Boris Mann

Open Source. Community. Decentralized Web. Building dev tools at Fission. Cooks & eats.


What is an unconference?

Mitch Joel laments the ‘Death of the Unconference’, saying “This past month, I’ve seen a handful of events that are billing themselves as unconferences when, in reality, they’re just very shabby and cheap events.”

I don’t doubt that the term unconference has been co-opted. But I disagree with Mitch’s take on what the one, true unconference actually is and means.

Maybe we should backup at this point and actually explain the core concept of an unconference. An unconference typically starts the day by gathering all the participants in one room, and those that want to lead talks pitch their sessions. From there, the grid of rooms and time slots are filled up, thus setting the agenda for the day.

This entire concept is based on open-space technology (Wikipedia), which you can read more about. It is the basis for the marketing term of ‘unconference’.

No broadcast-mode speakers and listeners, everyone is a participant, rather than an attendee.

Mitch has a list of items that an unconference can’t do, in his opinion, if they want to claim to be an unconference.

Update: Allen Pike had this to say:

A good point - let’s talk about the expectations we DO have of unconferences. In any case, below my comments on the “negated items” from Mitch that I disagree with or have some thoughts to add.

There is a pre-set agenda

I agree with Joel that setting the entire agenda ahead of time means it’s not an unconference. But, I have set some sessions or topic blocks ahead of time.

For instance, for the upcoming Polyglot Conference, we want to have a focus on getting female developer participants. We’re not sure exactly how we’re going to set aside time for this (maybe a track or room dedicated to it).

Charging for an unconference

Mitch has this to say:

This will be a contentious issue, but the best unconferences I have been to, have been the ones where everyone took both individual and group responsibility for the event. If the venue requires a fee, everyone chips in equally to pay for it. If you're hungry and want to eat, either bring food or go out and buy some.

Sure, I agree that completely spontaneous community-funded events are great, and probably the best of their kind. In my experience, very few unconferences would even happen unless some smaller group of organizers willed them into existence.

I tend to charge for events not only to help cover costs, but because it makes people “buy in” to the event that much more strongly. I actually think that the unconference concept has become too accessible for want of a better word, meaning that people who come to free events tend to have an attendee rather than participant mindset.

I’ve seen ugly discussions on Twitter, with accusations of “you’re corrupting the movement!” or similar said to well-intentioned organizers who charge for events.

I think of this in the same way that I see the concepts “agile” or “lean” being used. They are new things that go through adoption, and refinement, and, frankly, changes. No one wants to see their core principles co-opted, but at the same time, you need to remember that you were part of change, part of something that made things different. Lashing out at further changes, further evolution is usually not the right response. Keep an open mind to further refinements, and engage in discussion on whether those core principles could be evolving.

And if you find an event isn’t a good fit for you, don’t worry about it. Use the law of two feet:

If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing: Give greetings, use your two feet, and go do something useful. Responsibility resides with you.

Ideally, that doing something useful includes organizing an unconference event yourself. I recently wrote “build more startups” as the conclusion to problems in the startup ecosystem.

I think the same applies to unconferences: organize more of them.