On one hand, people in the tech industry who like to attend various BarCamps and FooCamps (like SciFoo) really like the idea that the program is set entirely by participants ahead of the coference, either on a wiki, or on a big white poster board on the morning of the conference, and thus take it that this is the defining aspect of an Unconference. It is fun to do it this way, it sounds democratic and in the spirit of the "wisdom of the crowds" but it has serious drawbacks we wanted to avoid - on that later, keep reading.
On the other hand, the term Unconference also applies to the way sessions are run, regardless of who picked the topics. It is probably the best to quote Dave Winer on this:
The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.
Thus, if the person on the podium is talking and the audience is jotting notes, you are doing it Wrong. The unconferenc-ey session is highly participatory, with the person behind the lectern serving, pretty much, only as a moderator, breaking the ice and defining the topic at the beginning, making sure nobody hijacks the discussion, and making sure that the discussion does not veer off on crazy tangents without ever coming back to the topic.
In a perfect world, every conference and every session would be an Unconference in both senses of the term, but in the real world, it does not work that way. Why? Here is my experience from organizing three conferences to date, and why we chose a hybrid model.
First, for the 1st Science Blogging Conference, we did it the full Unconference way - the Program was set by the participants on the wiki beforehand. It worked pretty well, actually. But there was also something that bothered me at the time, and even more when we opened for the suggestions for the 2nd conference: the Program (just as it happened at SciFoo) was quickly populated by sessions suggested by A-type, self-promoting, middle-aged, white males - people just like me. The women, minorities, the very young, the very old, the tech non-savvy, the n00bs, the marginalized, the shy, the always-silenced... they got silenced again. And we wanted to hear their voices. Especially their voices.
Second, many of the suggestions were for sessions that are blogging universals, e.g., how to deal with trolls, which don't have much to do with science. Most of the suggestions were about blogging in general. But, blogging is not the only thing in science online. There are online scientific journals, magazines, books, social networks, virtual words, various repositories, applications, video, reference software, etc. and that's just the technical side, not to mention the social aspects of it all. The blogs are just one part of that ecosystem, perhaps the glue that binds those all together, and we wanted to have more than just blogging sessions - we wanted to explore how all those aspects relate to each other and how the Web is changing the way science is done. This is the motivation, also, for the name-change of the conference to make this point clear: instead of Science Blogging Conference, now it is called ScienceOnline.
Third, ScienceOnline is an evolving conference and we are trying to have year-to-year continuity, a year-to-year improvement, and yet having each conference having its own coherence and its own "stamp". Discussions starting in one year continue the next year, perhaps with an entire year of events and technical inventions in-between to report on, perhaps becoming more focused or more derived, or splitting into two or three more specific sessions. They should be providing something new to repeat participants, yet are not completely out of context for the first-time guests either.
A general "science education online" session in 2007 became a "using online technologies in the classroom" session in 2008, which became three sessions in 2009: online science for kids/parents, use of online technologies in middle/high schools from students' perspective, and using online technology in college teaching. The 'gender and race' session last year provided so much fodder, it turned into four sessions this year (gender in science, race in science, blogging through transitions, and anonymity/pseudonymity session).
This is a tough balance to provide, and the "wisdom of the crowds" does not work well with fine-tuning the sessions in this way. If we continued to let the participants set the Program on the wiki by themselves, every year we would have the same conference: a bunch of white, middle-age geeks leading sessions about beating the trolls on blogs. It would get old pretty fast.
So, we decided to have a much bigger say on what the Program will be, picking among the suggestions that arrive on the wiki, working with moderators on building and defining their sessions, and actively pursuing interesting people to talk about interesting topics, in order to have exciting, novel, fresh and coherent program every year.
In other words, the pre-conference crowd-planning may work for one-off conferences, but not for a series of annual conferences. Also, as the meeting gets bigger and bigger each year, a proper balance and diversity is harder to attain: this year 31 out of 77 presenters/moderators/panelists were women, which is actually not as good a ratio as we had last year, when the conference was smaller, but some changes always happen at the last moment and are out of our control. On the other hand, the diversity in race, ethnicity and age was greater this year than before.
Fourth, not every topic lends itself well to the unconference format. First, there are demos - 15 minute show-and-tell sessions where someone shows their site or software to the potentially interested users. There is not enough time for a long discussion beyond a brief Q&A. Then, there are workshops where it is obviously intended to have an expert in front and the audience coming in with a specific goal to learn something new - Blogging 101, Blogging 102 and 'Paint your own blog images' sessions fall into this category.
Then, there are sessions where the person on the podium clearly has greater expertise than all or most in the room, but once the audience learns something, a discussion may ensue, thus, having about half the time for a presentation and half the time for discussion is perfectly OK - examples: Semantic Web session, GeneWiki session, Rhetorics session, Carnivals session, Online resources for kids and parents session.
Some sessions are introductory (Open Access), some highly derived (Impact Factor, Open Notebook Science). On the other hand, some sessions were quite possible to open up to the audience right off the bat, even as easily as the moderator starting with a question "the topic is X, what do you want to talk about?".
And then, there are the panels (three this year) which are an entirely different animal....
Interestingly, in the feedback form (90 respondents so far - if you are not one of them, please take a couple of minutes to fill it - we will analyze the data and use it to make the next conference better), most people really liked the free-flowing feel of the participatory sessions. Some like the unconference feel so much they actively disliked when a session was any less than 100% participatory. And then, there are always a couple who are uneasy with the format and would prefer more top-down control and formalized lecture-like sessions (no, we are not going that way!). I think a hybrid model, with each session's format geared towards it's topic and audience, is the way to go, perhaps erring on the side of free-flow when in doubt.
So, while we were planning this year's program, I wanted to combine several of the things I mentioned above and do an experiment. I wanted to see if we could still have a free-flowing participatory discussion if we had a huge panel with a lot of panelists, each panelist being kind of a blogging superstar, and each having unique experiences that others in the room don't have. Can we pull that off?
So, in the spirit of sessions evolving out of previous year's sessions, I thought that expanding the "blogging on the ocean" session of 2008 could be expanded into a "blogging from various exotic and weird places" panel this year. So, I put the feelers out to see if there was any interest in this. And - oh yes! - there was interest, was there ever!
In the end, we had quite a large and delicious set of people on the panel: Karen James, Talia Page, Anne-Marie Hodge, Meredith Barrett, Kevin Zelnio, Vanessa Woods and Rick McPhearson, all participating in the session on Blogging adventure: how to post from strange locations (it could have been even bigger, as I also tried to lure in Samantha Larson (who liveblogged her ascent to the top of Mt.Everest), John McKay (who liveblogged a mammoth dig), Laura Hendrix (who blogs from rural places in the developing world) and perhaps some of the Antartctica bloggers, but they either could not come or could not be reached in time).
And, even with such a large panel, and each panelist having a story to tell, it worked wonderfully! First, they started off by engaging the audience - asking us to liveblog the session while they were going around the room and making it physically and mentally difficult to do - lights going on and off, strange noises, chairs shaking, pens falling out of our hands, weird insects falling into our hair...hey, it wasn't easy!
Getting the taste of what it feels like to try to blog outside the comfort of our pajamas in our basements, we were eager to hear about the real challenges they experiences while blogging from strange places. Rick and Kevin are marine biologists and they do their field work on ships, submarines and while diving. When you are out at sea, there is a lot of water around you, and that water contains a lot of salt. Neither water nor salt are good for your laptops! But more importantly, there is no time - a month at sea is all one has to collect a year-worth of data. Thus data-collecting takes precedence. They work 24/7 on their research, do not even sleep enough, and there is just no time for sitting down and writing.
The time constraints were also the biggest problem for Anne-Marie, Vanessa and Meredith, who do ecological/conservation field-work in the tropics. Anne-Marie blogged from Belize last summer, Vanessa studies bonobos in Kenya, and Meredith studies lemurs on Madagascar. In such places, electricity is another limiting factor - it is unreliable, or rationed. Likewise for internet access.
Anne-Marie also realized that poachers do not like cameras that they set up to take pictures of animals in the rainforest - when they triggered the light-beams and got pictures taken off, they just smashed and broke the expensive equipment.
Finally, having diarrhea-inducing tropical diseases, like Ghiardia, is not just all-around bad news for you, but also a special impediment to blogging. While in India, Talia had to use an Internet cafe to write her blog. First time the nasty bug sent her running to the bathroom someone stole her notes from the computer desk. She diligently immediately copied them from memory, but then had to run to the bathroom again. But this time, there was no toilet paper. Oh, look, what's that in my hand? Notes? I am so glad I took them with me so they do not get stolen again. And notes are on paper - a very useful material in this situation. You know how that story ended....
Next year, Talia will report on blogging from South American countryside, and in 2012 she will blog from space - a Virgin Atlantic space flight. By that time, as technology progresses, she probably will not need to have a laptop with her - we will be able to instantly see what she sees, hear what she hears, and read what she says. I hope.
A number of people in the room added their stories, and a number of technical suggestions were made (see the wiki page of the session and the blog coverage of this session). Sending datasets to one's advisor back home is one problem - requires time and bandwidth and reliable internet.
On the other hand, blogging requires time and energy - something most people in the field do not have. Thus, long essays on a blog are unlikely to become common. But Twittering, or using audio (something you can do while walking and talking, or while finally resting in the hammock with a cold beer in the evening) may catch on as the favourite method for communicating the wonders of doing science in the field.
Other coverage of this session:
Highly Allochthonous: Liveblogging from ScienceOnline...
Pondering Pikaia: ScienceOnline09 Conference Update
Space Cadet Girl: For a Good Time, Check out Science Online 09
TalkingScience: For A Good Time, Check out Bloggers from Science Online 09
Deep Sea News: Science Online '09: Blogging Adventure
Sessions in this timeslot I missed:
Web and the History of Science (which I really, really wanted to see, but we messed up the schedule when we printed the program, swapping some sessions in comparison to the program we had on the wiki):
Skulls in the Stars: ScienceOnline '09: Web and the History of Science
Ideonexus: ScienceOnline09: The Web and the History of Science
Knowledge Sharing: ScienceOnline'09: Web and the History of Science
Christina's LIS Rant: Science Online '09: Saturday PM
Nobel Intent: ScienceOnline 09: History, art, and science
HASTAC blogs: Liveblogging ScienceOnline '09: Race in Science Online and Offline
Adventures in Ethics and Science: ScienceOnline'09: Diversity in science, online and off
Almost Diamonds: Whither Allies
Thesis - with Children: On Not Quite Passing
The blog/media coverage linkfest is growing fast (perhaps start at the bottom and work your way up, posting comments on the way and saying Hello to your new friends), there are ongoing discussions on FriendFeed and new pictures on Flickr. Also, if you were there, please fill up this short form to give us feedback, so we can make next year's meeting even better.