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"An Ideal Conference Helps to Define a Community"

Over the holidays I had a chance to watch this video interview with Robert Scoble and Tim O'Reilly. Some good stuff on the differences between BarCamp (open to everyone) and FooCamp (invitation only), but the money quote for me was when O'Reilly said:

"An ideal conference helps to define a community."

I love this quote. It puts the notion of community-building at the center of conference-going. It says that the best conferences aren't about the workshops or the vendors or the location. They are about the processes that are in place to help create and define a sense of belonging and membership.

This is where a lot of conferences fail. Conference designers assume that communities are formed based on things like our job titles or industries or membership in an organization.  This is true to some extent, but many of us are not particularly passionate about our job titles or the industries in which we work, sad to say.  Real community is fueled by passion and interest, not solely by our membership in a particular group. The best conferences help us tap into the passion and harness it for connections and creating "aha" moments for participants.

Last month I helped organize a conference for youth practitioners from across Pennsylvania. We used a modified Open Space format where we defined some "big questions" to explore and then spent a day collecting everyone's thoughts about those questions. There was no pre-determined agenda other than the questions. We had no PowerPoints or "presenters." It was just a bunch of people in different rooms with flip chart paper and some issues they  cared about.

For most of us, it was one of the best conferences we'd attended because it helped us better understand who we are and what we're trying to accomplish in working with our young people. It helped us define our common purpose and re-connected us to what makes many of us passionate about the work.

It was also a little scary for some. There was less structure than they were used to, no experts to define the parameters or tell them what was important. This is part of community-building, too, though--helping each member of the community find and feel their own power to contribute. Some are more comfortable with this notion than others, but it's a necessary part of the community-building process.

As I continue to work with several professional groups to develop events and design the right processes for creating connections and sharing best practices, I'm going to keep this O'Reilly quote in mind. I think it's something to bank on.

What do you think of this quote? Is your idea of the ideal conference one that creates community? And what kinds of processes/activities make you feel that sense of belonging?


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Hi Michelle,

I started off feeling a bit uneasy reading your post and by the time that got to the end of it I was feeling like singing.

You are so right about people feeling uneasy when there is an open structure to the conference.

It has taken me a lot of years to be able to accept an open ended format.

It's probably taken as many years to get admin to spring for the costs of a conference as well.

Lots more to say, but have run out of time.

Regards, Bill Oldham

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