In meetings on April 4, 2008 at 9:31 am

Unconference, meetup, happening, virtual event, interest group, seminar, conference.

The world of get-togethers is becoming increasingly diversified as is the understanding of these events. Several years ago I jointly produced the XMLOpen event (along with Griffin Brown) as a meeting of minds – rather than wallets. We broke even financially, but haven’t repeated what was a thoroughly enjoyable event as it was a big job to organise and the opportunity cost in preparing it (not to mention the financial liability) was large. More recently I was involved in pulling together another event for XML:UK called Publishing 2.0 (we are hoping to pull together a couple of events this year so stay tuned). During one break at that event, Leigh Dodds and Sean McGrath spoke of how quaint an old-fashioned pre-planned conference was to them. At that time, I had some inkling of what they were talking about, but hadn’t experienced a full unconference.

That all changed earlier this year with the Semantic Web Bar Camp at Imperial College, London. It was an enjoyable and educational experience, but conversations during and after have caused concern about the viability of user-managed events in the longer run. One such conversation was with an organiser of a proposed Oxford Bar Camp who is having difficulties finding a suitable venue. For geek conferences there may be specific needs, but the issues are general and relate to trust and ‘brand recognition. What it really highlights is the relative ease (well from an external perspective) large organizations have in marshalling resources for an agreed purpose. The BBC can sponsor events such as last years excellent HackDay (misnamed because it occurred over two days, but why let such details get in the way of memorable naming), without having to hop that an interested party will have access to a building at the weekend that can be used. Of course to a large extent the concept of sponsorship is about brand recognition – so how do new events get going?

What is needed is a conference for event organisers. It could be a forum for discussing how to promote to attendees, speakers and sponsors; an opportunity to learn from the experienced and the inexperienced; a chance to compare experiences with event supporting tools (the vendors of which should possibly be the ones coordinating such an activity – if there is a desire to see a mature market); and a place to participate as a peer rather than a focal point. Such sharing of knowledge would surely be a good thing for users. After all, the form of an event should be based on an understanding of user behaviours and needs rather than around who pays for what.

The real question is – who’s going to organise such an event?


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