Unconferences: Out of Chaos?

I continue to be intrigued by the idea of an unconference. I posted on the topic a few weeks ago and Christopher Carfi was kind enough the give me a primer via a blog post and a Comment.

I’ve never spoken at an unconference, but I’ve spoken at a lot of conferences and I’ve been to and presided over a lot of meetings. And I’ve listened to a few meetups via podcasts, which I like everyone else in the world listen to at my computer.

So I’m starting to get a handle on the conference/unconference business.

Today Dave Winer posts about unconferences and links to a cheat sheet he and some others pulled together about how to structure one. I have a couple of thoughts about all of this.

First, it seems to me that the key to an unconference must be a strong, impartial and fair-minded moderator. One who won’t favor his or her friends and perspectives. One who will be fair to all. And most of all one who will keep some order to the event and avoid the inevitable descent into chaos that occurs when everyone wants to talk at the same time.

boring meeting

It’s interesting that Dave posted the how-to on unconferences, since his attempt to bring up a 6 year old fight with John Markoff during the Berkeley Cybersalon is exactly the thing that should not be allowed to happen at a conference- un or not. If someone wants to pick a fight, do it offline. There are better things for the group at large to talk and hear about.

The hardest job of anyone who is presiding over a meeting or, I presume, an unconference, is to keep the issue from becoming personal or personality based. And if something is conference-worthy, there will always been some emotional buttons that, if pushed, can result in a loss of control and focus.

In theory, I am highly in favor of unconferences. I often wonder why I’m at the podium and the audience is in the seats when I speak at conferences. I have certainly wondered why others were at various podiums while I was in various seats. If done correctly, the unconference solves this dilemma by putting everyone on equal footing.

It’s another tool used to flatten the earth. I like the flat earth.

Moderators will still have to deal with the fact that sometime a person’s desire to be heard is inversely proportional to what he or she really has to say.

On the whole, I think the unconference idea is sound. But I suspect many of them can, do and will become chaotic, particularly when there is a large number of voices in the crowd.

The trick will be to create an equal right to be heard while maintaining order and a little structure.

And yes, the title to this post is a tribute to one of my favorite books of the 70’s.

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