In praise of unconferences

by Eszter Hargittai on January 25, 2016

Depending on your profession, you likely go to conferences regularly, anywhere from annually to every few months. One aspect of conferences is that they are relatively predictable. They usually have a set schedule that is known to attendees ahead of time. While there may be the occasional session that surprises or an unusual hallway conversation that is unexpected, these are rare. So what if you want to be surprised? Where can you go if you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone? What is a good venue for learning about something far afield from your expertise? Cue a well-organized unconference.

Unconferences are meetings that don’t have a set agenda until participants show up and create one. There is a structure to the timing of sessions, but attendees fill up the grid with whatever topic they deem of interest for a session at the beginning of the in-person meeting. Then participants decide which sessions they want to attend. And if it turns out that they are not enjoying where they are, the law of two feet means that they are welcomed to get up and leave to find another group or activity.

For the past several years, I have had the great pleasure of attending ORDCamp, an unconference held in Chicago in January made up of some extremely creative people (many of whom are from the area, but a good chunk of whom fly in from various parts of the US and beyond, in January to Chicago, yes). ORDCamp is the brainchild of Brian Fitzpatrick (former Googler, more recently founder and CTO of Tock) and Zach Kaplan (founder and CEO of Inventables). Attendance doesn’t cost anything to participants, but it is by invitation only. Google and Inventables have been footing the bill with lots of people and organizations pitching in to provide food, drinks, gadgets to try out, lots of supplies for various sessions, and an embarrassment of riches in the swag bag box.

ORDCamp 2016 was this Fri-Sat and it was the best one yet. About 300 attendees contributed with boundless energy dedicated to sharing passions and interests. I learned about and practiced drawing at a session led by the creator of Darth Vader and Son, Jeffrey Brown and the brains behind Shawnimals, Shawn Smith. I bonded with others who like to send snail mail in a session on “Keeping in touch/Snail mail” by the talented Jenna Blazevich of Vichcraft. I looked down at Chicagoland from space thanks to Google’s augmented reality tools assisted on the spot by Jon Wiley, Director of Immersive Design at Google. I tried out a relatively new party game app and brainstormed about ways to put it out in the App store with its creator Sandy Weisz, a master at games and puzzles. I created a tile with Carvey. I sampled fine chocolates from around the world thanks to the ORDCamp Chocolate Table. And I chatted with lots and lots of interesting people about topics ranging from getting girls excited about engineering to what makes a memorable walk.

I got to discuss existing hobbies and passions with others while learning about new ones. I got to be creative in very energizing ways. Don’t get me wrong, I like many aspects of my work very much, but it is invigorating to dedicate time to different creative undertakings with folks who are experts in and passionate about such a myriad of activities.

I can’t help but think that many people, including and perhaps especially academics, would benefit from such an unconference. These events are not easy to organize, of course. Both the financial costs and logistics are considerable in order to pull off a meeting as expertly as ORDCamp has been doing. But the benefits can be tremendous, to individuals, to organizations and to communities. Such a venue allows for people to find connections with others they did not know existed. It can inspire thinking across domains previously not in conversation. It can help people articulate thoughts and feelings (yes, sessions can be about all sorts of sensitive topics) that do not often have a helpful outlet.

If you have the opportunity to attend an unconference, I highly recommend doing so. But don’t forget, an unconference is very much what participants make it so be sure to bring your enthusiasm, interest, creativity, and passion to the event. Have you ever attended one? I’d love to hear about it.



Kevin 01.25.16 at 1:40 am

I have to wonder how much things like unconferences just reinforce preexisting hierarchies and social networks. Although they have the possibility to not do that, given that there is little information what to expect before someone goes to a conference they have to make decisions based on basically information about who is putting on each session. Individuals with larger networks will draw the crowd not necessarily because they are most interesting but because they are well known. This will of course be reinforcing as no one wants to go to the session with only one person there.

In addition the vast majority of unconferences I know of are sort of unique, like the one you describe here. An invite only conference where Google is paying the bill is likely to have people that are very passionate and highly motivated no matter what the type of format.


Eszter Hargittai 01.25.16 at 2:27 am

Kevin, in the beginning, ORDCamp was probably quite insular, I didn’t attend the first few years. What the organizers have done extremely well here is (a) solicit suggestions for future attendees; and (b) switch out about half of the people each year. They ask for names of people who you think would be good replacements for you, i.e., assume you won’t be invited back, whom would you like to have take your spot. And they have always been explicit about the need to diversify the crowd. This has worked visibly well as the group has gotten increasingly varied with more types of people and more types of interests/passions/expertise/backgrounds represented.

As for the sessions, they often don’t even mention the organizer’s name so you can’t really go on that for choosing where to go. Plus as per the above note about the diversified crowd, more and more people don’t know others so even if the organizer’s name is listed, they may not know the person. Also, people are pretty conscious about wanting to try different things so that’s another reason not to go and just hang out with your friends. Sure, every now and then there is a big name holding a session that pulls the majority of the group, but even then there are successful smaller sessions. And the quality of a session is not necessarily about the size of the group anyway. In fact, because many of the sessions end up being interactive, smaller often works better.


Neville Morley 01.25.16 at 6:39 am

It’s about the money, at least in the UK; I’m just imagining the reaction of the faculty bean-counters to a proposal to “bring together a load of people and leave them to it”, or words to that effect, rather than an incredibly structured proposal with specified aims, outcomes etc. I *have* organised some deliberately open events, but only on a very small scale, and only by pretending in the funding application that the whole thing was going to be much more structured…


Chris Bertram 01.25.16 at 8:05 am

Well, you could always try a BIRTHA application, Neville.


Stefan 01.25.16 at 10:14 am

Having spent Saturday at an unconference, I share the enthusiasm. I was at UK Govcamp, now in its eighth or ninth year, which is run on a shoestring by volunteers, and which is free to attend.

I wrote a piece on my blog just before last year’s event which listed the reasons why I like the approach – it always feels as though it can’t possibly work, but somehow it always does.

The unconference Esther describes sounds rather a grand affair. That’s not intrinsic to the approach – the first unconference I went to, about fifteen years ago, took place in a secondary|high school in east London. There are only three things you need for a successful unconference – some meeting spaces for sessions to run in, some space for random encounters outside the sessions, and a session grid which gets filled in as the first action of the event to tell people what’s going on.


Neville Morley 01.25.16 at 10:30 am

The last time I tried that, for something about Thomas Piketty and pre-modern economic history, it was rejected on grounds of being insufficiently aligned to the interests of different departments in the Arts Faculty…


Chris Bertram 01.25.16 at 10:41 am

Before my time Neville.


TM 01.25.16 at 11:48 am

There aren’t enough conferences already???


Z 01.25.16 at 1:53 pm

I do agree that unconference are cool and interesting.

However, I also share Kevin’s reservations, at least for academic unconference (professional ones, I don’t know so don’t claim to have an opinion about). At least in principle, conferences have to justify the invitees on scientific grounds that are (again at least in principle) validated by a scientific committee which is independent of the organizing committee, and thus independently accountable. In some fields (though not mine), the invitation to speak is treated in the same way a an ordinary publication, with blind or double-blind refereeing etc. As you surely know, some studies have shown, for instance, a greater variety of speakers and a diminution of the gender imbalance between them when invitation are extended through double-blind refereeing. I don’t see how invitation-only events can reach the same level of independence from networking effects.

In particular, I confess that “(a) solicit suggestions for future attendees” sounds terrible to me. How is someone from outside the central networks of powers ever gets invited in this way? (I am exaggerating, sure, but only slightly. One of the great virtue of the publication system, for me, is that anyone, even Jane Doe, PhD student from Qarovsiz Teshik University, Uzbekistan can submit to the top journal or conference in her field. I don’t see how she gets invited to an unconference before actually publishing X top level articles and even then, I’m not sure she gets more attention than Jane Doe, first year undergraduate from Harvard who has been suggested by her professor).


Stefan 01.25.16 at 2:20 pm


I am not an academic, so don’t have great insight into how academic conferences work, but a couple of reflections on your comment.

1. Not having an agenda fixed in advance is the essence of an unconference – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to discuss and debate topics which might be useful and interesting ahead of time.

2. Some events are by invitation, some are not. Some are unconferences, some are not. There is no necessary connection between those two characteristics, and no requirement at all for an unconference to control its current and future attendance in the way ORDCamp apparently does (or at all).

I don’t know whether it is possible to organise an unconference in a way which passes some test for academic validity. I do know that unconferences – in my experience – are good precisely at challenging established social hierarchies and creating fresh connections: nobody has the mantle of being the keynote speaker if there are no keynotes (and no speeches).


TM 01.25.16 at 2:57 pm

“good precisely at challenging established social hierarchies and creating fresh connections

Lurking in that statement, there’s a whole bunch of theses waiting to be written.


Eszter Hargittai 01.25.16 at 3:07 pm

A strictly academic unconference could happen within one institution and still be very useful. This should reduce costs as space would be available on campus and no one would have to travel and spend on accommodations. What’s the point of an unconference within one institution? What I mentioned in the post: creating connections where they did not previously exist and getting people excited and invigorated through creative activity in which they do not usually participate. Some of the sessions could be more research related – and still connect people who may otherwise not know each other – while others could be about issues people face in their everyday lives from how to deal with peer review to dealing with aging parents.

I appreciate the concern about reinforcing existing hierarchies, but people who think that many conferences don’t suffer from that precise issue are naive. While some conferences are double-blind, many are not. And to clarify, when asking for people to replace you for future attendees, you can nominate people you don’t necessarily know that well, but whom you admire for what they do. I made it a point to nominate only women of color as women and people of color were both very underrepresented. Sure, these are people who have accomplished something to be known beyond their close group of friends and colleagues, but that still leaves plenty of room for bringing people together who may otherwise not meet and learning from very different perspectives.


Sumana Harihareswara 01.25.16 at 3:16 pm

I’ve been to several unconferences and helped put some together as well. In the tech sector I think we sometimes use unconferences when a different approach would be better (the post is called “Sometimes An Unconference Is The Wrong Choice”). But overall I have gotten a lot out of unconferences, and I think it’s useful for every conference to have an unconference component. For instance, the Open Source Bridge conference consistently has 3 days of formal sessions followed by 1 unconference day. This provides better ways for people to meet up, find people who have related interests, work/talk about issues and topics brought up in the formal sessions, go into more depth, learn from each other, and give the “hallway track” more surface area and discoverability.

As with Agile, polyamory, and other approaches that try to be more immediately responsive to participants’ needs than more traditional structures, Open Space Technology (the framework for unconferences) has a bunch of rules and practices that serve important purposes. I also recommend that Wikipedia article for a take on what conditions make unconferences more useful.


James Wimberley 01.25.16 at 4:41 pm

Quedtio from Nero and Poppaea: what is the optimum amount of structure for a large palace orgy?


Eszter Hargittai 01.25.16 at 5:38 pm

Sumana, the idea of having an unconference follow a more formal conference is an interesting one. I can definitely see that working out well.

And to be clear, unconferences are of course not optimal for every topic and community – as per your point in the post to which you link – but depending on the goals, they can be very valuable.


Sumana Harihareswara 01.25.16 at 5:59 pm

Eszter: We are in complete agreement — I did not mean to imply that you had demonstrated any disregard or lack of nuance in your post! And I wonder whether an unconference following a formal conference sometimes serves as an easier introduction to unconferences for those who haven’t been to one before. Also, did you get to meet Cate Huston, who was at ORDCamp?

I’ve been to Foo Camp, several AdaCamps (which developed additional tools/practices/guidelines for useful unconferences), a MindCamp in Seattle, and several other unconferences (sometimes as sections of more traditional/formal conferences). In my experience, people might try going to sessions proposed by celebrity-type people, but if the topic and the discussion don’t interest them, they leave and go do something else.


Metatone 01.25.16 at 7:06 pm

Unconferences are a great addition to the mix – and in my experience especially useful for interdisciplinary type stuff, as it allows sessions to emerge out of the conversations between people from different silos…

That said, doing it properly is pretty hard work in my experience, so shoestring budget or not, it’s v. useful to make sure you have an adequate pool of people to help with organisation and on the ground logistics.


Z 01.26.16 at 9:14 am

people who think that many conferences don’t suffer from that precise issue are naive.

@ Eszter Conferences suffer terribly from that precise issue. In fact, scholarly publications suffer terribly from that precise issue. It seems intuitively clear (and has been abundantly confirmed by studies) that more separation between the evaluation process and the managing process is correlated with more diversity in the selection: so the best (among common practice, I’m not claiming it is the panacea) is external double-blind refereeing, next best, external anonymous refereeing, next best external refereeing, next best the pretense of external refereeing (the typical conference, at least in my field), next best internal suggestions from the organizing committee and the attendees (the typical unconference, at least in my field).

@Stefan I agree that logically speaking, there is no obvious relation between planned and unplanned on the one hand, invitation only and open registration on the other. However, again from my narrow corner of the world, all the conferences I have attended or know about are open registration; all the unconferences I have attended or know about are invitation only. Why this is so is unclear to me. Probably because unconferences (just like the one Eszter described) tend to be generous towards their participants. Possibly, the words “reinforcement of preexisting hierarchies” also play a role.


Eszter Hargittai 01.26.16 at 5:06 pm

Z, because so much is left up to the participants, it is important to have some signal about whether they will be good team players. This can never be guaranteed, but you want to minimize the chances of getting someone who is disruptive in unproductive ways. When I refer to “bad apples”, I don’t mean representing perspectives or experiences that are different from everyone else’s, those are certainly very much welcomed. Rather, I mean willing to be a respectful and trustworthy member of the event. And sure, at the beginning, there will be considerable insularity for this reason. But ORDCamp has been going on for eight years now and the “nominate people to replace you” approach seems to be working well. The group was visibly more diverse this year than last year and certainly compared to years past.


Stefan 01.26.16 at 5:08 pm

@Z Why this is so may just be an effect of each of us having a small sample. All the unconferences I know about and have attended have been open to all comers (and none of them, alas, has been generous to their participants beyond a free sandwich and an occasional t-shirt). Your experience is clearly different – but I think that underlines my point that there is nothing intrinsic in the unconference approach which correlates with a particular way of finding particpants.

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