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ScienceOnline2012 - the Unconference, the Community

For many years people who attend conferences - including scientific conferences - noticed something interesting: the best discussions were those that occurred outside of lecture halls. Conversations that happened in the hallways, at the hotel bar, on a bus going to see a local attraction, or, if you are lucky with the location, on the beach, were informative, exciting and useful. This is where real information got exchanged, where younger members learned the "lore" and "tacit knowledge" from their elders in the field, where people started real connections, even friendships, where plans got hatched to start new collaborative projects, and more.

Experienced conference-goers can rarely be found in the actual conference rooms, or, if that would sometimes happen, they could be seen dozing off in the back row, or amusing themselves with the technology of the day (doodling on their notepad, later laptops, later iPhones/iPads). The speakers would prepare slideshows, the student presenters would all dress up and then sweat, the organizers would do their best to promote the sessions, only to see the rooms half-empty because everyone is having much more productive conversations out in the hallway.

So, some smart people a few years back decide to do something about this. Why not scratch most or all of the boring lecturing from the program, and instead move the hallway discussions into the conference rooms? Thus, the Unconference format was born. There are several different methods to organizing and participating in an Unconference (I provided some "Related" links at the bottom if you want to learn more, especially if you intend to organize an unconference yourself), but here I want to focus on the format we use at ScienceOnline conferences. While this post is public for everyone to read and think about and perhaps implement some of it in the future, the real target audience for this post are the participants (and even more: session moderators) of ScienceOnline2012, especially as more than half of the attendees this year are first-timers and may not be familiar with the format.

Building the Program

Some Unconferences build the program after the meeting starts, once everyone is in the room, using markers and a white-board over about an hour to put together a program. This can work wonderfully for a one-off local tech conference, but it has some serious drawbacks when organizing a large, international annual meeting with a particular topic. For example, this method privileges aggressive, A-type, middle-aged, white males over all the others who may not want to be so quick dashing to the board and grabbing the markers. Some topics may not be appropriate (for ScienceOnline each topic has to have a science component and an online component, not just one of the two).

Year after year the same topics would be rehashed over and over again - an annual conference needs some work to make each year new and fresh and creative and cutting-edge (and balanced - not everything should be about blogging or journalism as there are many other topics), one year's topics are building on top of the topics already covered previously, making sure that there is interesting stuff both for the veterans and for the newcomers. Some people are paying a lot of money out of their own pockets to travel large distances, including from other continents - we cannot leave to chance the quality of the program, so this has to be done in advance.

But this does not mean that we invent the program out of our own heads. Instead, we just funnel the energy of the community. The program is crowdsourced and community-built. We put up the Program Suggestions page on the wiki early on (in March, I believe) and let the people edit the page and add their suggestions, start talking to each other and plotting (many of those ideas were first hatched on Twitter before getting added to the wiki - this shows the importance of following the #scio12 hashtag throughout the year - there are more than 10,000 tweets using this hashtag already, and the meeting is yet to start in two weeks).

In August and September we started contacting some of the people who posted interesting suggestions and helped them develop their ideas and build really interesting sessions. By October or so, this produced a rough draft of the program. By November, the final Program was set in stone. Now everyone can start preparing in advance for the sessions - it is very important to come prepared, as the quality of the discussion is dependent on the sum of the knowledge and wisdom of the people in the room (very important link to a post to read carefully), for which preparation in advance is an important factor.

Moderators of all the sessions are encouraged to start their own individual wiki pages where they can add more information, links, documents, ask questions, start the discussion in advance. Several have already done so (see examples here, here, here, here, here and here - there should be more soon). Once more of those single-session pages are built, we will also link to them from this nifty and useful Agenda which you can use to personalize your own schedule (watch this video to get the most out of it).

Sessions - how to moderate, how to participate

There are three types of sessions this year. First, there are Blitz-talks on Friday afternoon (color-coded right now as light blue on the Agenda, but the color may change). These are fast 15-minute presentations done in a more traditional style, hoping that the discussions will commence afterwards in the hallways (and oh yeah, some of them WILL!).

Then, there are several workshop-style sessions (provisionally lavender-ish color on the Agenda) where the people in front have skills that the people in the room are trying to learn. Just because this is more of a classroom-type situation does not mean that the session cannot be lively and interactive, as other people in the room are encouraged to ask questions and inject their own knowledge from the beginning. At previous iterations of the meeting, that is exactly what happened in each workshop.

But the majority of sessions (right now coded with banana-yellow on the Agenda, though this may change) are meant to be in a truly unconference mode: the people in front are not speakers or lecturers, they are moderators. Use of PowerPoint is strongly discouraged - if something needs to be shown, it usually can be quickly found and shown on the Web. Moderators will start the session with a brief introduction to the topic and the goals of the session, and will be ready to instantly respond to the questions and comments from the room. Their job is to make sure that the discussion goes smoothly, that it stays on topic, that no individual (including themselves) hijacks the conversation, and, in the best of all worlds, to end the session either with a resolution, an answer to a question, or with something actionable that the people in the room can commit to do or build over the following few weeks or months of collaborative work online. The session ends when people decide it's over. Yes, the session physically ends when the time is up, but the discussion can spill into subsequent related sessions, or continue in the hallways and online as long as people want to continue - some topics go on in the blogosphere for many months after the session ends. Be prepared.

This year, for the first time (though we toyed with the idea before), we implemented three new rules which should help make the Program and the sessions more lively. First, we set a limit to two moderators per session. Tendency to build large panels (which allows more people to register as moderators, with a guaranteed slot) is not conducive to free-flowing discussion. By the time all the panelists have their say, half the allocated time is over and it is hard to get the discussion going. We've had a couple of panels in the past that were done well and were interactive, but those were done by organizational geniuses and we cannot be sure that can always happen. If moderators want the knowledge and wisdom of particular people to be tapped into during their session, they are encouraged to ask those people to register, come to their session, sit in the room with everyone else, and be prepared to be productive contributors to the conversation.

Second, we set a limit to two sessions per moderator. This way we avoided the situation in which many sessions are led by the same usual suspects. Instead, many sessions are going to be moderated by new people, bringing in fresh perspectives and voices, thus rejuvenating the conference and making it more interesting and more fun. Due to this year's growth-spurt of the meeting, more than half of the attendees will be first-timers, which should prevent the veterans from forming cliques and dominating the discourse.

Third, we discourage Skyping in people. First, Skype is a drain on the wifi (and that is expensive). Second, it stilts the discussion and has to be done with care and not everyone knows how to do it well. It is not 100% reliable it will work. And, although we may do it in an emergency (e.g., if a moderator gets stuck and cannot show up at the last moment), we did not want any session moderators to plan in advance on skyping in other people, or having virtual co-moderation (hard to moderate a discussion when one cannot see/hear/feel the room, anyway).

Oh, and it is perfectly OK to enter or leave the room in the middle of the session - if the discussion goes in the direction you are not interested in, don't waste your time, but go to another session instead. It's fine. No, really, it's OK.

Virtual participation

As I noted before, ScienceOnline is a kind of conference that is ongoing online throughout the year, mainly on Twitter using the official hasthtag #scio12, as well as on blogs and other online platforms. Once a year, the physical interaction gets added to this. Both Anton Zuiker and I find great value in meeting online friends in person. It raises the subsequent quality of online discourse to a higher level and allows magical things to happen - from personal friendships, to gigs and jobs, to business start-ups, to scientific collaborations and more. Meeting in person makes a community grow stronger.

But we are also aware that not everyone can come to the conference. There is limited space (about 450 people this year which is huge growth from 320 last year). Some people have to be elsewhere. Some people just live too far away. But they are part of this community, so they cannot and should not be cut off from the proceedings. The attendees themselves do most of the communication out of the conference, on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, FriendFeed, Flickr, YouTube, blogs and more. Everyone is encouraged to relay as much as possible about the event to the online audiences in as real-time as humanely possible. Some sessions will probably be livestreamed and most or all sessions will be recorded in one way or another. And we will have volunteers whose task will be to produce blog posts, Storify-s of tweets, photography, podcasts and videos of the event. There will also be a variety of ways for people to post their artistic renderings of the meeting online as well (e.g., sketches, aka, livescribes of the sessions). And as many in the attendance are professional journalists, we expect, as in the past years, that MSM articles will appear soon afterward.

That is information going out. How about information coming in? There will be a Twitterfall in the hallway, but there will be none in the session rooms (for a good reason). With our attendees being so hooked online, with everyone livetweeting or liveblogging, essentially everyone in the room will be monitoring the outside twitterverse (and Facebook, G+, blogs etc) and will be ready to instantly reply. As long as people use the #scio12 hashtag, everyone in the room will be able to see their tweets, perhaps insert Twitter-posted questions into the live discussion in the room. That seemed to work the last couple of years, and should work again. Moreover, all the moderators will be instructed to pay attention to the online discussion themselves, as they have the power to move discussion in different direction in response to the online chatter.

Again this year, our friends at SignalShare will provide rocket-speed wifi at the venue. They usually do bigger events, like Super Bowl and Grammys, but from their perspective, although numerically smaller in regard to the number of people on site, we are a big event. Every year they are flabbergasted as to how much data this crowd can push through the intertubes in such a small period of time. This is a very connected crowd and people are constantly tweeting, blogging, uploading photos, podcasts and videos, and more. Not to mention livestreaming. No building has native wifi that can support this kind of crowd, but with the help of SignalShare, wifi will rock.

The ScienceOnline Community

ScienceOnline2012 is a community-organized, community-planned, community-funded, community-owned and community-run conference. The ethos of the meeting is that this is an egalitarian community. Nobody is VIP, nobody is a priori a superstar. One becomes a superstar by virtue of being here (including virtually, yes). Participating in ScienceOnline is a badge of honor and a matter of pride - it means "I am a part of the small but cutting-edge community that is changing the worlds of science and science communication". Even those who tend to get treated as VIPs by other conferences - New York Times and The New Yorker columnists, senior scientists, Pulitzer Prize winners, familiar NPR voices, CEOs, top bloggers - love the fact that, once a year, they are equal to undergrads, high school students (and their teachers), beginner bloggers, programmers, artists, librarians, and others in the community. Everyone is a superstar in their own domain, and a n00b in others. Everyone has something to teach and something to learn. It is a lot of fun. A lot of networking goes on. A lot of intense learning goes on. Many, many collaborations and projects got started here, and those often turned into gigs and jobs later on. Some of those projects would then be first announced to the world at the next meeting.

This is one conference where personal finances do not (or at least should not, in theory) determine who can and who cannot come. This is what the community is for - to help each other. Those who can, donate their registration fees (and often more) towards the travel fund for those who cannot afford the trip. Students, freelancers, and others, come from all over the world - apart from people coming from all over the USA and Canada, we always have someone from the U.K., Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Serbia. We've had attendees in the past traveling from Brazil, Poland, Sweden, South Africa, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, and this year we also expect people from Denmark, Australia and Mauritius. It is a global community, each helping the others come here if possible, perhaps being recipients of such help in the previous years as people's fortunes change over time.

Every aspect of the conference is underwritten by small sponsorships from many, many organizations, big and small, preventing any one organization from starting to dominate and thus dictate the agenda. This model of funding is not only in line with the ethos of the conference but also the first step in putting together a new system of funding. Whenever old systems break and new ones are arising, many people in the new system do not have regular jobs because such jobs do not yet exist - they are in the process of inventing them. Others in the new system, the pioneers, make sure that all the others are well taken care of before they collectively build a new system that actually creates jobs for everyone within it. This is one of the things that ScienceOnline meeting is all about.

As the Program is built by the community on the wiki over several months, and as all the extra-curricular activities, old and new, initially started as ideas from the community, everyone contributes ideas and realization of those ideas. This is why everyone feels it is their meeting. They feel an ownership of it. They do not come as guests, to see what we have prepared for them. Instead they come as hosts (even though they may live in Vancouver or Warsaw or Amsterdam or Sydney), ready to run this show. And the locals feel it doubly - for a couple of days each year, all the eyes are on the Triangle, for everyone to see what an amazing center of science, tech, and innovation this is.


If the point of an Unconference is to take the hallway, tour-bus and hotel-bar discussions and move them into the conference rooms, then it makes sense to get the discussions started in the hallways first. To do that we have, in the past, dedicated the first day (or more) to the opportunities to mingle: Early-Bird dinner, workshops, tours, finally a Keynote, all of those happening before the official program started. This gave people plenty of time to arrive, rest, relax, get comfortable, start schmoozing and networking, serendipitously meeting other interesting people on the tour buses, etc. By the time the first session starts, the discussions have already been going on for some time, and it was easy to move them into conference rooms and continue - on a particular topic each hour.

One drawback to this kind of schedule is that not everyone would come to the first day of the meeting. Not having scheduled sessions felt to some like this was not an essential part of the conference (it is), so some people would arrive just in time for the main program (this included a lot of locals) at which point they can be confused and disoriented because they have missed all the informal discussions and socializing of the previous day.

The move to a new, bigger venue, as well as a great increase in the number of people attending in person, provided us with new challenges - how to let the meeting grow without losing the community spirit and the opportunities for serendipitous meetings, for networking and schmoozing. Also, how to make sure people understand that the informal events are an essential part of the meeting, not just the sessions?

We decided to try to expand the meeting to three full days (well, it always was three days, but it did not look like that on paper) and to have formal and informal aspects of the conference alternate - a little bit of sessions, then a little bit of something informal, then more sessions, more informal stuff, etc. This way, everyone will be here from the beginning to the end, and nobody will miss out on the important informal parts of the conference (one would have to actively leave in order to miss them, not just fail to show up). This also provides for continuous discussions going into and out of the session rooms for quite a while. Fortunately, it seems that many people are arriving on Wednesday afternoon (or even earlier) so the informal chatting can start early. We hope this works - fingers crossed.

On top of that, we (and when I say "we" I mean Karyn Traphagen, the Master of Ceremonies and an organizational genius) have planned on some creative use of space. McKimmon Center is large and was recently renovated (I remember when it was a deadly boring space - it is much more cozy and lively now). It has many interesting spaces and lots of nooks and crannies. Central to our conference - more central than any of the conference rooms - will be the large Cafe room. It will, apart from coffee flowing all day every day (and other drinks, water, cookies, candy and more), have all sorts of nice places to sit and chat in small groups, for individuals to sit down and use laptops, for others to see, touch, hear, explore stuff, leaf through books, watch attendee-produced art, monitor Twitterfall, and more (I myself do not know everything about this - I know Karyn will surprise us all with some of the things in there). This will be the Central-place foraging spot (from which people will go "foraging" to sessions and other events), the "activity hub" and the "home" for everyone. This is where you start and end your day, and where you come to take a break and meet people. I am looking forward to seeing you all in there.


ScienceOnline'09 - Saturday 2pm, and on the organization of an Unconference

On organizing and/or participating in a Conference in the age of Twitter

ScienceOnline2010 - what to do while there, what to do if you are not there but are interested?

Making it real: People and Books and Web and Science at ScienceOnline2010

Looking ahead to #scio12: the nature of the unconference.

What is an unconference?

Why "unconferences" are fun conferences

Wikipedia: Unconference

The Unconference Blog

Understanding the Unconference

Learn more:



Planning Wiki

Draft Program

See who's registered

Waitlist sign-up

Facebook page

FriendFeed group

Tumblr coverage blog

Google Plus official page

Google Plus circle of participants

Twitter account

#scio12 hashtag

Twitter repository

Twitter list of participants

Previous conferences

Nice things people said about ScienceOnline2010

ScienceOnline2011 on YouTube

ScienceOnline2011 on Flickr

ScienceOnline2011 official recordings

Previously in this series:

What is: ScienceOnline2012 – and it’s coming soon!

ScienceOnline participants’ interviews

Some updates on #scio12, #NYCscitweetup, Story Collider and more.

Updates: ScienceOnline2012, Science blogging, Open Laboratory, and #NYCSciTweetup

ScienceOnline2012 - we have the Keynote Speaker!

Mathematics - Algebra and Statistics and more - at ScienceOnline2012

Information, data and technology at ScienceOnline2012

Health and Medicine at ScienceOnline2012

Education at ScienceOnline2012

Movies and Video at ScienceOnline2011

Sound and Music at ScienceOnline2012

Visual Communication at ScienceOnline2012

Submissions for the Cyberscreen Science Film Festival are now OPEN!

Scientists and the Media, at ScienceOnline2012

Writing, narrative and books at ScienceOnline2012

Outreach, activism and persuasion at ScienceOnline2012

Updates: #scio12, #soNYC, #NYCSciTweetup and more.

Making it in the new media ecosystem, at ScienceOnline2012

ScienceOnline2012 Call for Entries: Science-Art Show!

Science + Storytelling + Good (Food & Drink) = The Monti at ScienceOnline2012 Banquet

Just one week left to submit for the Cyberscreen Science Film Festival!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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