Are Unconferences Worth Investing Time In?
It's barely been a few months since we've started returning to in-person community activities. However, I'm stoked to see the buzz generated around such activities these days! Unconferences are one of the formats of activities that has been really picking up attention lately. In truth, I love the audience-led structure of unconferences, which enable far more engagement and discussion than individual-led events.
However, this recent surge in usage of the unconference style does force me to question whether these events create the value they promise. Therefore, in this issue, let's discuss what unconferences are, who benefits from these, and whether one should pay attention to these events or not.
What Exactly Is An Unconference? 👀
With the term "unconference" hopping around more and more in our communities, the first thing to understand is what even is an unconference. The easiest way to do that would be to compare unconferences with conferences and recognize their distinctions.
Conferences are generally speaker-led. We see one speaker/group interacting and presenting their content while the audience just consumes and asks doubts or offers feedback.
Unconferences, in contrast, are audience-led. The audience leads the discussions by sharing their thoughts and perspective, whereas the moderator/facilitator manages the flow and direction of the discussion.
Who Does An Unconference Actually Benefit And How? 💭
The audience-led format of unconferences sounds ideal, right? I mean, it very literally seems to enable the voice of the people! However, in such a people-oriented setting, it is rather difficult to quantify the value generation, because of how opinionated these spaces can be. Moreover, the one major point of failure that unconferences tend to face is that it is very difficult to evaluate the impact of an event.
The value generated at unconferences can depend on various factors, some of which are:
Experiences of the participants
Expertise in relevant domains of the participants
Diversity in backgrounds of the participants
Flow of the discussion
Direction moderation of the discussion
Openness in conversation
These factors are highly dependent on the participant base that the unconference has. For that matter, at any unconference, most participants can be categorized into the following groups:
Thought Leaders and Community Influencers
Subject Matter Experts and Experienced Individuals
Beginners and Newcomers
Note: These three groups will be further referred to as Influencers, SMEs, and Beginners, respectively.
For these participants, I have created a matrix to help understand which groups benefit from each other based on my observations.
In most unconferences, the influencers tend to gain the most. They benefit substantially from engaging with all participants of an unconference, as unconferences are designed to enable more and more engagement.
SMEs tend to have the next most benefit since their learning can depend on the presence of other SMEs, but they gain a forum to share their experiences and opinions. This helps both other beginners and SMEs gain context and knowledge.
Beginners see the highest risk in terms of reward because learning is dependent on the presence of more experienced participants, and they are so early in their journeys that their experiences are often too limited to form a sense of credibility. The lack of working experience can also make beginners susceptible to misinformation, which can be very dangerous at an early phase.
Should I Even Participate In Unconferences? 🤔
While it is difficult to quantify an unconference's impact in the same manner as a conference or a workshop, unconferences can still be immensely educational and beneficial.
I would not discourage folks from attending unconferences. Instead, I'd recommend following a few steps to ensure that you'll maximize the benefit you can gain from your next unconference.
Understand the participant base 👨👩👧👦
It's necessary to sift through who you're engaging with and learning from at an unconference. Understanding your fellow participants, their experiences, and skills will allow you to evaluate how much value you can actually gain from joining an unconference.
Evaluate the unconference theme and content 📝
Ensure that an unconference's theme and planned content are relevant to your interests, work, or domain. You're investing your time by participating in the unconference, and you need to make sure that your time isn't getting wasted.
Ask more questions at the beginning 🙋♂️🙋♀️
As a beginner, you're often yet to form opinions about a space that come only with some amount of experience. So please ask more than telling. You're not just enabling more knowledge gain for yourself, but you're also preventing yourself from creating misinformation.
Don't chase every unconference, no matter the hype 🏃
A lot of unconferences might look fabulous with many of your acquaintances attending. Just because the world chases an occasion doesn't mean you have to as well.
As I stated in a past issue of the newsletter on The FOMO Within Communities, it’s alright to choose not to do what everyone else seems to be doing and not go where everyone else seems to be going. You’re the only person who can decide what opportunity benefits you and what doesn’t. So ensure you analyze those on your terms, no matter what your peers, organizers, influencers, or anyone else might say.
Moving Forward 🛣️
Unconferences have helped me interact with many folks relevant to my preferred domain and learn from their experiences. However, I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't seen the propagation of misinformation from people just because the circumstances of an unconference urged them to share. Please make sure you choose the occasions you want to participate in with the utmost delicacy. The right events will create valuable networks and opportunities for you, but the wrong ones might take you exactly the opposite way.
At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our professional growth. So let's make sure we're responsibly ensuring that we're setting ourselves up for success the right way.