This article was written by Jeremy Faludi in July 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
A couple weekends ago, I went to Foo Camp, a conference / camp-out held by O'Reilly publishers which we've mentioned before. Because it's an "un-conference", it's surrounded with a heavy dose of mystique, but I'd like to demystify it a little, to describe exactly why it's such a fantastic event and how to design its successes into other conferences.
The problem with most conferences is that they're a small number of talking heads with Powerpoints addressing darkened masses. The biggest opportunity most attendees have to participate is asking a question of a speaker at the end. In the gaps between talks, people mill around more or less at random, with no clue who around them has similar interests or has expertise they're looking for. When you're a presenter, people seek you out, but if you're not, you're left to random chance. But Foo Camp, as the organizers say, is "a little like Burning Man in that there are no spectators, only participants."
Everyone is encouraged to give a talk, but discouraged from being a talking head with Powerpoint. When I asked former attendees what this meant, no one gave a clear answer, but once I was there, it was very clear. It was just like being back at Reed College, my alma mater (for the few that'll get the reference, Foo Camp is Paideia for professionals). Anyone who's gone to a small liberal-arts school with conference-style classes will know the format: a handful of people discussing a topic together, each with their own insights and opinions, after an introductory framing by the teacher (or, at Foo, whoever convened the session). This still leverages the expert knowledge of the session host, but it also includes the knowledge and perspectives of all the session's attendees. Besides creating a richer session experience for everyone involved (and democratizing the conference), the attendees get the chance to see who else has insightful thoughts or experience with the subject, and see who they want to talk with outside the sessions. This design would work well for many conferences, particularly ones with a high percentage of experts, like Sustainable Innovation, where a third or half the attendees are giving talks already. You don’t have to be an "un-conference" to increase participation and improve networking.
Another great feature of Foo, much of which was new this year, was the creation of a social network site for the event beforehand, where people could see who else was coming and what their background was, with an automated clustering tool that color-coded people and told everyone who was most similar to them and who were their opposites. Even though the clustering tool was an alpha-prototype and seemed to draw many random conclusions, it still helped people connect at the event. ("Hi, my badge says you're my nemesis. We must fight! ...I mean, we must talk and figure out why we're opposites.")
Some aspects of Foo would not scale to conferences of many hundreds or thousands of people. Sessions are only really discussions when they have fewer than twenty (maybe thirty) people in them; they work best with fewer than ten. This could be managed at a large conference, with minimal overhead, by having people sign up for sessions in advance. The anarchy of signing up to give talks was fun, and makes hosting the conference lower-overhead, but as one woman pointed out in the wrap-up session, the only people loudly cheering the anarchy method were six-foot-tall men. A less elbow-based method of the same thing would be to have a wiki online beforehand, where people can list themselves for talks. (This was sort of tried at Foo this year, though the online list didn't have any apparent effect on the real event.) This method could also help avoid the schedule-clumping problem, where one time slot may have three things you want to go to and the next slot may have none.
You might think that only software-geek events like Foo could make these pre-conference online tools, but nowadays anyone can set up a social network and wiki with Drupal. Hosting a conference could be as simple as inviting a bunch of people, giving them directions to your backyard, and setting up the wiki for them to decide who talks about what when. This could be useful for highly-specific events run by brilliant people with no budget.
The main advantage of an un-conference is that it helps build social capital among participants. In addition to the participatory sessions and collaborative / anarchic scheduling, there were places for people to do things together. One was a Make area where people could craft stuff together, get their photos taken with edible light, or get their laptop lids laser-etched. Another was the tremendously popular games of "werewolf", a game of trust and group dynamics (which is also fun and devious).
While not every conference needs to be an un-conference (and some definitely shouldn’t), some of its features could be designed into "normal" conferences to create more vibrant events and create better connections between participants.
Deconstructing Foo-- Designing Better Conferences is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.