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unconference

An unconference is a conference organized, structured and led by the people attending it. Instead of passive listening, all attendees and organizers are encouraged to become participants, with discussion leaders providing moderation and structure for attendees.

Unconferences have become popular as an alternative to the panel discussions and keynote speakers featured at traditional technical conferences. Unconferences, by comparison, allow greater freedom of movement and exchange of ideas. Instead of one person delivering prepared remarks in front of a PowerPoint presentation or a panel discussing a set topic, unconferences encourage (or even require) active participation by all attendees. This style of peer-to-peer (P2P) learning, a combination of equal parts networking, technology demonstration and moderated, open discussion, has many parallels to the open source, collaborative software development model.

Most unconferences do not have set schedules, in the traditional sense of specific sessions or speakers in certain rooms at set times. Instead, many use the Open Space Technology (OST) method, where a wiki is used prior to the event to provide a place for attendees to sign up and suggest topics for discussion. Attendees that have expertise in relevant areas can be nominated or volunteer to lead breakout sessions.

Once the unconference begins, organizers can set the stage for the event, including the overall goals for the gathering, network availability and expectations for personal conduct. After the introduction, a whiteboard with a matrix of rooms and times is available to attendees to populate as they wish. Unconferences lean heavily upon Web 2.0 technologies like blogging, wikis, RSS, podcasting and microblogging to create rich, distributed learning environments without traditional infrastructure costs. Many attendees find the unstructured nature of the unconference particularly satisfying for "geeking out," as like-minded technologists share personal projects or innovative technologies.

Unconferences are founded upon The Law of Two Feet, which states that:

If during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their two feet and go to some more productive place.

 

The term was coined at the XML Developers Conference and popularized by technologist Dave Winer at the 2004 BloggerCon conference. While unconferences are still most popular within the development community, social media enthusiasts like podcasters, bloggers and Wikipedia contributors have all staged successful events. The relatively low costs of entry and participation make attendance possible for cash-starved students or startups.

Unconferences have the potential to destabilize the traditional technology conference model, much like the open source movement has proven the effectiveness of distributed development. Critics point out that poorly moderated unconferences or sessions can quickly devolve into entrepreneurs pitching startup ideas or simply networking events, as opposed to open forums for ideas and innovation. Significant costs incurred by renting venues and providing other amenities, like food or WiFi, also shouldn't be discounted by potential organizers, especially in the absence of sponsorship.

This was last updated in May 2008

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