In thinking over my experiences at various unconferences, I’ve noticed one consistent problem: The people who get to run sessions aren’t the smartest or most interesting people. Instead it’s those who chose seats closest to the session boards, run faster than everybody else, or are pushier at grabbing fistfulls of whiteboard pens.
Of course this is by design – unconferences intentionally give up on hierarchy, beilieving that all things being equal, the good stuff will rise to the surface. However if there are only 8 slots at an event, and the 9th person in line happens to Bono or Einstein, everyone is out of luck. And worse, since rooms are self-selected, you may end up with 500 people trying to fit into a closet to listen to Bono, while the three sprintly organziers for the talk on “COBOL – the future” sit quietly with the crickets in the empty 500 person theatre.
This is a design problem with philosophical constraints: how do you introduce some controls or weights for who gets a slot, without violating the purity of the unconference vibe?
Here’s some ideas:
- Hot talk reserved slots. Every pre-unconference wiki has requests for someone to talk about topic X. If these are popular, organizers could reserve a room for a topic but without a speaker. So the topic is assigned, but the speaker, or speakers, aren’t. If organizers want to seed the sessions with more diverse or highly requested topics, this does that without killing the unconference vibe. One hot talk per hour. If no one signs up, the hot talk is killed.
- Priority for previous speakers. Can you say hierarchy? Much like how first class passengers get to board early, previous speakers at the event (or previous speakers who earned good feedback), can get first crack at the session board. Not a huge fan of this, but it’d be easy to do.
- Put the sign up list online. Why not put the session sign up board online before the event. It’s dynamic and open, but since it’s days or weeks ahead, there’s the chance for organizers to join or split sessions, help popular sessions find bigger rooms, etc. It’s still open, but with a guiding hand. The footspeed effect is nullified, and the rush is spread out over a couple of days before the conference.
- Filter the session board. Once the session board is filled, an organizer goes through the board, and tries to match talk popularity with size, swapping rooms or even talk times. I’ve yet to see an unconference board that didn’t have obvious overlaps and avoidable confusions, and it wouldn’t take much for someone to clean things up for everyone’s advantage.
- Rules of order. It’s stupid stuff, but people rarely put their name in their session. This makes it impossible for someone in a conflicting or related session to track you down before hand to either join, split or generally get your shit together (or ping you afterwards if they missed it). And of course there are always people who put a session on the board, but then forget to show up and run their own session. A big X through your session saves everyone else some time, and opens the room to Bono or Eintsein, if they’re still around.
Are there downsides to all this? Sure. Unconferences feed on the belief that you are witnessing real time conference creation – so any sort of structuring might kill that energy. But then again, unconferences do have registration, mailing lists, wiki’s and other organizing tools – perhaps a few small, well crafted additions can make unconferences even better.
Any other ideas for improving unconferences? (See also, how to improve unconference sessions)