I’ve been wanting to write about the subject of "unconferences" for a while, but until recently I couldn’t figure out why they annoyed me. If something doesn’t annoy me, it rarely makes it into the blog. After all, I’m not going to write an entire post about things that don’t annoy me – such as martinis, coffee breaks, and foot massages, to name a few of the things I like most about my job. (And as always, thanks to Chip, the best personal assistant ever!)
Still, some people think this topic is actually worthy of discussion, as if the concept of an "unconference" were something that required sophisticated analytical skills to figure out.
At first I thought, gee, this is just another stupid attempt by some librarians to draw attention to themselves by describing something old with a fresh neologism. It turns out I was right, and that’s enough to get annoyed about. Are there librarians out there who really think they’re doing something new? Do they really think the latest trend isn’t just a repackaging of some previous trend, and so on ad nauseum? I guess there must be librarians that stupid, but I don’t talk to them much, and I don’t want to. Do we really need yet another unnecessary new word to pretend we’re hip?
"Unconference" is just a stupid word, and to use it in a serious way is to invite discussion and ridicule. Strictly speaking, anything that isn’t a conference is an "unconference." My shoe is an "unconference," and quite an attractive "unconference" it is, too. What’s the point of using a word like this, except to draw attention to yourself as some sort of trendsetter? Is there anything going on at any of these so-called "unconferences" that hasn’t been going on for decades? Trendsetters manque call these things "unconferences." The rest of the world just call them "meetings," and doesn’t attempt to be pretentious.
Some people have tried to distinguish them. It’s like a conference, but we haven’t invited any speakers! Hmm. These used to just be called "meetings," too, but now I’m thinking that a meeting where speakers are invited should now be called an unmeeting. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the things that would be the most attractive about these meetings, er, "unconferences." Invited speakers tend to be boring and insubstantial. They peddle the same five talking points they’ve used at the previous ten conferences, making the same lame jokes in the same places. The talking points were never particularly clever or interesting, and are almost always the sort of thing anyone with even a reasonable amount of intelligence could come up with given the topic. I should know, I’ve given enough of these talks. So any conference without speakers is a boon as far as I’m concerned. But I still don’t see how this is different from a meeting.
Still, they keep trying, these librarians desperate to seem different and new. It’s like a conference, except we just give people a topic and let them discuss it! Woo hoo! How is this different from a meeting with an agenda? It’s like a conference, except it’s free! You know, like a meeting.
It’s like a conference, except anyone can come and participate! Here we’re getting closer, it seems. Anyone can come to any conference if they pay, but they can’t always participate. If people participate, then that’s completely different. Then an "unconference" is something radically different from anything we’ve ever seen before and deserves a trendy new name. Different from everything, of course, except meetings.
One blogger I read really emphasized the participatory nature of these meetings. The more participatory the better! This doesn’t make them any different from meetings, but it does have a whiff of sixties-era hippiedom about it, and that’s a heady whiff indeed. The trendy librarians might think they’re doing something fresh and new, when really they’re just trying to replicate the political meetings of a bygone era, where hairy, unwashed people sat around without direction arguing about politics and smoking dope. Those were the days! It just makes one want to scream, "Take a bath, ‘unconference’ attendees!"
If we all just participate, then that’s what really matters. Then we can all learn from one another! Not that most of us have anything to teach, but the learning isn’t as important as everyone feeling like they’re a part of things. Anything that emphasizes participation as the criterion for effectiveness is designed more like a consciousness-raising pep talk than anything else, and I’m not sure what could be more annoying than one of those.
Of course, it’s still a participatory, consciousness-raising pep talk in the form of a meeting.