The “UnConference” is all the rage right now… an agenda-free gathering of like minded souls who seek to learn from each other’s wisdom… an “expert free zone”… no sponsors… no official speakers or panels. Since Dave Winer began to promote this idea earlier this year, it seems that every new conference wants to be an “UnConference”, therefore freed from the sins of conferences past.
No doubt the standard approach to conferences has abused the trust and credibility attendees place in the promoters of these events: vendor speakers giving the same talk they gave at the last 5 conferences they spoke at, sales pitches from the podium, vendor stacked panels, outdated and irrelevent content. Believe me, I used to review conferences and even put on a few back in my ClickZ days (at which fyi, we didn’t allow pitches from the podium, did not invite vendors to speak or participate on panels, but depended upon industry experts instead), but is the UnConference the best solution we can come up with to the current model?
I remember well the first “UnConference” I ever attended. It was way back in 1972 when I was in high school. I was a part of this radical coalition called “Student Alliance” which sought to give high school students more freedom and choice than they were given at that time. One day, I received a mailing from a group of similar “Student Alliances” from all over Wisconsin (I was living in Green Bay at the time) who sought to hold a conference among the various Student Alliances from all over the state. And guess what? The pitch sounded remarkably like the UnConferences that are being popularized today: no agenda, no speakers, just a collective sharing of our common wisdom and experiences. All of us were experts. And by god, it was FREE! Made sense to me. So I set aside a weekend in February, bought a bus ticket, packed up my goodies for a great weekend and headed to Madison.
To make a long story short, the weekend was a total disaster.
In a vacuum, strong voices can and will emerge, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, they will quash the voices of those who don’t share their views. Friday evening, which we set aside for “agenda setting” rapidly deteriorated into chaos when a coalition of feminists (it was still in its early days at that time) took over the meeting and issued a series of demands which included banning anyone from the conference who uttered any of the sexist words or phrases from the list which they so kindly provided.[Today, none of us would utter any of those words or phrases in a public setting under any circumstances, but at the time, it was a radical notion, for example, to ban the use of the word "girl" or "bitch".] They took up an enormous amount of time and bandwidth with their rhetoric and demands, so after about three or four hours, we called it a night and decided to reconvene the next morning to see what we could do about setting an agenda for the weekend.
Next morning, the Marxist coalition decided it was their turn to take over the agenda setting session, and before you knew it, all hell broke loose and no agenda ever got set.
So you had about 150 teenagers from all over the state who came there to learn from their peers what they could do to more effectively impact change in our schools and we ended up doing absolutely nothing. Actually, we ended up doing the kinds of things that teenagers did at that time with nothing to do, no adult supervision and no agenda.
Beyond the profound sense of disappointment I felt, I was pissed that I had wasted an entire weekend, the bus fare, the cost of meals. I didn’t look forward to reporting back to my fellow members of Student Alliance of Green Bay East High School that nothing got done, I learned nothing and had nothing to give.
I’m not saying here that all UnConferences or even BlogOrlando in particular will end up in chaos with all attendees going home empty handed. But I am saying that without some sort of preset agenda and without a seeding of real experts who can address the relevant issues, you risk losing more than the price of admission (free). You risk the value of however many days of time you invest. You risk airfare (steadily climbing as we speak), hotel and food expenses. And you risk coming home with a profound sense of disappointment having wasted your time.
Fact is, I’d be far more interested in attending BlogOrlando if I knew that there was going to be an agenda in place, some sort of schedule, coverage of topics that I wanted to learn more about, experts on hand that are qualified to address them and yes, I would like to have a few sponsors and vendors there demoing their latest (or even better, upcoming) new products and services. Properly handled, sponsors and vendors can make a tremendous contribution the quality of a conference. It’s great to go home with a few good tchotchkes and some stories about the cool new products you saw demoed. Better yet, it’s great to blog about them!
It seems to me that, bottom line, the UnConference movement is at it’s core anti-commercial.
While I agree with them that I don’t want the conference agenda spoiled by sales pitches given by VPs of Marketing who paid for their time at the podium, it doesn’t mean that a quality conference can’t be properly planned, informative and useful… AND produce a nice profit for the promoter (who takes on enormous risk, believe me) through charging for admission and providing a venue for sponsors and vendors. It also doesn’t mean that a conference can’t provide a venue for the experts within the audience to be heard and to exchange ideas.
Conventional conference organizers have abused the trust and good will of their attendees, that much is clear. But the UnConference is not the answer.