An unconference is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose. The term "unconference" has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as high fees and sponsored presentations. The unconference format, a Web 2.0 communications toolkit, creates space for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity.
At the start, the whole group will gather together and be guided through creating an agenda using open space technology. The exact process is not important to understand in advance – the process becomes clear as it happens. The important part is that all those gathered have the opportunity to put conference sessions on the agenda. No session is voted off or ‘won’t happen’ for some other reason. All sessions are welcome. Open Space opens up the agenda creation process so that all those gathered can put forward ideas for sessions. Because the agenda is made live in real time it is direct relevance to those gathered that day (or at least for the person calling the session).
These inexpensive, informal gatherings - like BarCamp, BrainJams, and Foo Camp – are conceived as little as weeks in advance. All were started in the past few years by Valley types bored with the usual calendar of confabs. "We figured there was much more expertise in the audience than there possibly could be onstage," says BarCamp co-founder Ryan King. Unconferences break the barrier between the two. Attendees write topics they're interested in on boards, consolidate the topics, and then break into discussion groups. At traditional conferences, the most productive moments often occur in the corridor between meetings; at unconferences, attendees like to say, it's all corridor.
For technical communities that are collaborating and cooperating via Conference Calls, Wiki’s, Blog’s and other media it is virtually impossible to figure out the topics that will be hot and need face time six months, three months or even one month prior to an event. Live agenda creations helps them make effective use of face-time during the day of conferences instead of around the edges of events programed many months ahead of time.
The point is that no one just "attends" an unconference. The unconference movement is ruled by the "Law of two feet": if the people who attend feel they are not learning or not contributing, they leave. This is the primary reason why the content is most often so compelling. The spirit of it is that people are all equal, able to share their knowledge or help in any way they feel best serve the community (adapted from "6 pixels of separation" by Mitch Joel).
The term is primarily used in the geek community – with themes on early-stage web applications, and related open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats, though as of 2009 it has also started to appear in the travel industry. In December 2009, the first travel industry unconference was held in the Austrian Alps with an attendance of over 20 people from 10 countries.