City Camp MN: The Unconference Format

Today was my first time attending a City Camp or any conference that used an unconference format.

I’ve helped plan a “normal” conference, so I was curious how an unconference would work in comparison.

I’m sure unconferences vary. Here’s my take on the one I attended.

Before the conference, people proposed ideas for sessions online. People voted on whether something sounded good or not. We were also encouraged to provide introductions about ourselves. This helped give a good sense of what sort of folks would be attending.

When I arrived this morning, those session descriptions were posted as cards on a board. The discussion I had proposed wasn’t really explained that well in the small space available on the card. That’s understandable: most of the suggestions, including mine, were long-winded. And it was no worries, because I could just write down a description on a card and post it on the board. We then used stickers to indicate which sessions sounded interesting.

During this early gathering time, we also had some good discussions. My belief is that for most conferences, some of the best discussions take place outside of sessions, through one-on-one connections, so this was great.

At 9 a.m., it was time to officially kick things off. After a brief intro, we proceeded to go around the room to have everybody introduce themselves. With well over 100 people, this was a slow process. I had difficulty in getting much use out of the three words everyone was asked to use to describe themselves and their interest in being here. I was able to identify a couple people I wanted to talk with later, some of whom I had thought would be neat to talk to based on the online introductions.

After that was done, people got up and pitched their session ideas briefly. After that, the unconference team would decide what sessions we would have and slot them into a session grid with times and rooms.

While that was being done, we had about a half-hour of short five-minute presentations with only five slides each. These were a great way to kick off the conference and allowed everybody to get at least a small sampling of the sorts of topics that would be discussed in the sessions. Since there would be seven to eight sessions or discussions going on at any given time, inevitably people would miss out on things they wanted to hear: the five-minute sessions helped to address that issue, in my opinion.

After that, the session grid was presented, with a few words to describe each session. We finished that whole process by about 11 a.m.

Since the conference went from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., we essentially spent about 25–33% of the conference figuring out what the conference would be about and doing introductions.

For the sessions themselves, some were open-ended discussions on a particular topic. Some had somebody guiding the discussion. From my experience, the best discussions have some sort of guidance, particularly when time is limited, to make sure the discussion stays on track rather than getting derailed.

There were some pretty good discussions in the sessions; some would have been better with a little guidance or if the sessions had more of a description than the few words in a title to help determine which session would be the best to attend at any given time slot.

After the sessions completed, we had a brief group wrap-up, then many people headed to a social hour nearby. That was a great sphere for small, personal discussions, which I usually find to be of great value, and this was no exception.

For a conference that focuses on the intersection of public and private spheres, and how those intersections can be improved with online tools, I question the value of using so much of the time during the conference on housekeeping matters that probably could have been handled beforehand with online tools. Does planning sessions on-site allow for there to be some suggestions from people that might not have taken the time to do so online, or who did not have online access? Maybe. But there are trade-offs for the time spent doing that during the unconference. Could that hour and a half have been better spent on a keynote, more five-minute sessions, another time slot for discussions, or for small-group table discussions? That’s what I wonder.

If sessions had been selected beforehand, maybe discussion leaders for each session could have been identified, with guidelines given for how to make the most of the available time, and to hear from the many different voices at City Camp MN within each session.

The value of City Camp MN was the intersection of the people who attended. I just wonder if taking care of some of the planning aspects before the unconference started could have allowed more interactions to take place at that intersection.