Saturday, July 30, 2005

Unconference Rules: BloggerCon

Unconference -- The BloggerCon Format

The format of a conference is like the format of a radio show. In radio, there are interview shows like Fresh Air, call-in shows like The Connection, and news shows like All Things Considered. The BloggerCon format is like an interview show and it's like a call-in show.

Doc's insight, WWDC

At a recent conference Doc Searls got so frustrated with the panel-audience format that he thought it would make sense to switch the audience and the panel and let the panel listen while the former audience talked. I had the same thought years ago at Apple's WWDC. We should get Apple people to sit in the audience while developers explained our vision for the platform. Today many years later Microsoft is actually trying that with their Channel 9 website. (Although just tangentially, it's still basically the wisdom-emanating-from-the-top model.)

The problem with most conferences is that the intelligence is sitting in the dark with its hands folded, falling asleep while a bunch of idiots on stage with PowerPoints talking nonsense because they are so scared they need crutches to keep from having a nervous breakdown. This has been going on for twenty years. It's time to try something new.

The unconference

Len Pryor, in his BloggerCon writeup, called it the "un-conference." Excellent. I agree.

At BloggerCon, there is no audience, there are no speakers.

There is a discussion leader, a person responsible for the flow of the discussion.

To get things started the DL talks for a few minutes, listing some ideas from the pre-conference discussion.

The DL has an editor, in this case me, who set some goals for the session. I tried to keep the goals really loose. When choosing DLs, I went for people who have the ability to lead discussion, over expertise in a subject. Ideally you want both, but I think too much expertise is a problem, because then you might end up in a lecture format (as happened in one or two BC II sessions, old habits die hard).

I generally went with journalists or professors, given that both are good at seeking out points of view, and keeping an interesting discussion going. Even better if you can get a journalist who has experience as a teacher. But if you're going to have a session on medicine, for example, I think you need to have a doctor or medical researcher lead the discussion, to make sure you're on solid scientific ground. But make sure you get someone who naturally yields the floor.

Make sure your DLs are well-versed in the published groundrules. If you see them use the terms "panel" or "audience" in a comment or email, correct them. I do it too. (Say this when you correct them.) Old habits die hard. Don't worry about egos. If they have a problem, get someone else, because in order to do their job they're going to have to cut people off, and correct them.

Arranging the sessions

Begin and end the day with everyone in one room. In the opening session, review the groundrules, sing a song, try to do something fun so that people get the idea this conference is about ideas and making new friends. It's not that serious. This way maybe some of the good stuff will happen in the sessions and not in the hallways. Also, it's super-important to have a discussion, no matter how brief, at the opening session, to create an example for all the DLs to follow. They will follow you. This is the chance to make sure the audience-speaker model doesn't creep back in. Ask the room to set the expectation for the conference. What do you hope to get out of this conference, and see what you can do to help them get it.

After the opening session, fork into two tracks, one deep in an application (at the second BC it was journalism and politics) and one deep in the technology (but still for users). These are the beginnings of two tracks that go through the whole day. People can go back and forth betw tech and apps. In the third slot add a session on a profession, this time we did librarians. If you're going for two days, have more professional sessions, or spread out if your conference is larger. Eventually we could have conferences with thousands of people. I think the format will scale nicely.

At the end of the conference wrap things up. Make sure the DLs are all there. Ask them one by one to say what happened, did they reach a conclusion, how did it go. Have one or two discussions. Thank the people who made it possible. If you remember, sing a song. Say goodbye and have a reception, go out to dinner, and go home and sleep with a smile on your face.

Anyway, ask questions here, I'll try to answer them, and in doing so, expand this document. I want to help people try the BloggerCon format. This is how I make sure I have lots of cool conferences to go to!

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