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‘Unconferences’ extend Web2.0 to events

I spent last Friday at the State Theater, a popular entertainment venue in Falls Church, Va. – but not at a show. I attended the third (and final) Blog Potomac “unconference,” a congregation of social media marketing enthusiasts from the Washington metropolitan region.

From the grassroots organizers to the happy hour bar to the denim dress, this wasn’t your average conference.

Sure, it was sponsored by well-known groups such as the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators. But it was organized (largely) by one man, Geoff Livingston (@GeoffLiving), who dreamed up the first Blog Potomac, hosted in 2007. Livingston is author of “Now Is Gone,” a book about social media; he’s also a popular blogger and public relations professional.

As opposed to a traditional suit-and-tie networking conference, “unconferences” are participant-driven. Due to their growth out of Web 2.0 culture, many unconferences focus on topics such as social media and open source technologies — but their format has been adapted for forums on transportation, politics and more.

Usually, but not always, they avoid the high fees and formal dress of more traditional conferences. They endeavor to be highly participatory (“no spectators, only participants” proclaims one Web site). Attendees share the responsibility of promoting the event on their personal Web sites, blogs and to their networks. Often the unconference isn’t promoted by traditional means, as desired attendees should be “in the know” enough to hear about it through alternative channels.

Shifting media landscape

One example of a recent, popular unconference is PubCamp D.C. The name PubCamp is common to a series of unconferences held around the world on the future of online media. The two-day Pubcamp D.C. event was held recently at American University’s Center for Social Media, organized by a product manager for The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS),  a digital media strategist for National Public Radio (NPR) and a pair of brother-entrepreneurs with a marketing agency called iStrategy Labs.

It was indicative of the shifting media landscape that PBS and NPR were among the public supporters of the event. PBS even sponsored scholarships for 10 attendees who promised to hold their own local PubCamps in places like Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi and Florida.

A massive Twitter conference, #TwtrCon, was held in Washington just days before Blog Potomac. At TwtrCon, businesses converged to share their success stories with Twitter strategies.

Produced by Modern Media Partners LLC, the event was highly participatory. At the Web site,, visitors were urged to get involved by suggesting content or a speaker. People planning to attend could embed a small “badge” on their personal blogs and Web sites announcing their participation. There was even an “open mic” event.

Offshoot groups

Offshoot groups thrive at unconferences. Take DC Media Makers, the “preeminent association of journalists, entertainers, advocates, documentarians and tech enthusiasts dedicated to video blogging and learning media literacy in Washington, DC.”

The group hosts monthly events with local speakers and trades knowledge on topics such as Web video production. On Wednesday, the group heard Aram Zucker-Scharff speak on his digital projects at George Mason University’s Office of Student Media.

The principles of Web 2.0 dictate that online interaction is shifting from a traditional sender-to-receiver flow to a two-way interaction where the playing field is leveled. Online, individuals can have just as much power as large companies.

Unconferences are just one example of how those principles have extended beyond the Internet to affect in-person interactions and traditional revenue streams.

Jackie Sauter is a Web marketing professional with the Kogod School of Business at American University. Follow her on [email protected]