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Online Community Unconference 2007

I just returned from the ForumOne Online Community Unconference on June 6th, 2007 in Mountain View, CA at the History of Computing Museum. The feel of this year's conference was notably different from last years. First, the venue was a far better suited environment for this kind of conference. Attendance was also higher this year and there were more experienced practitioners among the attendees. There was also a more even split between people who were there for business and non-profit interests. Whereas last year's conference felt like a guerilla meet-up, this year's conference (aside from the unconventional Unconference format) had a more "conventional" feel to it (pun intended). Instead of a lot of philosophizing about how Web 2.0 will affect online communities, there were vendors and technology specialists there presenting specific Web 2.0 type platforms.

The day was divided into five breakout sessions, lunch, and an hour of what's called "speed-geek" presentations. It's basically speed dating and instead of talking about yourself, you court an audience of five or fewer people every few minutes with talk about your project, product, or work. I gave "speed-geeking" a try. It's the first time I've run into it and had no idea what to expect. SocialWave.net is not something that lends itself well to quick explanations because the discussion I need to have to explain what I'm doing starts with a sociological conversation, not a technological one. I'll write more about what I learned from speed-geeking Social Wave later.

One of the key concepts of the "Unconference" conference is that everyone has something to contribute and anyone can lead and everyone shares the responsibility of making a session productive. True to nature, the breakout sessions were divided into nine groups with each being started and moderated by the person who proposed the group. You didn't have to be an expert to propose and moderate a session, nor were you expected to be. If you wanted to propose a topic, you just had to get the discussion started. The sessions taken together as a whole was equal parts support group, focus group, seminar, and office meeting.

Online Community Camp 2007 being my second "Unconference," I can definitely say that it's not for everyone. I'd say that it's best suited for people who are not there to seek answers, but to seek ideas that they can use to form their own answers. Speaking for myself, as someone who has an extensive history and background in online communities, but has since become removed from the core of the movement, it was a day well spent getting familiar with the current industry lingo and the latest buzz.

An "Unconference" is sometimes a chaotic environment where it's impossible to know from what context different attendees are coming from. Different people had different ideas of what online community was, a sentiment echoed in one of the sessions I attended. Some attendees knew that they were only looking at a small slice of the pie. Some appeared to have difficulty imagining online community as anything other than blogging, chat, forums, and so forth. You have to take every suggestion with a grain of salt, but this sort of disconnect is to be expected. It happens in all industries and it should be no surprise encounter in a knowledge space like online communities where it's possible to separate a blog from a forum purely by the way a technology is used and how it's perceived.

Although the structural differences between a blog and a forum (or something else) is sometimes trivial, the practical consequences can be quite significant. Social dynamics can change markedly because of the ways people perceive how they're supposed to use a specific type of technology. For example, you're more likely to see someone continue to post in a blog even if there is no noticeable interest in what that person is writing. You rarely see anyone continue to post in a discussion forum if nobody replies back to his or her postings.

I wrote last year with a bit of personal exuberance that the online community industry was finally beginning to emerge as a mainstream player in the IT world. Similarly, the conference last year had a feel of people who were just happy to be there. If this year's Unconference is any reflection, the industry has matured tremendously in only one more year. The conversations that I had a chance to be in on this year were more directed, professional, and insightful. It was still a good time though. Howard Rheingold made an appearance wearing very fun clothes. It was a good time, but it was also time well spent if you prefer a day-long brainstorming session over extended slideshow presentations in darkened rooms.

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