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Can There Be Such a Thing as a Science Fiction ‘Unconference’?

ConGlomeration — the half-mad sci-fi con occurring in Louisville, KY this Easter weekend — is once again turning to online fandom to direct our programming. This time, I ask whether trying to structure too much programming isn’t the problem.

As part of geek culture’s continued campaign to subvert civilization to our own ends, industry and business conventions have begun to embrace a supposedly novel concept called the unconference. Rather than having a set structure of meetings, panels, keynotes and breakout sessions, the unconference is intentionally unstructured. Attendees meet, gather, form discussion groups and organize programming on the spot.

Think of an unconference as a live-action discussion forum where someone starts a thread and, if it’s interesting, others join in. If the ad hoc panel isn’t to your liking, go elsewhere. Just like online, these discussion threads have moderators, which unconferences call facilitators. In most cases, unconferences produce better, more productive discussions and instruction than any structured set of activities could ever provide. (Though with most business conventions, that’s a very low bar to cross.)

Here’s the kicker: Unconferences are modeled at least in part on classic 1930s sci-fi conventions when fans would just get together and see what the frak happened. Ironically, as mainstream conferences are rediscovering the virtues of classic sci-fi cons, science fiction conventions are becoming ever more structured and rigid. Major conventions are so overstuffed with activities that many fans spend the bulk of their time there in Disneyland-esque lines simply hoping to get into panel discussions. Similarly, many pros spend their entire time at major conventions doing side business rather than actually attending the con. Smaller conventions don’t necessarily have these problems, but we all seem to try to emulate the big dogs by programming as much of our con as we’re able. Short of a relaxacon, there really isn’t anything approaching a serious, thoughtful science fiction unconference.

Could a regular sci-fi convention embrace unconference virtues? If so, how?

For example, would a sci-fi unconference be an all-or-nothing proposition? Would the organizer have to eschew all conventional (pun intended) programming tactics, or could there be a blend? It seems to me there a varying degree available here:

  • Totally unstructured: Just let the members (or Guests of Honor) spark a discussion on the spot. Allocate all programming space to ad hoc panels.
  • Quasi-structured: Set aside general times and places that facilitators and Guests of Honor will congregate, then let the topics emerge from there. (Basically, the con becomes a series of mass kaffeeklatsches.)
  • Parallel structure: Program some or all the convention activities, but set aside dedicated unstructured space for on-the-spot programming. This happens to some degree at conventions already; either after hours or during “hall fandom” where common areas and the con suite become fan-run discussion spaces. However, dedicated and moderated panel areas could be set aside to accommodate and encourage this activity during regular panel time.

Granted, emulating discussion threads in the offline world could be a self-defeating premise, as the whole point of going to conventions is to do what you can’t do online on your own. Is the unconference compatible with that mantra?

Can sci-fi conventions go back to our unconference roots? If so, how would that work? I look forward to hearing your pro and con arguments in the comments area. If an unconference approach garners enough support, you’ll see it reflected in the ConGlomeration 2011 Programming Grid. You want to bend a sci-fi con to your will? Start commenting!

6 Comments on Can There Be Such a Thing as a Science Fiction ‘Unconference’?

  1. Ugh, no. I wish Conglom had better programming. The only useful session I found this year was the Writing RPGs panel. Did we really need THREE on how to get laid a con? (Hint: Showers help a lot.) I’d love to see some more on writing, or social networking sites for fans and gamers, or maybe a “How to deal with difficult players” or a Tabletop/Miniatures/LARP/Video Games/Cards gamer throw down.

  2. I take that back, the DNA extraction panel was pretty awesome too.

  3. Sorry you did care for last year’s programming, Michele, but then that’s why we’re crowdsourcing it in 2011. We want to avoid the pitfalls we faceplanted into last time. Could you be more specific on what you’d want out of the panels you suggested above?

  4. One advantage of an unconference is, if you are at the con and aren’t interested in the topics, you can go and suggest a topic on the board and pull some people together to talk about it.

    It might have the potential to just fall apart, but I think it also gives more people a chance to share their own thoughts since an unconference is generally smaller and less formal which should make less social attendees more comfortable.

    I know that a lot of the web conferences have the standard tracks with panels and speakers, but set aside an unconference space as well that people can use to expand on those hallway chats and just kind do their own thing.

  5. A closely related, and perhaps more thought out process is Open Space Technology. See

    It came out of some people noticing that often the best part of a conference was the coffee breaks. They started inquiring into how they could make a whole conference have the same feel of conversations about what you really want to talk about with other people who are as passionate as you are about whatever you’re talking about.

  6. p.s. The unconferences (BarCamps) that I’ve been to have all had a program grid that was created in the morning by participants, similar to Open Space. Ad hoc gatherings may be explicitly mentioned and welcomed (a good Open Space will certainly do so), but I’ve never heard of an unconference or an Open Space event where every conversation was organized on the spur of the moment. I have contemplated with other process folks how a good mobile app could enable people (when they realize they’ve started a conversation that might be of interest to others) to note it in a program grid which would update live to others with the app, and of course on wall screens in well-trafficked areas. If you got a really good conversation going, you’d get flash crowds.

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