Monday, August 07, 2006

The Little Guide to Conference land

OK, maybe I'll never outgrow my school year calendar metabolism (27 years of formal schooling could do that to a person) but I've got September on my mind. O,f course it might have been caused by yesterday's newspaper - which was crammed with five pounds of back-to-school ads.

In my life, September means conference season. Steve Jobs and the WWDC notwithstanding, the rest of the world has started to act on the well-known fact that the best part of conferences is what happens in the hallways. This summer saw several unconferences including Barcamp. Barcamp defines itself as an "ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos, and interaction from attendees." Gee, sounds like the hallways at most conferences I go to.

There are also formally structured conferences that seem to focus more on getting something learned and shared than hosting enormous numbers of people. Some of these are formal conferences with attached unconferences. By using webcasting and even just good-old-blogs or web archives, smaller conversations like this one on citizen media or this example of archived talks from the big TED conference seem to allow for real conversations to happen. Then the world can listen in.

So, as we head into heavy conference season, how might we - the frequent speakers, the regular attendees, the exhibitors, the hallways shmoozers, and "...Woo hoo, you over there, conference organizers! Hallooo, I'm talking to you..." actually make the time we spend in hotel ballrooms "intense events with discussions, demos, and interaction."

How do you know if you're unconferencing? Here are two ways to check. First, a little quiz:
Is there a stage?
Is there a speaker or a panel?
is there an audience?
Is the audience sitting in rows?

If you answer "yes" to any or all of the above questions, you are not at an unconference. You are at a conference.

Second, perhaps there is also an unconference happening? Here's how to check:

Is the speaker blogging while speaking?
Is the audience blogging while listening?
Is anyone standing up and holding their laptop in the air at random moments?*
Do you understand the last three sentences?

If the answer to any or all of the above four questions is "no" then, rest assured, there is no unconference happening. You are at a plain old conference. Are you learning anything?

*Macbooks have built-in cameras. When people wave them around they are taking pictures of the room to load to the web. Cell phone cameras are so yesterday.

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