Old-school conferences R.I.P.

Summary:Last year (OK, it was only two months ago), when the idea of Mashup Camp was first hatched and its Web site was first launched (with no time or date selected for the event), I knew it needed to be an unconference. Other camps such as Bar Camp, Foo Camp, and Tag Camp -- each of which were unconferences -- had a sufficient amount of buzz to prove there was an appetite for the format.

Last year (OK, it was only two months ago), when the idea of Mashup Camp was first hatched and its Web site was first launched (with no time or date selected for the event), I knew it needed to be an unconference. Other camps such as Bar Camp, Foo Camp, and Tag Camp -- each of which were unconferences -- had a sufficient amount of buzz to prove there was an appetite for the format. In addition to the good vibe generated by those and other unconferences, the sessions at the more traditionally formatted conferences (you know, the kind featuring people with podiums in front of them, panelists next to them and PowerPoints behind them) that I've been to recently have turned into great opportunities for me to catch up on my sleep (we have a one year-old at home).  No one sleeps during a discussion since everyone is supposed to participate. Mashup Camp had to be different. So, not really knowing what an unconference was and only knowing that insiders were raving about them, the decision that Mashup Camp would be an unconference was a no brainer.

But when Dabble founder, unconference veteran, and Mashup Camp advisor-extraordinairre Mary Hodder explained the basic principle of an unconference to me, I started to worry. "Don't bother publishing an agenda or a schedule" she told me. "The attendees will figure it out when they get there."  In the moment of radio silence that followed (we were on the phone), I thought to myself "Let me get this right: We've got an event with no time, no place, and no agenda.  And people are going to want to come?" My discomfort couldn't hold a candle to that of Mashup Camp co-organizer and ex-traditional conference executive (think Comdex) Doug Gold who had to be wondering whether I was on crack to even be considering the idea, let alone what Mary was smoking as she tried to sell us on it.  Correctly perceiving the silence, Mary said "Don't worry David. It will be fine.  People will sign up and when they come, they are going to love it." Uh huh. It was like being told to jump off a cliff and being assured that a soft-landing awaited me at the bottom.

Around January 9, we launched the mashupcamp.com Web site without a time, place, or agenda for the first event.  But we had a good name (Mashup Camp) and that was apparently good enough.  Within seven days, we maxed the event out at 250 registrants and a waiting list began to form.  At one point, between the number of registrants and the number of people on the waiting list, there were over 400 people publicly indicating their interest in attending with many more privately pinging us (via email) about the event. "In all my days doing events," Doug Gold repeatedly told those who inquired, "I have never seen anything like this.  It defies every rule we know of when it comes to setting up a successful event."

However, on the night before Mashup Camp during the pre-event festivities, our marveling at the phenomenon turned back to a bit of horror as Mary Hodder and Identity Woman Kaliya Hamlin pulled us aside to learn us on the Open Space method to running an unconference.  The shock and horror was palpable has Kaliya said that, at the beginning of the first day of the event, we should have a general session where we invite people up to the front of the room to propose as many as 50 distinctly separate discussions.  For Day 1 of Mashup Camp,  there were five time slots for discussions and we had 10 conference rooms (or corners of very large rooms) at the Computer History Museum where the discussion leaders (those who proposed the sessions) could hold court.  "As many as ten simultaneous discussions in any time slot?" I thought to myself.  "People coming to the front of a large audience, grabbing a microphone, and proposing sessions that will actually interest others?"  If I was nervous, old school event guru Doug Gold was looking like a deer in the headlights of a tractor trailer.  But Mary had been right about everything else so far.  Who were we to doubt her or Kaliya now?

The next morning, before a full auditorium in the Computer History Museum, Kaliya and I announced the unconference format to Mashup Camp attendees and almost before we could finish, a line began to form at the two 4'x8' whiteboards across which an empty 5x10 grid had been drawn with dry-erase markers  (see whiteboard 1, white board 2).   One by one, attendees of every type (developers, API providers, other technologists, venture capitalists, etc.) took their turn at the microphone, announced the discussion(s) they wanted to lead, fill out an 8.5x11 page with the details, and taped it into one of the slots on the whiteboards.  Mary was right.  People signed up for the event. Then they came.  Played by the rules.  And, after attending the discussions in which they were encouraged to not just participate, but contribute as well (as opposed to snoozing in front of a series of PowerPoints), they loved it.  The smiles on the faces seen in Dan Farber's photo gallery and in the more than 900 pictures of Mashup Camp that are now posted on Flickr are worth more than 900,000 words.

In his blog about the event, Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady wrote:

Apart from the unholy start time however [DB's note: Breakfast was served on Day 1 at 7:00 AM], this has been a phenomenal first day. We'll see what tomorrow brings, but this is shaping up as the best conference I've attended in a long, long time. Maybe ever.

Venture capitalist Rick Segal of Ontario-based J.L. Albright Venture Partners (who supplied all of the candy for the event) walked up to me near the end of the first day and said "After this, I'm not sure I can go back to a regular conference.  This is very disruptive (to the existing model)."  Over the course of the two days, attendee after attendee told either Doug or me how even they were skeptical of the format as the rules were announced at the very beginning and how their minds were thoroughly changed about what makes a great event great.  Perhaps even more telling was the number of attendees who asked if we might be interested in helping them to set up their own unconferences (answer: Yes!).

The part I liked best had to do with the timeliness of the sessions.  With regular conferences, the session content is often determined six months to one year in advance of the event.  Although ad hoc sessions are often added at or just before event time, the bulk of the content found at such conferences is often outdated and the audience members (who are sometimes more up to speed on the newest trends than the speakers) are often left disappointed.  Need evidence?  Last Fall, when I attended Gartner's most recent Symposium, I attended an Enterprise Content Management session and not once was the term wiki even mentioned (wikis will most certainly disrupt the entire ECM ecosystem).  As I reported, the presenters sometimes even have the facts wrong.  At an unconference, were everyone participates, the discussion content is extremely timely (since the discussion topics are determined at the event) and any erroneous statements are usually corrected by those in attendance.  And no one sleeps during a discussion since everyone is supposed to participate. 

I'm with Rick Segal.  Now that I've seen an unconference in action (for the record, we didn't play completely by the Open Space book....we made some adjustments along the way), I don't know that I'll ever look at conferences the same way again. I guess other people feel the same way.  Many of the Mashup Camp 1 attendees are among the nearly 300 people already signed up for Mashup Camp 2 (which, by the way, has no time, place, or agenda).  Go figure.

Topics: Open Source


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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