In recent days and months, I've been left pondering a question that initially I thought was simple… but seems to be getting more complex every day:

What makes an unconference an unconference?

There are a few qualities that I've always associated with an unconference and after an exchange with Aaron Brazell and Geoff Livingston last week, I thought I'd share them here.  I happen to respect them both and don't mention them to criticize.. just to contrast some differences.  In no particular order:

A free/cheap cost to attend – While “cheap” is a relative term, I believe the key to this one is making it accessible to people.  For example, BarCamps are usually free.  PodCampBoston was bitten by this one a few years back when shirts were purchased based on 1500 signups and only 700 people appeared.  Ouch. The natural – and reasonable – reaction to this was to charge a fee and PodCampBoston did the following year.

At WordCamp Mid Atlantic last month, Aaron took a similar route and charged $25.  At BlogPotomac last week, Geoff charged $95.  For the ZendUncon and php|tek Uncon, although the uncons didn't have a specifc charge, you had to have a pass for the main conference.

The Rule of Two Feet – This is the concept that if a presentation/discussion isn't of interest, you are under no obligation to stay.  It's immediate feedback to the people in charge and it seems to be a common thread in all the unconferences.  Even if it's a single-track setup, there's always the “hallway sessions”.

WordCamp had two tracks, BlogPotomac had one, ZendUncon had 2 while ZendCon had 3 (yes, 5 simultaneously) while tekUncon had 3.

A public selection/voting process – I consider this to be one of the most important.  At BarCamp, generally the sessions are discussed in advance, submitted that morning, and voted on immediately.  The top vote getters are scheduled.

To the best of my knowledge, WordCamp and BlogPotomac did not have a public submission or selection process.  ZendUncon and tekUncon did via a wiki and respectively.

Day of Scheduling – This is the most chaotic part as the schedule for the day really is set that morning based on the sessions selected that day.

WordCamp and BlogPotomac had schedules set months in advance while ZendUncon and tekUncon's schedules were set at the beginning of the week/conference.

You must participate – BarCamps are pretty strong on this rule.  Everyone is supposed to participate in some way, shape, or form.

I'm not sure that any of these events required any involvement, but from what I saw at most of them – I wasn't at BlogPotomac, so I can't comment – many people pitched in where they could and did what they could.

No Powerpoint – Many presenters use Powerpoint (or slides in general) as a crutch and do a one-way presentation.

BlogPotomac specifically barred Powerpoint and Geoff required a 10/50 minute split where the first portion was one-way presenting and the rest was discussion.  The others allowed slides.  At ZendUncon and tekUncon, we went a step further and we actively encouraged formats including panels, hands-on coding, and roundtables.  My friend and colleague Matthew Turland even put together a Hackathon for various Open Source Projects.

Sponsorship limits – This is a huge sticking point in the *Camp community where a sponsorship limit (250 or 300 USD) is set.  Groups that have allowed – or even suggested – larger donations have been hammered.  I've even done some of it when one group was accepting larger sponsorships under the table.

I do not know what WordCamp or BlogPotomac's sponsorship rules and policies were, so I can't comment there.  ZendUncon and tekUncon didn't have sponsorships, but we didn't need them since we were attached to a larger conference and had some space set aside.

All of this brings me back to my question:

What makes an unconference an unconference?

At some point in this, there's a line where it's no longer an “unconference” and simply uncon-like.  Then there's another line between “uncon-like” and “we do a couple uncon-like things”.  I don't know where those lines are, but between these four “unconferences” we have a variety of different ways of organizing and running each of these points… ranging from identical to the BarCamp-style to the exact opposite.  Despite all of this, there's something interesting:

And all of them were a success in various ways, shapes, and forms.

* In case you haven't been paying attention, I've been heavily involved in various uncons in the past few years:  I spoke at the first BarCampDC (Aug 2007) and helped organize the second (Oct 2008). I helped organize the first SocialDevCamp (May 2008) after attending PodCampBoston (Oct 2007), PodCampDC (Apr 2008), and recently WordCamp Mid Atlantic (May 2009).  Last year I was tapped by Cal Evans to run the ZendCon Uncon (Sept 2008) and invited back by Eli White to do it again at ZendCon (Oct 2009).  And most recently, Marco Tabini conned me into being the lead for the Uncon at php|tek (May 2009).


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