Community-Organized Events vs. Traditional Conferences

Every year when I make my yearly geek pilgrimage to Austin for SXSW, I struggle with how much time to spend at BarCampAustin vs. SXSW, because they usually overlap. I love attending SXSW, but I am also a BarCamp fan, so the choice is always a difficult one. This year, like most past years, I chose to skip SXSW to spend a day at BarCamp.

Previously on WebWorkerDaily, I talked about the differences in they way that the community conferences are organized and posted an interview with Audrey Eschright, a BarCamp and unconference organizer. This time I was interested in differences in content between traditional conferences and community-organized events.

Since anyone can propose a session at BarCamp, you tend to get more crazy ideas and niche sessions with great information that would never have an audience broad enough to justify a session at most traditional commercial conferences. You also get some terrible sessions and ideas that just don’t make much sense, but the beauty of BarCamp is that you can wander in and out of sessions pretty easily.

Some examples of interesting sessions at BarCampAustin included: How to start an online bacon business in a month, half-baked entrepreneurial theater (where people come up with crazy business ideas), air ships and more.

I wanted to get a second opinion on the content, so I asked Selena Deckelmann, an unconference organizer currently working on a community-organized, open-source event in Portland, about the future of community-organized events vs. more traditional conferences. Here’s her take on the differences:

“I think community-organized/grassroots events are the only way effective conferences focused on learning and getting work done will be organized in the future. I don’t think companies dedicated to conference management can keep up with and offer the technical depth and 1:1 networking opportunities that a focused, community-driven event can.

Photo by Kirrily Robert
Photo by Kirrily Robert

The smaller, more focused and more local you can make events, the better educational, personal and professional development opportunities people get.

There’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to a 10k-person event. Sure, it’s exciting to be with that many people, and interesting to see what kinds of entertaining spectacles companies come up with to draw in a crowd in an expo. But, for me, I get way more out of a 1:1, a 10-15 person group discussion. If the goal is education and learning, you need smaller, focused groups.”

Many people underestimate the value of small group discussions as an opportunity to learn about new ideas. Being able to participate in a small group discussion where each person can ask more questions and interact on a personal basis, rather than the traditional presentation and panel model at most commercial conferences, can be a great learning experience.

What types of conferences do you prefer? What are your experiences with the content differences between traditional conferences and community-organized events?