August 23, 2014

UnConferences: A Waste of Time and Money?

Posted by: of andrewbourland on 07/18/06

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the same talk they gave at the last 5 conferences they spoke at, sales pitches from the podium, vendor stacked panels, outdated and irrelevent content.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.

11 comments for UnConferences: A Waste of Time and Money? »

  1. There are some valid points, however I think the headline might be a bit misleading since you don’t reference BlogOrlando till the ninth paragraph of your post. Perhaps the title ‘UnConferences, A Waste of Time and Money?” would have been a bit more representative of your post. Then again, the major comparison you make is based upon a student run event from the early 70′s, so it might be a bit of an outdated example.

    I have been to numerous unconference-type events and blogger meetups and have never felt they were a waste of time. I can’t say that about some of the conferences I’ve been in the past that cost me admission plus airfare, etc. I realize the format is not for everyone, and perhaps the term unconference is too defined (or perhaps undefined) for a traditional audience. Think of it as a blogger meetup on steroids.

    From the start though, one of the major draws of the event was the social interaction over the weekend (read: the Mouse) that is not part of the actual unconference. Many of those that are traveling in (i.e. spending money on airfare, etc) are friends that are bringing the whole family and are coming for just that reason. The remainder of the attendees are Florida bloggers that have never had the chance to gather in any setting. I am trying to provide the venue for that.

    In the next few weeks I’ll be posting a list of discussion leaders and some broad topics so perhaps that will clear the air. Will there be: “real experts who can address the relevant issues?” You’ll have to decide. You need to remember though, that this is Orlando and not San Francisco or New York, we don’t have experts within a few minutes drive. In an unconference format though the attendees are the experts. Sure there will be some folks that really know a particular topic, but an expert can learn just as much from a newbie.

    Comment by Josh Hallett — July 19, 2006 @ 3:40 am

  2. I think it’s pretty interesting the way this article was framed, not clear on what your issues are with Blogorlando in particular. I think you’re missing the benefits of this format, and this event in particular.

    Conventional conferences tend to rely on one-way communication, a well know set of speakers present their point of view ,if you’re lucky you get some Q&A and maybe a panel or quick chat over cocktails. BlogOrlando, and the unconference format, allows you be a participant in the discussion, not just a warm seat to be lectured and PowerPointed to. If you look at who is attending you will see presenters from conferences around the country on a variety of topics. I’d much rather spend an intimate day or two with these people than a week of lectures and name dropping at some Buzzword 2.x conference.

    Begging for an agenda and needing that structure means the format may not be for you, but there is tremendous value in the ability to be up-close and participate in the discussion. Your take is a bit near-sighted to me, or at the least a bit dated. Conferences, no matter how much we hate to admit it, are not about stickers and schwag…at least they had better not be. It’s about learning, meeting like-minded folks and hopefully having some fun. It’s Orlando, so the fun part’s a no-brainer. I have faith in the list of attendees, including Josh as host, that there will be much to learn.

    Comment by jharr — July 19, 2006 @ 8:02 am

  3. A couple points to consider: strong voices will always be heard, regardless of the organization of the conference. An unconference gives the participants’ voices a chance to be heard with them having to pay to be a sponsor. Also, a well-planned unconference will have a schedule and agenda.

    Comment by Aaron B. Hockley — July 19, 2006 @ 10:33 am

  4. [...] I wrote a piece about UnConferences called “UnConferences: A Waste of Time and Money?”. When you have a minute, you might want to check it out. [...]

    Pingback by » Attending UnConferences: Will Companies Pay for their Employees to Go? — July 19, 2006 @ 11:13 am

  5. [...] ИнтереÑ?ный формат длÑ? проведениÑ? неКонференций (Unconference) — Open Space Technology: его евангелизм и его критика, а также, Ñ?татьÑ? на Wikipedia. [...]

    Pingback by ПоÑ?тоÑ?нÑ?тво ☯ Перемен / Unconference – Ð?еконференциÑ?? — July 20, 2006 @ 4:07 am

  6. I haven’t been to an unconference, but I’m going to BlogOrlando. As Josh noted, florida (Central Florida, specifically) bloggers haven’t really had a chance to gather like this that I’m aware of. Also, I like the focus that was put on the outside of conference interaction. I figure the worst that could happen is that I get to meet some new people or put some faces to names/blogs. And, if it does suck the only thing I invested was time, not hundreds or thousands in conf. fees.

    Comment by Chris Scott — July 20, 2006 @ 8:31 am

  7. Thanks for all the comments…

    One of the reasons I singled out BlogOrlando was that it happened to be mentioned on the same page, a few posts down from mine.

    Another was that I was initially attracted to the idea of attending a blog conference in Orlando, but was disappointed to see that it was going to be an UnConference.

    When I thought about it, I simply didn’t want to risk all the expense involved in getting from Boston to Orlando for three days when I had no idea what topics would be covered, what vendors might be there, what industry experts might be speaking, etc. It may well turn out to be a fun event and might even turn out to be informative for all the participants, but there wasn’t much there to assure me that it would.

    If I’m going to invest three days of my time, all the travel and lodging hassles etc, I wanted to have a clearer idea of what I would be getting before I even make that decision.

    I don’t know Josh, but maybe if I did it would sway my thinking a little bit.

    I still think UnConferences are an extreme reaction to the sins of the conventional conference scene right now, which I would be the first to say is long overdue for a major correction.

    While I used to attend many conferences a year, I rarely attend them anymore for precisely the reasons I mentioned.

    But while the idea intrigues me to a certain degree, I can’t bring myself to invest the time/money to attend an UnConference.

    I just think that some good conference organizers, like Thunderlizard was back in the day, will emerge and begin offering high quality, high interaction events that we can all be happy with.

    - Andy

    Comment by andrewbourland — July 20, 2006 @ 12:59 pm

  8. The best part of any conference I’ve ever been to is the networking. In a traditional conference, there are always a few crap sessions that merely encourage people to skip and go hang out with people you just met. That’s what a lot of BlogOrlando is about.

    And, yes, if you knew Josh it would definitely sway your thinking. He is the master.

    Comment by Jen — July 22, 2006 @ 4:45 pm

  9. The session topics and leaders have been posted:

    Comment by Josh Hallett — July 24, 2006 @ 8:40 pm

  10. Before you dismiss open schedule conferencing, check out the global phenomenon called barcamp. ~ it seems to be fairing quite well.

    Comment by tagami — July 26, 2006 @ 1:11 am

  11. [...] UnConferences: A Waste of Time and <b>Money</b>? [...]

    Pingback by WFA - A blog about finance » Blog Archive » One time no pork is to be procured; another time there is a scarcity of — August 21, 2006 @ 6:33 am

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