Open-Sourcing Conferences

Tired of the same old tradeshow/conference design? Who isn't? Time to brainstorm something better.
June 23 - Open-Sourcing Conferences

Two weeks ago, I was on my way to Copenhagen for a terrific little conference called Reboot. Now I'm in San Francisco, writing from a conference called Supernova. Its theme is decentralization. I got in tune with the theme right away on the morning of the first day when, after driving 400 miles from Santa Barbara, my car was hit by a garbage truck three blocks from the end of the trip.

After we both pulled over, the truck driver got out and clearly felt bad about causing an accident that obviously was his fault. "Relax", I said. "I'm not hurt, and I'm driving a rental car." He seemed relieved. Credit where due: the agency, Budget, swapped my busted Ford Focus for a new Ford Focus--my favorite rental car--once again violating Searls' 4th Law, which says "No matter what car you want to rent, you'll get a Chevy Cavalier". What's more, Budget also proved that you don't need to buy the insurance the agencies always try to upsell you at the counter. I didn't buy it, they barely looked at my accident report and they swapped the car with no questions asked.

My breakfast date, for which I was an hour late, was with a couple of folks from Cyworld, the giant Korean on-line service. It was fascinating. Rick Kim, whose title is too long to repeat, told me a little about what's happening on the Net in Korea. In some respects, it's nothing like what we experience here in the US or in Europe. In others, it's remarkably similar.

On the difference side, the carriers, notably telcos such as SK, which owns Cyworld, don't believe broadband is a Done Thing or that 3Mb/sec is a good maximum speed for broadband to the home. I asked Rick about the speed of service at his house. He said he got 88Mb, but that the more typical bandwidth for homes there was 15-25Mb--and going up.

Not long ago I talked with a cable installer in Santa Barbara who told me his company had no intention of increasing bandwidth, whatsoever, for the foreseeable future. We're stuck at 3Mb/down and 300Kb/up, for the duration. No Moore's Law here, folks. Move on.

By the way, when we moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, we were getting speeds of 7Mb/down and 3Mb/up. The provider throttled back the bandwidth after its backbone provider, @Home, went belly-up. Now the company uses its own backbone, it says. Oh, and the provider blocks port 80 and port 25. Nice.

So bandwidth is one big difference. Another is the culture in and around on-line services. To my surprise, the first syllable in Cyworld isn't short for "cyber". It represents "relationship" in Korean. The company sees relationships with customers and customer relationships with one another as paramount concerns. Somehow I don't get that from MSN or AOL or Yahoo, much less from the big cable and telco carriers.

What's similar is the infrastructure on which they build their services. It's Linux. To give an idea of how much their Linux infrastructure supports, 90% of all 20-somethings on the Net in Korea are Cyworld users. Among the free services offered is unlimited storage. There are a few limitations, mostly having to do with technical issues around uploads from cellphones and similar real-world issues. But the space is there. More encouraging is seeing "linux" embedded in the e-mail address of the head engineer.

Right now at Supernova, there's a panel ironically focused on attention. Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, just gave a talk about a meme that she delivered to the world a few years ago: "continuous partial attention". She had exactly that from the audience.

Between the last sentence and this one, I was called outside the ballroom by the head of a well-known "social software" company who wants to open-source its proprietary goods. What's more, he wants to work on an open-source framework for all social software--blogs, wikis, RSS aggregators and so on.

Earlier, a guy I was talking with had a cool idea for conferences like this one. Set it up like any other conference--with speakers, panels and so on--and then announce at the beginning that all the speakers were bait, that the whole conference is completely open. Anybody can learn anything from anybody. Bring up the house lights, arrange the chairs in circles, roll out the hors d'oeuvres.

With no speakers, every attendee's expertise is a "source" for every other attendee. Conversation becomes the most efficient and effective means for moving and growing knowledge throughout whole crowd. The idea here is a profound corollary to Bill Joy's observation that "most of the smartest people work for somebody else". The balance of smartness in any conference session heavily favors the audience. So, what's the most efficient and effective way for everybody to share what they know?

We've been lecturing at conferences for the last umpty years. Audiences have been opting out through schmoozing in hallways, hanging out on IRC channels, blogging, IMing and e-mailing each other. In other words, they're going to other sources of knowledge.

When I play the lecturer role, I try to be so compelling that the audience has no choice but to quit typing and start listening to what I'm saying. But even when I succeed at that, I'm merely improving on the lecture model. I'm giving one man's opinion. If the purpose of a conference is to increase everybody's knowledge, we need to find ways for everybody to be available to everybody. An any-to-any model, rather than a one-to-many model, naturally is far more flexible and efficient.

So, what we're talking about here is, ta-da: open sourcing conferences.

Next step: making them smaller and cheaper, with better UIs.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He writes the Linux for Suits column for Linux Journal. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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As we step into a modernized

Conference Centre Peterborough's picture

As we step into a modernized and updated tech era. It is hard to imagine holding conference traditionally. People need to get creative and search for better innovative methods of conducting conferences. Gone are the days of sitting in a C and staring at a screen displaying long lists of points to be catered to on a PPT. I personally think, workshops and small exhibits have become old. The way we cater to the world has to change. You can hold conference in large halls around the world. But making a vital point of the purpose of the conference is important. I ran a small business and usually visit various conferences. During my talks with the organizer and the company holding the conference. I ask them for their suggestions on revamping conferences and giving it a new style. They look at me dumbfounded. I wonder why?

No More Conferences

Zelle Nelson's picture


Following are thoughts about different ways to hold conferences:

I just read an article on Tim O'Reilly in Wired. And the last line referenced how the conference worked. I immediately thought of Open Space Technology (

A similar, I think better model is being used around the world. It's called Open Space Technology (again - and World Cafe is another model ( - see at the end "No More Conferences by Maureen McCarthy"

A recent example was the National Girl Scouts conference which used both Open Space and World Cafe together in a multi-day conference with over 1,600 participants, both adults and kids.

For more detail see the end of this post.

I don't know if this is interesting or helpful, but here it is.

By the way, My wife and I have been using Open Space Technology and World Cafe for years in corporations, small businesses, community groups, with schools, in churches, in government, within various industries, just like so many other practitioners around the world. It is astounding how well it works.

Email if this is interesting.

Thanks for your time.

with grace and love,


Zelle Nelson
Engaging the Soul at Work/Know Place Like Home/State of Grace Document

Post on OSLIST:

Dear Open Space Friends,

It has been exactly one month since more than 1,600 Girl Scout National Delegates met in Open Space. I feel deeply grateful to each and everyone of you who helped us to hold the space at the Girl Scout National Convention. I haven't written until now because, frankly, I'm still processing what I experienced and learned and I'm not at all sure I can do justice to telling the story. I'm literally still dreaming about what was perhaps the most powerful experience of my life so far, short of giving birth 3 times.

My greatest joy in working on this project has been the incredible people and my personal reflections are filled with gratitude and awe. Foremost, I am grateful to my dear friend and business partner, Claudia Haack, who held the space with me with such grace, resilience and generosity that I was able to give myself fully to opening the space. Our partnership grew and our friendship flourished as we worked on this project together.

I think that part of why it’s taking me so long to digest what happened at the Girl Scout National Convention is that after a glorious day of Open Space, Claudia, our volunteer team and I anchored Strategy Cafes for close to 2,000 participants and generally worked on the fly for the next 3 days of the convention, including a final day with the Themefinding Team which looked across the Open Space and Strategy Café reports. All the while, we were working with close to 100 volunteers who had been trained in OS and World Café and who then self-organized for planning and implementation before, during and after the convention. As a member of the “Smooth Operators

a history lesson?

chris saeger's picture

maybe a bit of "pre-history" the original name for this kind of event is Open Space Technology Harrison Hollingsworth Owen originated the approach to group inter-action and organization enhancement in 1984, and subsequently have been training facilitators and refining the approach. Open space is now used in multiple situations all over the world, and has become the basis for new conceptualization of the nature and function of organization.
Here is a link to his web presonal site. Harrison Owen

Last month we had a workshop

Lydia Melchow's picture

Last month we had a workshop at our university about internet conferencing methods and tools. One project group shared very good experiences with using a method called "openspace-online". I was impressed about this way of "human like" group work over distance. Interesting for me was, that the internet conference method transformed openspace technology into the online world. Later I looked at and at and its eBook. Very interesting blended concepts.

Designate a summarizer. Someb

Anonymous's picture

Designate a summarizer. Somebody needs to follow up on the conference, gather feeds of searches by Technorati, PubSub and Feedster on subjects that came up during the conference and summarize the whole thing. It's not possible to catch everything. What matters is knowing that the conference made a difference in the world.


Phil Donahue = Open Source Talk Show?

tim's picture

It was a long time ago, but as I remember it - Phil Donahue used to do
a pretty good job of running something close to what you describe. He had a talk show, so the source of "knowledge" was really fresh questions for the guest (subject). But a vast majority of his show was him carrying the microphone throughout the audience and really being a moderator versus interviewer. This may be a real life analogy to how an open source conference would work.

Another way to improve a conference is to have a speaker present for a short time. Then say, "I'll be over here if anyone wants to talk "offline". Then you leave their mic live, plus add some mics into the crowd that gathers, and we just all listen in. I often join these post lecture jam sessions just to engage in the chit-chat. I often don't realize I had questions or input until I hear the others talking.


vaceituno's picture

By my experience organizing open-source like information security conferences...:

11. Get sponsors to pay for the whole thing.

12. Set an adequated frequence for the conference editions to turn it "The Place" to go for the subject area.

13. Make easy for the speakers and the public to get news about the conferences and any new editions. RSS or a mail list can do the job.

14. Make the event rewarding for the speakers and the audience by providing some adequate time or space for promotion and hand out attendance certificates to the public when appropiate.

15. Make registration mandatory and fine tune overbooking to maximize the public for the resources available.

Open-sourceing conferences..I

Anonymous's picture

Open-sourceing conferences..I love the sound of that!

"Lightning Talks" and "Work in Progress" talks

Not Don Marti's picture

I like sessions of short talks on a similar theme. USENIX Technical Conference does this format well, as "WIPs".

Live shells good (especially at Q&A time), PowerPoint bad. I know it's hard to work a computer in front of a room full of people, but you could always run through your demo beforehand and control-R the hairy commands.

Projector rental is expensive. Why not "project" visual aids to a web site, and let people use their laptops for something? Didn't bring your laptop -- meet somebody who did.

I agree with Doc on recording and podcasting, but text is best. Transcribe a session and get a day pass for next conference. Transcribe three sessions and you get a full conference pass.