organizer’s suggestion and the results were better than I would have thought possible. But there were two factors that I think help explain it:

1. defined topic: the discussion topics weren’t just anything, they were all around the theme of Continuous Integration and the automated testing that relates to it.

2. personal committement: while the conference was free it was scheduled on a Friday night and Saturday, so the attendees weren’t there as a substitute for going to work, they were there because they care about the topic.

Of course maybe we just got lucky! Will know more in a few weeks after we’ve done the second event, CITCON London…

Joshua wrote:

I’ve been to a few of the unconference events held here in Toronto, and I think much of the criticism is missing the point. In my experience, the events I’ve been to have been extremely valuable for building a community here.

So, for me, the question isn’t “are they as good as a professional conference?” but “how else will I meet the local community?”

Amit Ranjan wrote:

Hi,

I was actively involved in organising the New Delhi edition of Barcamp in April earlier this year.

The points raised in the post deserve some merit; I have attended four unconference events till now and I agree that the unconference format may at times be disruptive and counter-productive. That is just a matter of detailing and how you choose to conduct the show.

But that does not take away from the inherent value of these events. In India, Barcamps have actually been a big catalyst in getting the small tech startup community come together. That is by no means a small achievement.

rgds

Amit Ranjan

Pehmer wrote:

Great One

I must say, its worth it! My link, http://christi.monportefolio.com/,thanks haha


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?



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