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Un-conferencing: Leveraging face time

Marketplace Staff Feb 29, 2008

Un-conferencing: Leveraging face time

Marketplace Staff Feb 29, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: If you’ve been a business person, you’ve been to a business conference. And you’ve probably… well, let’s just say you probably haven’t had a total blast — long days of seminars, workshops and speeches, all tightly scheduled.

But in Silicon Valley, where business has always been run a little differently, they’ve come up with an antidote to the standard conference. We sent Cash Peters, our conference connoisseur, to check it out.

Cash Peters: Psst! You want to be in on the latest subversive craze? They’re called “un-conferences.” It’s like a regular conference, only “un.”

Woman at un-conference: An un-conference is a conference, but it’s participant driven, so that there is no pre-defined schedule or program.

Everybody gets to speak, everybody gets to participate. It’s much more egalitarian and flexible, and open to whatever comes along.

Woman at un-conference: You’re asking the people, who are experts in their own right, to pick topics and speak.

Peters: But how do you know they’re experts in their own right? They could just be some guy off the street.

Woman at un-conference: Everybody has an expertise in something.

Well, clearly she’s never met me. But there’s this whole new subculture going on — small camps of people with similar interests getting together, but without all the tedious hassle of organization, or anyone knowing what the heck’s going on. I went to one called MacCamp, for Apple computer enthusiasts.

Sound effects: Loud clatter, music, door slams

Actually, those are just sound effects. It was really like this:

Sound effect: Empty room

The room was almost empty — 75 people registered to come, but only four showed up. Kaliya Hamilton runs the Web site UnConference.net.

Peters: What happens if you hold an un-conference and nobody shows up?

Hamilton: Well, then you did a bad job promoting it.

Peters: So how would you describe this then?

Hamilton: This was just badly promoted.

Yeah, because promote it well, and 300 to 600 people sometimes turn up. I told you, it’s big. Luckily, there was a better one going on down the street. This other one was called Songbird DevCamp. I’d prefer it if you didn’t ask me why. It’s just a bunch of brilliant young software developers enjoying face-time together. That’s the trendy new term for talking. Talking was all the rage before computers.

Songbird DevCamp participant: The last conference I went, there was Wi-Fi — but only for the speakers. I actually brought my own, uh, access point, and plugged it into one of the uh, uh, uh, networking appliances hanging around.

Well, you can see why talking died out. On the wall, they had a chart showing the complete schedule for both days of the un-conference — and it was totally empty. Organizer (if that’s the word) Steve Lao:

Peters: This is an un-conference. What makes it “un”?

Lao: We’ve got three wireless access points that aren’t working. A real conference would have working Wi-Fi.

Peters: Is this a bit like dating, but without the romantic element?

Hamilton: Um…


Lao: (To attendees): We’re running a little late, but…


Lao: A lot of us know each other from chatting online and emailing and stuff, so it’s nice just to get everyone in one room, put a face to a name, just hang out.

Peters: Has anybody ever arrived and you think: “Ugh, I wish we’re never invited them”?

Lao: Not usually.

Well, it was only noon. There was still time. Anyway, a surprising amount of information gets exchanged. Raines Cohen:

Raines Cohen: Last night we were talking about alternate scenarios of history. What would have happened if the Apple 3 hadn’t had the technical problems it did, and could have run Apple 2 software…

Oh darn, I missed that! As you can tell, these camps are a world unto themselves, often with their own lingo. So if you’re not in at the grass roots, you could feel a bit left out. Kaliya Hamilton, for instance, spoke quite fluidly for the longest time about:

Hamilton: Face time and leveraging it in a way that’s more useful than that formality of the traditional conference structure.

Peters: I’ve no idea what that means.

Hamilton: The tech culture?

Peters: Yeah, but everybody talks in this language and I… I don’t understand! Who knows what you’re talking about?

Hamilton: Oh, it’s like going to a new country, right?

It is. Baffling Nonsense Land. In San Francisco, leveraging my four gigabyte interface onto a user-driven Firewire — hah, two can play at that game! — I’m Cash Peters for Marketplace.

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