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What is an Unconference Anyway?

Yesterday an enlightening thing happened in the comments on a blog post by Steve Lawson (a post which is positively ancient in blog years, by the way). Up until yesterday, I’d rather naively thought that even though the terms “unconference” and “library camp” are still in their toddlerhood, people generally had a common understanding of what those terms mean. In my head, this common definition went something like this: An informal, free or low cost, loosely structured gathering at which people share knowledge with each other. I would hear “unconference” and have an image of people gathering at the beginning of the day to figure out what they wanted to learn that day and which of them could lead sessions on those agreed-on topics.

Now I see that people may not, in fact, have a common understanding of the term “unconference.” The comments on Steve’s post point to at least three different interpretations: Unconferences are loosely structured conferences, Unconferences are grassroots gatherings, and Unconferences are a genre rather than a format. Here’s what I mean…

  • Unconferences as loosely structured conferences
    If you think of a conference, you know that there are all kinds of logistics that go into pulling one of those things off, most of which depend to a large degree on how many people you want to attend. Everything from spaces to staffing to the number of speakers to the relative rock-start status of your speakers to the rigidity of the schedule has to be geared toward attracting and handling your target audience. If you plan for 100 people and only 40 show up, that’s a huge waste of capital. Bring this mindset to an unconference and you end up with less worry about rock-star speakers (though a few recent unconferences have had Big Names give keynote addresses), but most of the same issues remain your primary concern. The major thing that changes, then, is that the unconference organizers spend little to no time planning out sessions topics, leaving that up to the attendees.
  • Unconferences as grassroots gatherings
    Other people, while still having to deal with logistics, consciously force those logistics into the background of the event. They still need space and people, obviously, but if they plan for 100 and 40 show up, those 40 might not even notice that you had enough room for more than twice their number. Those 40 would gather, decide what they want to learn and which of them can facilitate that learning, and then learn it, usually for free (with the space and other necessities paid for by donors or sponsors).
  • Unconferences as a genre rather than a format
    Still others (myself included) think of unconferences as a genre of gathering which may or may not include a keynote address, may or may not charge a small fee, and may or may not have an over-arching theme. This genre places the emphasis on attendee-driven content, but other than that, it no more dictates the size or cost or logistical complexity than does the parent term “conference.” As Steve says, an unconference “can be whatever the attendees decide it is” (citation).

Luckily, the solution to all the muddled assumptions is transparency. So if I see an unconference coming up, and I see that it will charge me a small fee and what that fee will go towards, I can make my own decisions about the value of that unconference in my life. If I see that it will be of the loosely-structured-conference variety, and I’m ok with that, that’s great. If I see that it’ll be a completely unstructured day of serendipitous learning with other librarians, and I’m ok with that, that’s great too. After all, not all conferences are like ALA Annual, so why must all unconferences be as diametrically opposed to Annual as possible?

8 thoughts on “What is an Unconference Anyway?

  1. I don’t think that an unconference *has* to follow Open Spaces Technology (don’t like the term!) that it grew from, but I do think that the major principles actually provide a zen-like guidance:

    1) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
    2) Whoever comes are the right people
    3) Whenever it starts is the right time
    4) When it’s over, it’s over .

    Should we have it on a weekend or weekday? Whoever comes is the right person. Should we charge for this – won’t it put some people off? Whoever comes is the right person.

    Should we have out of town speakers? Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

    There is also the “law of two feet” that made the first unconferences special – if you are not contributing or learning, you should use your two feet to leave the room.

    In my book, as long as the participants *that turn up on the day* agree to the way the event will unfold, then the unconference will have got it right.

    From my experience, if participants have a mutual obligation to actively participate rather than sit back and let things happen *to* them and if they use their right to leave if it is not working for them, then there is a more transparent event that breaks from the traditional conference format and enriches the participants in a way that a conference cannot.

    If participants want something different, that’s OK too…

  2. Kathryn, those are excellent points, and things I wish I’d known before I wrote this post. It strikes me, then, that maybe we have a problem of terminology. One thing I’m least happy about with my personal definition of “unconference” is that runs the risk of becoming nearly meaningless as it stretches to encompass a slightly greater diversity of format. On the other hand, I think there has to be some room for more than the very unstructured setting you describe. Of course, the variety I’m going for need not necessarily claim the term “unconference” if that term is better used for something more specific.

    All this has me wondering what the best name for this genre is.

  3. I have to admit, as a Left Coaster (U.S.) who’s generally down with that Zen-like stuff, the Four Principles struck me as a bit over the top when I first saw them…but maybe not. (I would say that 3 and 4 seem to conflict with the schedules that seem to be there for most every unconference…)

    The Law of Two Feet, however, should apply to every good conference. When I used to go, the Charleston Conference made a point of saying this at the beginning and occasionally: If it’s not working for you, go find another session. I try to keep it in mind when attending–and when speaking.

  4. I puzzle over the last two points too, Walt.With venues pre-booked, it needs to start at some time I would think … The law of two feet I find an absolute challenge to most librarians who are very polite souls and would never *dream* of walking out on a colleague. When I talk about it, I focus on the aspect of “if you can make a difference to what is happening for you by either contributing or focusing on your own learning, do so – otherwise, walk.”

    Like you Iris, I am stuck for a name for this genre.

    On the “Professional” page of my blog I have a list of professional interests. Here is the way I tried a year ago to describe those kinds of events generally – as you can see, full of gaps and very unspecific:

    “informal and highly effective learning gatherings – unconferences, barcamps, communities of practice.”

  5. I think the first two principles are extremely valuable. I certainly think that it is worth evaluating after the fact whether the event actually reached optimum audience or whether changes to the proceedings would produce a more optimal outcome for more people. But during the event, I think it’s important for people not to worry about it. “This is weird! Are we doing it right?” Yes, because there is no wrong way to do it. “Hey, only six people chose to come to this session!” Yes, because that is the right group to have this exact discussion at this exact moment. It’s just a little communal faith that if you do whatever seems right within the parameters of the event, it will turn out OK.

    And those principles may be especially good for library types to hear. We do so want to do the right thing all the time.

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