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What is an Unconference?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 July 2014
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A typical conference may last over a weekend, or perhaps as long as a week. It usually has a set agenda, guest speakers, presenters and opportunities for forum discussions. If you attend such a conference, unless you’re presenting, your primary role is to listen to lectures or watch presentations, and perhaps participate in some discussion surrounding the focus of the conference or specific lectures and presentations. Evenings at conferences tend to be devoted to socializing, giving time for people to meet with other like-minded folk in a much more freeform way. This conference method greatly differs from the unconference, a term used first in 1998 for an XML developers gathering that would take a vastly different form.

Instead of having a specific agenda, attendees at an unconference are expected to much more actively engage in the event. They must set the agenda the first day of the conference, be ready to make their own presentations, and be ready to discuss, defend or work on their ideas in a certain industry. To date most unconference types have been held in what is called the “geek community,” the group of computer and technology programmers and professionals. Though times, location, and perhaps hours of the day in a conference may be set in advance, virtually nothing else is, which to many people is a considerable relief and an advantage.

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When a freeform conference begins, people write up things they’d like to discuss, or things they’d like to present. An agenda for the weekend is then decided, usually with significant break time for small group discussions. Some people post ideas they might like at an unconference ahead of time on the Internet. Others are much more freeform in nature. Many people claim that after using unconference methods, you’ll never want to attend a traditional conference again. Yet others take a more balanced approach and see important applications of both the tradition conference and the unconference.

There may be certain rules governing unconferences. Among these is the very common Law of Two Feet. Essentially this rule states that people not learning or contributing to discussion must find a discussion they can learn from by taking their “two feet” elsewhere. There are certain terms associated with unconference. For example bumble bees or cross-pollinators may flit from group to group spreading discussion ideas as they go.

Many unconferences adopt what is called open space technology (OST) to run conferences. Technology is a little misleading and it simply means a method for running a freeform conference. OST begins with the Law of Two Feet and ends on more Buddhist principles. For instance, people accept that attendees are exactly who should attend, that anything that happens in a conference is what should have happened, that the unconferences starts at the right time, which is whenever it starts, and also ends at the right time, when it is over. When people adopt OST attitudes a free-flowing openness occurs which is meant to help people be their best and brightest selves.

One of the most popular unconferences is Foo Camp, but it slightly differs from other unconference types since it is by invitation only. OST unconferences usually are open to anyone who wants to participate but may set a limit on total number of people involved. Many suggest that if you’d like to meet some of the big names in your industry, you should try looking for an unconference to attend. These less formal events, which are usually much less expensive, often attract the great minds in each industry because they can be so much more interesting to attend than the standard conference. At the least, topics aren’t predetermined, creating unpredictable and unknown opportunities for learning.

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