Doc Searls recently posted that he was headed out for several ‘non-unconferences’ — naming Etech (where I am right now), and SXSW as examples. Marc Canter launched into a tirade, where he stated — accurately, I think — that those two events are not unconferences at all, based on misreading Doc’s post. He subsequently updated the post, when people pointed out that he missed the ‘non’.
Perhaps coincidentally, Dave Winer wrote a post called What is an unconference?, that outlines the core features of unconferences:
This observation may turn out to be the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences.
The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.
It’s probably much worse than that. My guess is that if you swapped the people on stage with an equal number chosen at random from the audience, the new panelists would effectively be smarter, because they didn’t have the time to get nervous, to prepare PowerPoint slides, to make lists of things they must remember to say, or have overly grandiose ideas about how much recognition they are getting. In other words, putting someone on stage and telling them they’re boss probably makes them dumber. In any case it surely makes them more boring.
Turning things around
So then, how do you turn things around so that we can harness the expertise we just discovered and get a discussion moving efficiently and spontaneously without forcing the interesting conversations into the hallway. I wanted to see if there was a way to get the hallway ideas to come back into the meeting room. It turns out there was.
First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They’re now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone who was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience. Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do? Choose a reporter, someone who knows something about the topic of discussion (yes, there is a topic, it’s not free-form) and knows how to ask questions and knit a story together.
And, despite the fact that I seldom agree 100% with Dave, I buy in on this unconference definition.
But I don’t agree with the implicit notion that there are two kinds of conferences in the world. I think there is a short list of dimensions, not just one. And here they are.
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