Posted by: conferencebay | May 7, 2008

The Opposite of Conference Is?

What on earth is an “unconference”? We stumbled upon this funny word a few days ago while conducting some research. An “unconference” is a ‘facilitated participant-driven face-to-face conference around a theme or purpose’. In English, it is a meeting set up by the delegates for the delegates without the hassle of registration months in advance and the corresponding high prices.

A recent article in Business Week describes an unconference:

“They’re a hybrid of a teach-in and a jam session, with a little show-and-tell mixed in, and they are attracting hundreds in cities like Austin, Tex., Bangalore, San Francisco, Sydney, and Tokyo. Unlike traditional, $1,000-a-head and up conferences, they’re totally unstructured—the agenda isn’t determined until the opening day of the event. Everyone who shows up is a potential speaker, and those who don’t speak contribute by posting photos, blog entries, podcasts, and video clips of the proceedings. Neckties and heels are noticeably absent. And attendance is almost always inexpensive or free.”

It’s quite a novel idea isn’t it?

The mantra that moves these events is the Rule of Two Feet: if you’re not learning from or contributing to a discussion, then use those two feet you have to move on to another group discussion. The one other big difference is that the discussions are much more participatory than regular conferences. That way, instead of sticking to an agenda set by the organisers, the path the discussion takes is shaped by the audience themselves.

One of the biggest advantages of these unconferences is that they do not require a lot of infrastructure and organization. This is turn, means that they can occur more frequently and on a shorter notice than regular conferences. Also, as the cost to attend is either very minimal or practically non-existent, anyone who wants to come can come.

Despite their many plus points, unconferences do suffer from a few short-comings. For those used to the structure of regular conferences, the improvised nature of unconferences may be a bit hard to swallow. Also, since everything was put together at the last minute, finding the right sessions can be difficult. Newcomers may even get lost in all the chaos.

Sessions at an unconference can also be very unprofessional, as the speakers are not “forced” to talk about something just because they’re experts at it. This however, can be a good thing. When you’re talking about something you feel very strongly for, the chances are, you’re going to be able to capture the audience’s attention more effectively than if you were just reading from PowerPoint slides.

If you want to learn more about unconferences, check out some of these sites:

Digital Web

Scripting News Annex

And if you have ever been to an unconference, please share your views here with other readers and us!



  1. Well run unconferences – certainly need organization – particularly when they are for groups of professionals seeking to do work together.

    Designing an event to accomplish a broad goal or bring a community of shared concern with out ‘pre-selcting’ the speakers is the main difference not ‘chaos’ or ‘improvisation’.

    Unconferences that use facilitated Open space Technology as their main formats don’t have lost newbies or lame speakers but instead have really engaging conversations that move things forward. I would recommend your readers choose the unconference they go to carefully – asking about the experience of the facilitation team, knowing the topic will be of interest to them and if it has a fee attached it is likely to be more ‘together’ as an event.

    A badly run unconference by people who have no idea what they are doing is PAINFUL – I went to one on Monday at CommunityOne put on by the RedMonk guys.

    The Law of Two feet goes WITH the Principles of Open Space that help guide the time between the opening of the event and the closing – Whoever comes are the right people, Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, Whenever it starts is the right time and Whenever it is over it is over.

    Documentation of sessions and distribution is also an important aspect of these events.

  2. […] post, we have pointed out a few shortcomings of the unconferences and to read that you may hop in here. All these notwithstanding, we understand how innovation is so crucial to the growth of the […]

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