Interpretation #79: What Is An Unconference?

An Unconference? What’s That??

Although the term “unconference” was likely coined in 1998 and thousands of these events have happened over the last ten years, most people across America and around the world don’t know what it is. This Stanford University’s short version video (0:44) of What’s an “unconference”? communicates this clearly:

I’ll start out explaining what an unconference is by giving you the consensus definition developed on Wikipedia:

An unconference is a participant-driven meeting that tries to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization.

I have a clear picture in my mind of what an unconference is, which comes from 10+ years of reading about them, participating in them and helping organize them. But everyone who has been to an unconference understands and explains them differently, based on their own experiences with them. This post is titled “Interpretation #79,” but there are far more than 79 opinions online as to what constitutes an unconference. So for this section of today’s post, I’ll defer to the Fundamental Law Dave Winer introduced when explaining what an unconference is:

The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.

I’m “on stage” by virtue of writing this post, but per Dave’s Fundamental Law, below are ten excerpts of what other people “in the audience” think an unconference is.

Ten Ways To Picture An Unconference

Many unconference features match the characteristics of the traditional science fiction convention held since the 1930s, events which include many members of the geek community. The term unconference first appeared in an announcement for the annual XML developers conference in 1998. The unconference format creates space for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity…Instead of having a specific agenda, attendees at an unconference are expected to much more actively engage in the event. (Think Space Team)

…going to an unconference is like being a member of an improv troupe where going to a conference is (mostly) like being a member of an audience… (Digital Pedagogy Unconference)

We’ve all been there – a conference with a less than exciting keynote speech, panel discussions that don’t connect with the audience and PowerPoint presentations that are more confusing than a Rubik’s Cube. We leave these events frustrated that we wasted our time, thinking there must be a better way to exchange innovative ideas and get advice…It turns out there is a better way. It’s called the “unconference.” (Rebecca Bagley)

One aspect of conferences is that they are relatively predictable…While there may be the occasional session that surprises or an unusual hallway conversation that is unexpected, these are rare. So what if you want to be surprised? Where can you go if you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone?…Cue a well-organized unconference…the benefits can be tremendous, to individuals, to organizations and to communities. Such a venue allows for people to find connections with others they did not know existed. It can inspire thinking across domains previously not in conversation (Eszter Hargittai)

…Filled with creative dialogue and innovative conversations with the best and brightest minds in your region, this unique…event provides you with an invaluable opportunity to build new collaborative networks and partnerships across creative industries and disciplines and learn something new from others in creative fields…Unlike traditional conferences, the flexible, participant-driven format favors discussion, debate and interactive participation on emerging trends, the latest issues and new projects. (Creative unConference Chicago)

The open spaces unconference is the coolest structure for exchanging ideas. The Open Space format has been used more than 60,000 times in at least 124 countries, involving millions of attendees over the past 20 years… (JCrete Open Spaces Conferences)

An unconference is a facilitated event where the attendees create the agenda and lead discussions around a theme. The session topics are dynamic and decided at the event when participants propose topics they want to discuss and sign up for topics proposed by others. Participants follow the unconference Law of Two Feet: if you find yourself not learning or contributing at any time, it is your responsibility to use your two feet to find somewhere you are learning or contributing. (fifth annual Stanford IT Unconference)

What is an Unconference? It is an exhilarating whirlwind of spontaneity in which participants pitch, select, organize, and deliver sessions all in the same day…conversations are more valuable than the sessions…Why? Presented material will forever live in an online archive, but opportunities to build a meaningful relationship through insightful conversations are fleeting and finite. (Noel Pullen)

Unconferences are fun and educational and allow you to make important connections. Anyone can come…You decide what topics will be discussed and convene individual breakout sessions. In other words, there is no agenda until you create it. The unstructured, high-energy environment of the unconference amplifies ideas. It’s all about conversations, an unfiltered exchange of innovative ideas. (GCCS-Unplugged)

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. (Margaret Rouse)

I hope the above explanations of what an unconference is makes you want to participate in one. You can find many other online commentaries waxing poetic, with enthusiastic participants expounding effusively regarding the new relationships they started at the event, the fantastic conversations they took part in, and how much they enjoyed the unconventional event format. Very few traditional conferences inspire the same level of excitement and endorsement.

Parts & Pieces Of An Unconference

Some unconferences are just one day. Others are two full days. Still others are two full days with a social gathering (and late-night conversations) the evening before the event’s official start. Although unconferences come in these flavors and more, and follow a variety of meeting formats, here is a straightforward listing of what a “true unconference” is, for me, in terms of the agenda components:

  • Day 0 pre-event social gathering evening before official unconference start
  • Day 1 morning setup, registration, beverages and breakfast or snacks, casual conversations
  • Opening full-group gathering, self-introductions by everyone at event, explaining the event or agenda
  • Posting or pitching session topics
  • Begin sessions
  • Lunch
  • More sessions
  • Supper
  • Sessions and / or social time, code jams, small group discussions, small group restaurant gatherings, building strong relationships, philosophical conversations, creating future projects or meetup
  • Sleep (“camp” onsite, stay at motel, small groups at local homes)
  • Day 2 (for many unconferences) beverages and breakfast or snacks, casual conversations
  • Begin sessions
  • Lunch
  • More sessions
  • Wrap-up full-group gathering, brief debrief of event, plans for follow-up and next year
  • Take-down and clean-up venue

True Value: What You’ll Do There & Take Home With You

The above bullet points describe briefly what happens at the event, but they don’t tell you what you’ll get out participating in an unconference, or why it’s such an amazing experience compared to a traditional conference. Combining words and phrases from others’ unconference experiences with my own, the four points below explain why I think all events wranglers, creatives, doers, and members of the TIME community (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs) should participate in at least one well-run unconference:

  1. Build valuable relationships with like-minded people you did not know existed and may otherwise never have met.
  2. Participate in awesome discussions which inspire thinking across domains previously not in conversation, experiencing an unfiltered exchange of innovative ideas.
  3. Be an important contributor to the value of the event for other participants and yourself by engaging actively in the event and following the unconference Law of Two Feet, which says if you find yourself not learning or contributing at any time, it is your responsibility to use your two feet to find somewhere you are learning or contributing.
  4. Learn about tips, tricks and hacks in topics of high interest to you, often in a session full of participants who are just as interested to learn about them as you, or who have done even cooler feats of magic in that topic.

Hope to meet you and get to know you at an unconference someday soon!


To read more about unconferences, click on the links in each of the excerpts above.

Below are an assortment of videos about unconferences:

What’s an “unconference”?, Stanford University (5:30) long version

Scrum Alliance uses Open Space (2:10)

How to create an Open Space in 30” (0:34)

so what is an unconference… (1:45)

Unconference attendees explain the concept of unconference in 6 languages (12:43)




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