Why I don’t like unconferences

Why I don't like unconferences

“Why I don’t like unconferences.” If you know me you’re probably scratching your head at the title of this post.

“Adrian,” you’re thinking, “unconferences are what you do! How can you not like unconferences?”

Well, it’s the word “unconference” I object to, not what it represents. Unfortunately, “unconference” has come to mean any kind of conference that isn’t a traditional conference. Originally the word “unconference” was coined to describe a participant-driven meeting. However, in recent years — rather like the encroachments on “counter-culture” and “green” — people use “unconference” to imply that their conference is cool in some way, even if it still employs the programmed speaker-centric event designs that we’ve suffered for hundreds of years.

What “conference” once meant

The meaning of the word “conference” has been corrupted to virtually the opposite of its original intent. As I describe in Conferences That Work, “conference” was first used around the middle of the 16th century as a verb that described the act of conferring with others in conversation. Over time, the word’s meaning shifted to denoting the meeting itself.

Regrettably few of today’s “conferences” provide substantive opportunities for conferring: consultation or discussion. Instead they have become primarily conduits for the one-to-many transfer of information on the conference topic.

I believe that participant-driven event designs are a response to this drift of meeting process that has occurred over the years. In a sense, participant-driven events are the true conferences: events that support and encourage conferring.

To be accurate, we should be calling traditional conferences “unconferences”, reserving the word “conference” for the participant-driven event designs that are slowly becoming more popular.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen, so I talk about “participant-driven events” and avoid using the term “unconference” whenever possible.

In the end, I know my thoughts on the meaning and use of a word carry little weight. With rare exceptions, our culture, not the pronouncements of an individual, determines the meaning and usage of words. But if you agree with me, feel free to follow my example and spurn unconferences—but just the word, not the concept!

8 thoughts on “Why I don’t like unconferences

  1. My particular beef with the term “unconference” is that it often is a free for all, totally lacking in structure and filled with extemporaneous riffs on whatever seems to be popular in the zeitgeist. Too bad the word “conference” has gotten such a bad rap for being stale and boring that we need to have a term like unconference to attract attendees.

  2. I note that this is an old post, so please excuse that I’m only getting to this now.
    I’ve been attending and have organised unconferences for the last 5 years. I guess I’ve been fortunate that at each the intent has always clearly been that they are participant driven, there is no agenda to stick to, the rules of Open Space are followed, and people participate as they choose to.
    I also see these days (certainly in the UK) that some conference organisers are actively seeking ways to make the events very participant focused so that the content is only driven from the speakers and there are dedicated blogging and social media teams to help share content with wider audience.

    1. Sukh, thanks for sharing your experience (and mine) that there are a growing number of “unconferences” that are actually participant-driven. I want to add that, despite the widespread notion that unconference == Open Space, there are actually many other participant-driven conference formats (like my Conferences That Work approach that will be 25 years old next week). And that some of these formats promote intimate sharing by not opening up everything that happens to the outside world through real-time feeds and social media.

      1. Sure I understand why some may choose to do that. I genuinely don’t see why you wouldn’t share the conversations and content more widely – very little that gets discussed these days is for private ears, and there’s a whole new attitude and skillset to learn about how to share with intent and with clarity which the digital age has enabled in ways like never before.
        It seems to me that people only want to keep things private and not shared so that they can still maintain control over some aspects they think they can. Where I see it done really well, and have designed for these to happen, is when the invitation to share openly is unobtrusive, is optional, is inclusive where it happens, and is supported if people need it.
        Am aware that unconferences don’t have to equal Open Space, it’s just the easiest format most will be exposed to.
        I appreciate you responding to my comment.

        1. Much of my work is with associations. At association conferences, people often want advice/support from their peers on professional issues that they would not be comfortable airing at a public event (e.g. “I’m having problems with my boss.”) Many attendees are grateful for a safe place (created with covenants; see my recent posts) to talk with their peers about things that are really important to them. It’s not about control; most people want to share, and in so doing, connect with others. Traditional conference environments and broadcast-everything-to-the-world unconferences are not a great places to do this safely.

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