Conferences are social grooming events for relatively hairless apes. A few will stand before the multitude, beaming with pride or shaking with nervousness (as the case may be), and present the latest research in contemporary ape thought. As their vocalizations reach a crescendo, those sitting demurely below will produce flesh-slapping noises that indicate they were paying attention (even if they weren’t). Another ape will then rise and this process will continue repeatedly and at length. It looks a lot like the modern political stump speech.
Increasingly, however, the rooms become more and more sparsely attended. Apes are social creatures and prefer to be directly involved rather than remain as passive observers. At this point you will be more likely to find them in various social groups imbibing stimulating drinks (those made from the waste product of yeast or from various South American bean species are the most popular). Now in their natural habitat, they produce vocalizations of their own. They might briefly reference one ape presentation or another, but will quickly move towards social grooming. For this, as all primates understand, is the main purpose of the conference.
"Alliances are established and maintained by grooming, the most social activity in which monkeys and apes engage," wrote Oxford evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar in his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. "In some species, as much as a fifth of the entire day may be spent grooming, or being groomed by, other group members."
By meeting other apes in your field, rifling metaphorically through their fur, and establishing closer bonds of friendship it serves to foster your connection with others as a social primate. Some are alpha members of their troop who are important to know; they may be in a position to bring you in and connect you with other influential apes if they’re suitably impressed. Others have information that may help you deal with issues in your own troop and, by connecting with them, it serves both of your interests. Still others simply enjoy the sense of belonging that comes from forging stronger bonds with fellow group members who they may not have seen in awhile. You can call it socialization, community building, or democracy. The bottom line, however, is that conferences are about one thing and one thing only: social grooming. Observing apes at the podium is just the excuse that brings them all together.
I recently attended Science Online, the annual fusion of science and social media held annually in Raleigh, North Carolina. Science Online, now in its sixth year, is a labor of love founded by Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker based on the concept of the unconference. What this means is that social grooming has been built into all aspects of the event. Each session is organized by whichever group members feel motivated to do so and, rather than present themselves as the possessors of all ape wisdom, the moderators serve as guides who help to direct the participatory discussion in a useful direction (or at least prevent it from becoming derailed). The unconference is built around the following principle:
The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.
Traditionally, such participatory organizing has only been possible by using the social media tools that allow those living in different cities, as well as different countries, to interact in a common forum. It should therefore come as no surprise that Science Online, as well as other unconferences that have developed over the years (such as SciFoo, BarCamp, or THATCamp) have been composed largely of people who are tech-savvy. But this is changing and has increasingly been applied to local DIY workshops and skillshares in cities from Brooklyn to Berkeley.
More recently this model of organizing has taken on a political dimension. Politics, after all, is a social activity. In 2009 Chris Hutchins developed the idea for LaidOffCamp in San Francisco, a workshop organized and attended by the newly unemployed to share skills ranging from how to live more simply (and cheaply) to job hunting techniques in a moribund economy. The idea quickly expanded and LaidOffCamp events went on to be organized in New York, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City (among others). But last year participatory organizing went mainstream. Occupy Wall Street used this same approach by making the person on stage a facilitator rather than a leader. By accepting proposals from the crowd, amplified by the human microphone in which those nearby repeat each sentence so that others can hear, the facilitator plays the role of fostering consensus on a course of action from the group as a whole. Harkening back to the motto of the populist Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, crowdsourcing makes "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown."
It is also the most natural form of organizing. As a species we evolved to thrive in social groups of just a few hundred individuals and "leadership" was a shifting notion that was based on merit and prestige. It was only with the invention of agriculture about 12,000 years ago that large, sedentary societies with firm hierarchies emerged and, along with them, a class of self-proclaimed experts. Hereditary god-kings, surrounded by a coterie of advisors and sycophants, became the perverse exaggeration of those loosely structured hierarchies that existed in our hunter-gatherer forebears. Merit was replaced by privilege and prestige could be inherited or bought instead of earned. Decisions were always top-down, representing the interests of those in power and only occasionally everybody else. Modern institutions--whether governmental, religious, commercial, or academic--are the inheritors of this vertical form of organization. The benefits of participatory, or "horizontal", organizing are that it more closely approaches the interests of those directly affected by the decisions being made, whether these are government and private industry employees or concerned citizens. The unconference is the horizontal approach to education.
For Science Online, as well as the other unconferences or skillshares that have emerged in recent years, the ultimate result is a more informed and actively engaged audience. It is when social grooming is fostered that our species truly thrives. "One of the most important hallmarks of an unconference are meaningful and productive conversations—whether they take place in large groups, small groups, or between two or three attendees," wrote Ethan Watrall, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "I think that unconferences fill an extremely important niche in the scholarly ecosystem." These are conversations that continue long after the physical event has ended, something I can't say for the more traditional approach that conferences usually take. After attending Science Online for five years in a row now, I can assure you that this is one ape who is eagerly looking forward to #scio13.