Tara Hunt blogged a bit about backchannels at conferences and it got me thinking to a degree about conferences such as IT@Cork and TechCamp and the idea of an unconference. But for a moment we’ll go back to what Tara mentioned about conferences and IRC/backchannels:
#1. We come to conferences to learn stuff, sure, but first and foremost for many of us, we come to connect. Speakers and panels kill networking time. Kill it. And really, since the advent of the internet, many of us would sit in our seats with our laptops pointing towards our email or Skype or the like, where we would be socializing with people back home rather than the very people we came here to connect with.
#2. Okay, so we do want to learn, but hell, the material isn’t always groundbreaking or earth shattering, is it? Well, the same goes here. But who cares? We have the back channel being projected behind the speakers, giving us an extra layer of knowledge to ingest. We often laugh, but there is a great deal of truth in those irreverent statements.
Dave Winer pushed the idea of an unconference and I think it is a fantastic idea. The best conversations happen in the hallways at standard conferences, the best conversations happened at the Digital Rights Ireland press conference at the tea and coffee table. How many people enjoyed school? The teacher up the front, you at your desk, bored to death. Conferences. Unless the speaker and presentation is as high a calibre as Dick Hardt’s OSCon2005 presentation people are bored with being lectured.
So Winer’s ideas make things a lot more fun and turn everyone into a presenter with just a facilitator to get things going. Or as Dave said:
At BloggerCon, there is no audience, there are no speakers.
There is a discussion leader, a person responsible for the flow of the discussion.
To get things started the DL talks for a few minutes, listing some ideas from the pre-conference discussion.
David Gammel posted a fantastic Conference v Unconference comparison list which is a good guide on how to run an unconference.
So what I’d like for say something for a discussion at somewhere like TechCamp.ie is the following:
A room without a podium, just a guy who starts off a conversation and then gets the crowd talking. The second room in TechCamp was perfect for this kind of talk. The table layout was O shaped so we could all pretty much see each other and comment while looking at each other which is good for interacting and expressing ourselves fully. Each talk should either have a discussion thread on a webforum or else a wiki page where everyone can add in links and comments or perhaps both.
I don’t think a backchannel would be needed for an unconference. The whole discussion would be the backchannel. Isn’t having a backchannel admitting that the lecture is boring and allows people to escape from it?
Of course unconferences aren’t for everyone. An unconference about blogging would be wasted on the businessman who wants to find out why blogs could be useful to him. You’d have people then talking about stuff way over his head. There are uses for the standard type of conference and the unconference where everyone is on the same wavelenght and there is no filling in of backgrounds.