Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Unconference: Nobody told me I actually was supposed to attend

I'll start by saying that up until a couple of days ago, my only concept of an uncoference was the BIGWIG Social Software Showcase. But when I started to peruse the set of links for the Aug. 23 broadcast of Uncontrolled Vocabulary, which includes (by inference anyway) the ALA Bigwig SSS in the line-up of unconferences, I realized that I had misunderstood the concept of the unconference in a fairly big way. Nonetheless after letting that realization roll around in my head for a while, I have decided I really like my misconstrued version of the unconference.

Here is the story to explain what I am talking about: When I ran across the Bigwig SSS through some wandering on the interwebs, I did get the idea that it was an unconference according to the concept as generally understood. It is an event that attempts to turn some of the elements of a traditional conference on on their heads. I got that about Bigwig SSS--the participants/organizers were using an ALA annual format (the interest group meeting) for a purpose for which it was not really intended--having a "session" that in normal ALA time (think dog years to the nth power) would take at least a year to organize. It was also clear that the participants were the presenters as is inherent in the idea of an unconference. But I don't think that was what pulled me out of my usual diffidence to actually create an account on the Bigwig Wiki; follow Bigwig on Twitter, keep an eye on the Bigwig Meebo room, join the Bigwig SSS group on Facebook, and generally keep up the the presenters as they contributed to the wiki.

All the while I was doing that, I was thinking of Bigwig SSS as an unconference because it was actually something allowed me to participate in ALA annual without having to be there, without having to pay the outrageous amount of money required to be there, without having to finesse some way for MPOW to pay for me to be there, and without trying recover from the funk that large professional gathering inevitably produce in me. (Another form of my diffidence is a phobia of large annual conferences of professional societies--I still have scars from my first profession).
So my "unconference" was watching the various ways in which devlopments in the Bigwig SSS manifest themselves on in the days leading up to the event. I delighted in the way that Karen Schneider's video on LOCKSS and digital preservation got me thinking in interesting ways about something that I normally don't ever think about. I ended up with my own versions of the chicken/egg phenomenon because of Michael Porter's presentation about Facebook--did I revive my ancient and unused Facebook account because I wanted to be in the Bigwig SSS or did I end up in the Bigwig SSS because Michael's presentation inspired me to dust off that old account? More or less the same thing was going on with Iris Jastram's introduction to Meebo rooms.

I did recognize the significance of the actual event where people showed up on Saturday, June 23rd, from 1:30-2:30 in the Renaissance Mayflower Cabinet Room, but my own version of the unconference kept telling me that the event was just as much about those of us out there twittering and meebo-ing our way into the conversation as it was about the participants/presenters who would show up in the physical room in DC. That fell apart for me when that afternoon found me in a long, semi-emergency visit to the vet with one of my cats --the findings in a scheduled exam in the AM grew into a series of tests and the development of a treatment plane, and...(kitty is now fine, or as fine as you can hope geriatric kitties can be). After kitty and I recovered from the vet visit, the actual Bigwig SSS event in DC was long over. Nonetheless, I still thought that I could get my voice into the conversation in whatever archives or transcripts there were.

What I found was that some folks did drop into the Meebo room and there were valiant efforts to convey the conversation taking place in the physical room. I also saw several tweets, but the conversation that I had been expecting just did not seem to materialize, or at least it did not emerge in a place that was apparent to me. In the days following the event, there was the blog post that got away (I even have a draft of a sentence or two) in which I thought I would sort through my disappointment at not being present for the event and speculate on ways that the bits of the event that I experienced were satisfying and why, but that line of thought has remained mostly in my head.

In my following of the collection of links for Uncontrolled Vocabulary, I finally realized that an unconference is still about the event and the people who show up in real time and what I glimpsed in the Bigwig SSS was a lot more than that. I very much appreciate the way that unconference events embrace discovery and I hope I will end up at one of these events some day. I am now drawn back to what the Bibwig folks said about the that the label unconference being simply the closest term than could come up with to describe what they were after. Now I really understand that what I was drawn to in the Bigwig SSS was so much more than an unconference. I wanted the event, but more so I wanted voices coming through as many channels as is possible/practical. I wanted to event to precede and follow the real time interactions. I think I got some of that and I also got an enriched sense of the kind of event I keep looking for, and sometimes finding, out on the interwebs.

Thanks BigWig and Uncontrolled Vocabulary for pushing my mind in this direction.