The Conference vs. The Unconference

Unconference is a made up word which flips the structure of a conference to produce something better.

In the past week I went to 4 organized events, each a distinct style: 1) a hackathon, 2) a film festival, 3) a conference, and 4) a BarCamp. All events were related to technology, but the style of organization and level of participation varied as well as the objectives of te organizers. The hackathon was organized by my designer friend Vi (Studio BCA) and was for startups to get design makeovers from graphic designers. I mentored at this event. The film festival, the Bitfilm Festival, was a full day of short films related to Bitcoin organized simultaneously in a few cities around the world by the Bitcoin community and was free to attend. It was also held in the office where I spend much of my time lately.

The two big events were BarCamp Saigon and "SMAC". BarCamp is something I've been a part of for several years now and this year's event was, as usual, full of fun, sharing, and making friends. The "real" conference was called SMAC (for Social Mobile Analytics Cloud) and organized by Mobifone, one of Vietnam's major mobile network operators. It featured Steve Wozniak, the man who invented Apple Computers (which Steve Jobs usually takes the credit for). It was expensive too (if it weren't for free tickets, thanks Minh).

I rode my motorbike to SMAC wearing skate shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt. I stepped into a hall full of suits and uniform skirts or traditional ao dais. Even men at Vietnamese weddings don't wear suits. I chatted up a Mobifone employee and a headhunter. Neither of them were here in order to advance the state of Social Mobile Analytics Cloud. Disappointed. Other people wore name-pins, but each person was given a tag to wear around their neck. The tag distinguished the VIPs, the VVIPs, and the plebes. I was a plebe. Plebes and VIPs were not allowed to sit together inside.

But at least the facility itself was as nice and modern a conference hall as you'd have in countries far more developed than Vietnam and air-conditioned to a comfortable temperature. And there was a professional photographer to take each guest's photo in front of the main conference backdrop. We had a backdrop at BarCamp too but selfies were DIY.

Conferences are expensive. Boring. Exhibit top-down hierarchical structure throughout. Conferences lack agility, responsiveness, feedback loops, and limit free sharing of ideas.

Tickets to the conference were relatively expensive. There were 4 speakers, each speaking for a long time. Oh, there were also a lot of beautiful Vietnamese ladies standing around. They were hired to do that. Like most conferences, there was only a single "track", like one big class, so all attendees must listen to each speaker, though most of them likely did not want to. They still clapped though. The attendees came from varying industries, backgrounds, and positions meaning there was no way to speak to the level of all the listeners without either going over their heads or boring them with generalities and conventional wisdom. The topics themselves were interesting to me - cloud computing trends outside Vietnam and plans for cloud platforms in Vietnam, IBM Watson and artificial intelligence, big data... but the event's organizer had to include their own perspective, presenting what they considered to be their technical accomplishments. Many such conferences are organized by and for the interests of organizations who then charge others for the privilege of being captively marketed to.

Unconferences like BarCamp exist to counter what technology community members saw as the downside to corporate, single-track conferences organized for and by VIPs. Instead, an unconference is organized for the community and by the community, thus answering to nobody else. No hidden corporate agendas which would taint and filter good conference content, and no community member unable to attend because of lack of money/VIPness. This alternate organizational structure, where unpaid participants produce the content, does mean that speakers need to find motivation other than money to speak. It sounds utopian, but given the choice between hearing a speaker motivated to speak by money and one who speaks for other reasons, silly reasons like having passion about a subject or wanting to share unique experience with the community, why do we always pay for the former? Normal conference organizers believe there's a lack of people who have experience to speak from and want to share it freely. BarCamps around the world have shown that this is not the case.

Unconferences are a recent development. But BarCamps around the world every year show they are more than a theoretical Common Good. Each BarCamp Saigon has been free and open to the public, and featured from a handful to up to more than a dozen speakers every hour, a smorgasbord of sharing. Most of these presentations would not have found audiences otherwise, and that is because there's no other arena for those presenters to match with such niche audiences, and not because the ideas themselves are somehow not worth sharing. The traditional method assumes the organizers know which topic all participants find interesting and which topics no participants would find interesting. By encouraging participants to find presentations that interest them, BarCamps also discourage anyone who would take advantage of a captive audience to overtly market to them without at least entertaining them.

At the SMAC conference, the speakers spoke, the audience clapped, the audience left, and the conference was over. You might as well watch a recorded video. You were not allowed to ask questions. Even YouTube lets you add comments and ask questions. Watching YouTube is better than attending a conference, and you can watch YouTube while wearing whatever you want. BTW, at BarCamp Saigon, we provide free clothing (t-shirts), but you are expected to bring your own pants.

Some communities have lots of events and conferences which are organized for the community. Many other communities don't, and there's not always going to be someone or a company who will take initiative in organizing community gatherings. BarCamp fills in that void now. And unconferences in general can fill those voids anywhere. All it takes is a community of people that cares, understands the concept of unconference organization, and has the confidence that their community will support and participate in one. This, I believe, is an idea worth spreading.

A note on Open Space Technology: Open Space Technology (OST) style events like BarCamp come in sizes big and small, and narrowly-scoped to mostly unscoped (BarCamp). (There are differences between BarCamp and Open Space too.) The distinction between Open Space/unconferences and normal conferences is about participation. At BarCamp, the preacher/listener distinction is erased so that anyone who comes is simply a participant, and all participants can both speak and listen. Next, traditional conferences have agendas defined by organizers with little or no input from attendees. Open events are organized but their agendas and specific topics are decided by attendees when they arrive, and only then does the event begin. At a normal conference, the agenda doesn't care who is there (besides the invited speakers) or what those attendees are interested in and whether they're listening and comprehending the speeches. Speakers giving presentations don't incorporate live feedback into their presentations. Their primary feedback is their paycheck.