Unconferences: The Good, the Bad, and the Utterly Boring

I signed up for the Community Leadership Summit hoping to get some insight into how to build online (and offline) community, which I want to do with HealersThrive and eventually with EggSpace (yeah, remember that old project? It’s still kicking in the back of my brain).

The conference was not what I hoped. I ended up coming home early because it was really draining.

Of the unconferences I’ve attended in the past year, I would give WordCamp an A, Barcamp a B, and this conference a C.

Problem A: Sessions lacked leadership.

In both my morning sessions, the people who organized the session didn’t bring anything to present. They showed up and said, “I didn’t really prepare anything, I just wanted to see what everyone thought about the topic.”

And then we’d have an hour of unstructured, meandering discussion that skirted over a dozen topics without going into depth about any of them, or presenting much new information.

This just makes me tired.

The last session I went to was “Free and low cost tools for community building”. Several times, the discussion went like this:

Person A: I like Tool X for x y and z reasons.

Person B: But does Tool X really allow you to do y?

Person A: I think so.

Person B: I don’t think it does.

Person A: Hmm well I’m not sure. It used to.

Person B: I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. Maybe they took it away.

Person C: I hate it when that happens, when companies take features away.

Person D: Yeah, and you know what else? Data portability is important. I think it’s really a problem when companies disappear and you were relying on them. Everything should be open source.

Me (inside): OMG THIS IS INANE.

Me (out loud): OK, so probably all of us have reasons why we don’t like X or Y tools, but maybe we could get them all out there so we know what is available? Does anyone else have any tools they like using?

I ended up trying to shepherd, because the person who set up the session wasn’t doing anything at all to lead it or to facilitate it.

I felt particularly frustrated by this, because the whole conference was about community and leadership! Hello, people.

Discussion is a great tool for absorbing what you just learned–it’s not a good format for learning in itself.

To learn, you need new information to come into your brain in a well-presented, in-depth, and structured way. Discussion is not any of those things.

Present, then discuss = great.

Just discuss = boring and pointless.

Another way to put it is that discussion by itself gives you a very low learning ROI. While you do sometimes pick up information and insights from other people, it is a much lower percentage than having a good presenter cover a topic in detail.

I guess this is an acceptable form of un-conference session, but I find it pointless. I wish these kinds of sessions would be delineated on the board so I could avoid them. Maybe they were and I missed it?

Problem B: Not enough entrepreneurs.

Nearly everyone there was from some kind of corporate/tech company or giant open source project – community managers from Drupal, Adobe, Google Chrome, etc. There were hardly any entrepreneurs at all.
Entrepreneurs bring good energy. They are go getters, starters. They want to get things done. They don’t sit around and have completely boring and pointless meetings. Seriously, these sessions made me think about how people complain about “meetings” at corporations. Ugh.

So in the future, I’m going to make sure that the attendance is at least 50% entrepreneurs before signing up. I just like the energy better. As in, there is more of it.

What Works about WordCamp

Some other factors that I think contribute to WordCamp being awesome:

a) It’s not free. Even $20 makes it a bit higher quality IMHO, because there is some investment. People gave real presentations. (This could be about the culture of the camp too).

b) They provided food, which admittedly was not very good, but it meant I didn’t have to go scrounge nearby for lunch. It meant I could mingle and eat with my cohort, and stay in the flow of the conference.

c) There were 5-10 people from the core WordPress team that travelled there and gave good, informative main-room presentations about aspects of WordPress, and also led sessions. There was in-depth knowledge flowing into the conference. This made a big difference to me.

So, bottom line…I’m looking forward to WordCamp in Portland next month!

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