Camps and Conferences – Synergy or Animosity?

I was talking to Scott Kirsner yesterday about BarCamp Portland and other unconferences. He is writing an article for BusinessWeek on unconferences, and some of his questions got me thinking about the similarities and differences between camps/unconferences and traditional conferences. Are these two ideas synergistic or is there animosity between traditional conferences and unconferences? I think that answer is both.

Are traditional conferences worried about unconferences taking business away from traditional conferences? Maybe. Unconferences are usually free and are often local. The unconference is an adhoc gathering shaped by those who attend with the sessions and agenda being driven by the participants. The framework is defined in advance, but the sessions are organized and produced by the attendees. In other words, instead of a full agenda with sessions and speakers clearly determined in advance, you start with a blank grid containing times on one axis and rooms / locations on the other axis; lunches and any other common activities are often added to the grid in advance to provide some basic infrastructure for the event. You never what discussions, demos, and other interactions to expect before the event, but you can count on it being an interesting time!

Unconferences and traditional conferences may even attract slightly different types of people. Some people really like the traditional conference structure. They can plan out exactly which sessions to attend way in advance, and easily justify the cost of attending by making a business case to the boss for what will be learned from the conferences which appeals to many traditional companies. I know this because I used to be one of these people. I viewed conferences as a time to passively soak up knowledge from the “experts” while completely missing the value associated with networking and learning from the other participants. Traditional conferences also have the appeal of drawing in speakers who may not attend your unconference. For example, it is unlikely that Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt will show up at the Portland BarCamp; however, I could see both of them speak at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco next week.

Unconferences on the other hand may tend to attract people who enjoy shaping their environment and who may value networking and conversation more than presentation. You become a participant, instead of just an attendee. Sessions are proposed, refined, and often combined as the event progresses and conversations evolve. I also find more networking opportunities at unconferences, since many sessions are discussion based rather than a single person giving a presentation.

It seems like fewer people are attending traditional conferences and some of the large technology conferences have been canceled over the past few years (COMDEX). It used to be that we went to conferences to learn about upcoming technologies in an age before every company had a website and before we had thousands of blogs and podcasts providing information on any topic possible. Now, with more information available online, conferences have to provide compelling reasons to attend – amazing content, networking opportunities, and more.

Will traditional conferences suffer in this new environment? Some will, but it depends on how they react to it. Conferences that embrace the unconference format in some way are probably more likely to succeed.

O’Reilly, as usual, is handling the situation with style by being generous with their conference space and encouraging people to hold unconferences along side their traditional conference program. The most recent example is the Community Roundtable happening alongside the Web 2.0 Expo. O’Reilly also holds their own unconference, FooCamp, every summer. Companies like O’Reilly “get it”. O’Reilly knows that synergy and cooperation will be more beneficial than animosity. More conference organizers could learn from this example.