Some of my best experiences this year have been the “unconferences” I have attended. These ad hoc events allow for a sense of spontaneity and serendipity that regular life often denies us. Unfortunately, I am starting to see a disturbing trend that threatens to suck the life out of unconferences — too much control.
Organizers of unconferences need to control where and when the conference will occur, sponsors for meals and other perks, bathrooms, etc., but more frequently now, I see organizers pre-scheduling the events more and more tightly. Instead of the typical “sign up wall” of a more open unconference, I am seeing schedules completely decided long before the event occurs.
Now, I am not adverse to having a few “ringers” brought in to give the conference a backbone of great content, but when everything is planned out in advance, I think spontaneity and serendipity suffer. Unconferences were created explicitly to move beyond the stultifying effect of traditional conferences where the same voices are always heard. Unconferences, in my mind, are specifically designed to stir up the long tail and let some new, intriguing ideas be heard.
Of course, I think the biggest cause of these changes in the unconference world is fear. Organizers are afraid that the conference won’t come together, that it will be boring or unproductive. They lack trust in the attendees to produce a conference that meets their own needs. In my experience here in Los Angeles, though, I find that it all works out well in the end. I find it something akin to the magic that occurs opening night of a play or musical. ( My degree is in theater, so I have some experience with this.) Whatever troubles might have plagued the show during rehearsals suddenly melt away and it suddenly comes together.
Organizers need to think deeply about how much control they are exercising over an unconference schedule. They must remember that it isn’t about them and the power they exert, but the power of the attendees as a whole that make a successful unconference. I hope that, in the future, we can return to the spirit of the unconference and place the reins for its success or failure firmly in the hands of the attendees, where it belongs.