When is a conference not a conference?

I apologize for having conferences on the brain lately, but as you may or may not know, some friends and I are organizing one (it’s called mesh, and it’s in Toronto May 15th and 16th), so it’s kind of been eat, sleep and breathe conferences lately. And there’s also been a lot of talk about the subject over the past few months, the most recent instalment of which was Jeff “Buzzmachine” Jarvis’s post about the successful “unconference” on journalism he attended in Philadelphia.

Jeff clearly hates traditional conferences, as many people – including me – do, and so he is totally down with the idea of getting rid of the usual PowerPoint presentation crapola and letting the “audience” become part of the show. As he put it:

“There’s a meeting coming up about linking and I was quite obnoxious in my response to the invitation, pitching the Winer gospel of the unconference. I told the organizer to blow up the panels and tear down the essentially insulting distinction between panel and audience and get the people in the room to truly link.”

Jeff’s comments are just part of the ongoing discussion about how (and how not) to have a conference about Web 2.0 topics, since Web 2.0 is all about the conversation, interactivity, and so on – which the “unconference” idea is all about. And this discussion covers the spectrum from the BarCamp end of things, where the event is more or less a get-together of like-minded people in a room somewhere, all the way to the more organized and traditional ETech or New Comm Forum or whatever. And, of course, it also covers the spectrum from free all the way to those $1,200 a day mega-conference/trade shows.

For the record, mesh is not an unconference, although the benefits of those are obvious. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a boring old mega-conference riddled with PowerPoints either. We’ve been wrestling with how exactly to do it (and using some Web 2.0 tools while doing so, as Rob describes), but we think that there is a Third Way, one that mixes the best of traditional conferences – the organization, for example, which can help those who might not be quite ready to become part of the show – with the best of the unconference, such as the interactivity and openness to ideas, and the desire to get a real dialogue going with the participants (not attendees, and not “the audience”). Others seem to think that a combination is also a good thing.

And that’s why we plan to have an “unconference room” set aside, one that will be open to all to talk about whatever they wish, as well as workshops loosely organized around themes, where debate and ideas can really get flowing, and some other cool ideas that I can’t give away just yet – including a different approach to keynotes than you would get at a standard conference. We’ve got lots of things in the works. In the end, it comes down to letting people become part of the dialogue in as many ways as possible. That is what I think Jeff wants, and that is what we want. And we think that is what you want.

Got any thoughts? Let us know. Send me an email, or post a comment here or over on the conference blog.

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