EOF - Conferences: Pro & Un

by Doc Searls

LinuxWorld Expo is no more. In its place, IDG World Expo offers OpenSource World Conference & Expo, which is in the future as I write this and in the past as you read it. The conference happens (or happened) in early August in San Francisco, following O'Reilly's popular OSCON (Open Source CONference).

At the time of this writing, OpenSource World still appears at the domain LinuxWorldExpo.com. Adding irony to insult, it's an .aspx site, meaning it runs on a Microsoft Windows server. According to Netcraft, linuxworldexpo.com was first seen in December 1998, but has a hosting history on Windows that goes back only to June 2008. Meanwhile, 34 of O'Reilly's 36 sites are on Linux. The other two are on FreeBSD and Solaris. The oldest O'Reilly.com site on that list (one running Linux) dates back to March 1996.

Under “What We Do” on its home page, IDG World Expo (the organizer of LinuxWorld Expo and OpenSource World), pitches “Bringing You Face-to-Face with Decision-Makers You Want to Reach”, adding “IDG is recognized worldwide as a leader in exhibition management, producing more than 750 globally branded conferences and events in 55 countries”. O'Reilly Conferences' equivalent is, “O'Reilly conferences bring alpha geeks and forward-thinking business leaders together to shape the revolutionary ideas that spark new industries”. Both are pitches to business. The difference is a company that talks the walk and one that walks the talk. Put more bluntly, one is driven by business and the other is driven by geekery.

IDG World Expo appears to keep no archives of its past conferences. O'Reilly does (conferences.oreillynet.com/archive.csp). So do we, because (being geeky like O'Reilly) we put pretty much everything we write on the Web, and then make sure it stays there. That's how I found Marjorie Richardson's coverage of the first LinuxWorld (www.linuxjournal.com/article/3340). She writes, “I spent a remarkable two days, March 2 and 3, in the San Jose Convention Center, and everyone who didn't go has been dropping by to find out about it. This was a major conference with more than just the usual suspects in attendance, and everyone had a big announcement.” The second LinuxWorld followed in August at the same venue. About that one, CNN wrote, “'Linux is hot', said Madeline Schnapp, a product marketing manager for O'Reilly & Associates, which publishes books on open source. 'If you're anybody who is anybody in Linux, you have to show up at this show.'” What a difference a decade makes.

I once measured my approximate total conference attendance with schwag bags. Back in 2003–2004, we lived in a house where the garage had large utility drawers that I found perfect for filling with old promotional bags—very handy for when we needed to haul toys to the beach or replace the kid's latest lost knapsack. When we moved out, I needed to empty the drawer. So, for the fun of it, I counted how many unduplicated conference give-away bags I still had accumulated in there. The total came to more than a hundred.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.” That's what I did with conferences. I didn't stop going to old-fashioned vendor-sponsored conferences, but I did start going to unconferences, starting with Dave Winer's first BloggerCon at Harvard Law School in 2003.

Although that marked my first encounter with the un side of conferencing, hackathons had been going on at least since OpenBSD geeks first used the term in 1999. Linux codefests and installfests have been happening since the early 1990s. Wikipedia credits the annual XML developers conference with using the term “unconference” first in 1998.

The spirit of the modern unconference, however, goes back to Open Space Technology, or OST, which was coined by Harrison Owen in 1985. The OpenSpaceWorld Wiki describes OST as “one way to enable all kinds of people, in any kind of organization, to create inspired meetings and events”.

My own involvement with Open Space began when some geeks forked their conversation off Digital ID World, in October 2004. Meeting first on a Gillmor Gang podcast, the Identity Gang met next on a patio at the Fairmont Princess Hotel during one of Esther Dyson's (still much missed) PC Forum conferences, in March 2005. Later that year, we held the first Internet Identity Workshop (IIW), organized by Kaliya Hamlin, Phil Windley and myself, around Open Space principles.

Since then, we've been holding two IIWs per year, each organized as an Open Space event, and every time the results are dramatic. Development moves forward in tectonic leaps—especially where disagreements (or potential ones) are on the floor. We've used the same technique with two VRM (vendor relationship management, cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/Main_Page) workshops so far, with the same results. So I'm a believer.

But, that doesn't diminish my belief in the continuing need for traditional conferences. The market demands them, and many conference attendees don't want to participate in anything more demanding than visiting booths and sitting in keynote and breakout sessions. And, vendors still need places in the meet/meat world to show off their stuff.

At the time of this writing (June 2009), Wikipedia lists 32 Linux conferences, including OSCON and OpenSource World. Most are clearly by and for geek communities. Scoop Nisker says “If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own.” Same goes for conferences.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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