Open-Sourcing Conferences

Tired of the same old tradeshow/conference design? Who isn't? Time to brainstorm something better.

Editors' Note: The following is the text of the June 9 and June 23 editions of Doc Searls' SuitWatch newsletter. Sign up to be a subscriber of this bi-weekly newsletter.

June 9 - Why Am I?

I'm leaving in a few hours for the airport. Three airports after that one, I'll be in Copenhagen for Reboot, which describes itself this way:

reboot is the european meetup for the practical visionaries who are building tomorrow one little step at a time, using new models for creation and organization--in a world where the only entry barrier is passion. reboot is two days in june filled with inspiration, perspective, good conversations and interesting people.

This year's theme is the *new ways ahead*. After more than 10 years of *old ways* of creation, old values, and old models for communicating and organizing ourselves, *new ways* are emerging. That is what reboot is about.

Hey, that's what I'm about too.

In particular I want to reboot the whole Conference System. It sounds as though reboot is trying to do exactly that. Hope I can come home with some fresh ideas. Lord knows, we need them. Because the defaults are as stale as dumpster gunk.

The problem is mass habituation. We're so used to the whole routine: picking up badges, grabbing coffee and cookies, sitting in rows behind tables with laptops flopped open, surfing the Web or answering e-mail while keynoting CEOs from sponsoring companies drone PR while the PowerPoint deck shuffles by, complaining about the absent power strips and bad Wi-Fi connection. The list goes on. And on.

There's infrastructure galore to support the system, especially at the hotels, many of which are designed from the start to be conference habitats. All your better hotels know how to set up and take down the furnishings, organize mics and projectors, put signage on easels and trouble-shoot problems when they come up. But they have their routines, and it's hell trying to break them. Want your tables in a big circle instead of rows arranged like church pews? They can do it, sure, but you're in virgin territory.

Conference organizers are part of the same system and are no less routinized, whether they work for the company giving the conference or are hired for the job from the outside. One organizer for a recent conference hounded me repeatedly for my "PowerPoints", even though I repeatedly said I didn't work that way and wasn't sending any.

It really strips gears when attendee know-how trumps a venue's roadblocks. I've been at many conferences where the hotel or the conference center refused to offer Wi-Fi but instead insisted that everybody share two blue Ethernet cables beside a bank of Net-connected PCs nobody wanted to use. So somebody would configure his or her laptop to be a wireless access point and treat the room to a Wi-Fi connection, with the venue completely unaware of what was happening.

I wrote about conferences in "Showtime", my April 2004 column in Linux Journal. In it I offered nine recommendations to improve the existing tradeshow format. They're still good, but this time I'd like to offer some recommendations for what Dave Winer calls "unconferences". Here goes:

  1. Gather around a subject rather than a publication, a publisher, an analyst or any other established source of finished wisdom by lecturing authorities.

  2. Make the subject so new that most of the wisdom still is forming. This is critical. There are a lot of subjects out there on which everybody is busy making and changing minds rather than compiling finished documents. These are the subjects for which there are too many qualified speakers available to bother casting one person in that role.

  3. Recruit attendees from the population of people who are forming that wisdom, informally. These are the people thinking out loud about the subject and contributing unique wisdom to it. Podcasting is a good example; so is grass-roots journalism.

  4. Don't set the topic agenda. Let the attendees do that through a conference wiki or some other shared DIY note-taking area. This is one of the cool things I learned form O'Reilly's first Foo Camp. The schedule was an empty grid. Rows were times and columns were rooms.

    Attendees posted topics in boxes on a first-come, first-post basis. It was, in effect, a DIY conference. But do begin and end the day with everybody in one room. It frames the day and gives the organizer a chance to play host, make announcements, set the ground rules and so on.

  5. Provide working wireless connections with no encumbrances--no splash screens, registrations and so on. Make it as easy as possible for everybody to get on the Net, blog, join the IRC, update a wiki or do whatever else they want.

  6. Record and podcast the sessions. The idea isn't to make the event public but to seed the world with whatever wisdom grew at the conference. One thing I like about the Bloggercon conferences is the sense that the whole field moved forward. It was like we got together, and instead of raising a barn, we agreed on improved barn-raising materials and methods.

  7. Create plenty of opportunities for schmoozing, including evening networking events. Set up meeting space, too, if possible.

  8. Set out a lot of cold water and ice, in addition to coffee. It's just a bugaboo of mine. I'll pay more for a conference that doesn't skimp on vittles.

  9. 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.

  10. Learn and reboot. And share the wisdom about the conference itself: how it succeeded and failed. What worked and didn't. We have an institution to rebuild here. There are a lot of mistakes to learn from.

Any more ideas? Send them to me. If I like them, I'll bring them up at reboot.


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.