Unconferences and the Return of the Relationship

FOO Camping

I've been meaning to write about FOO Camp for a while now, but life has just been a blur from about 5 days before it until, well, the end of next week actually! I was fortunate enough to be invited by Tim O'Reilly to attend his three day garden party along with about 300 other people. It was a totally different experience to the EuroFOO I had attended before. At EuroFOO, all the attendees were in hotels or student dorms, and the weather was cold and wet, meaning we all met only for meals and sessions. US FOO, on the other hand, was an all-camping affair (well, a few weaker souls sloped off to hotels), with everyone on-site all weekend.

The result was much more of a house-party atmosphere, with the chance to drink and play with others all the time. This is actually the aspect that makes it such a rich experience. People tend to focus on the idea of lectures and such, but really FOO is all about mixing socially with the brilliant, the famous, the rich, the promising and the werewolves (sometimes with more than one label applying to the same person!).

While there's some of that at other unconference events, the relaxed and social atmosphere that FOO achieves over three days is what makes all the difference. I went to some excellent sessions, but the real highlights were the people I sat and ate and drank with (yes, one or two even to excess) until four in the morning each night, learning about each other. I'm still recovering from the physical impact, but I really appreciated the opportunity to meet people like Stewart Butterfield who I'd previously only written about.

Interactive Atlas

It was clear from his closing session that Tim understands this. His skill in inviting a blend of key people is essential. Yes, an unconference style allows everyone to bring their own sessions and present them, but it's much more important to leave room for people to meet and become friends because out of those sorts of relationships, innovation flows. Unconferences are less about deconstructing authority and more about expressing the connectedness that comes about when the network is the computer express itself when people come together too. Check out Imran's list and you'll see it's all about people, not content.

I'm not saying the more structure sessions weren't valuable - I really enjoyed discussing the meaning of meaning, and it was a pleasure to discover the session on "Open Data" that Stewart and I planned still happened even though we both forgot to turn up for it! But the world will be changed by the relationships formed at FOO this year, not by the sessions that were presented. That's what good unconferences do - rescue us from content and return us to the power of relationships.

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