Unconferences Are the Ultimate Networking Experience

Photo: Connecting at PodCampI love a good “unconference.” Have you heard of this idea? They are taking place all over the world on every topic.

The peer-to-peer structure of an unconference makes for the ultimate learning and networking experience — even for an introvert like me!

Here’s my ode to unconferences (“BarCamps”) and the one I recently attended, called PodCamp Western Mass.

In February, I attended my second PodCamp, which is an “unconference” about social media.

I love this event for more than what I learn there. It’s the people connections (also called “networking”) that make it so valuable (and fun!) for me.

Conferences vs. Unconferences

We planned the day with sticky notes on a wall.

We planned the day together using sticky notes on a wall.

A little background about the differences:

  • Unconferences can be about any topic, just like a conference.
  • Unconferences are also called “BarCamps,” a tongue-in-cheek name based on the first one of its kind.
  • Conference organizers choose “expert” speakers in advance.
  • Whereas an unconference typically has people come together at the beginning of the day to decide what they want to learn and then people volunteer to lead the sessions.
  • At unconferences, often there’s more time and space for connecting casually between sessions. At conferences, the structure is not as conducive to peer socializing.
  • Typical conference sessions include “experts” talking at you in a big lecture hall.
  • Many BarCamp sessions have a discussion or roundtable structure to them. And sometimes a more experienced person leads a session for newbies, in the spirit of helping everyone gain a solid foundation.

Making Meaningful Connections at Unconferences

There’s something about the non-hierarchical style that draws the right energy for networking and long-lasting meaningful connections. More peer-to-peer friendliness and helpfulness; less showing off who knows more.

Of course, friendly styles and show-off styles happen at all events, but I find the friendly factor is more likely at an unconference.

Making in-person connections at an event like Podcamp and keeping the conversation going online is a powerful networking combination. Nothing will ever replace meaningful in-person connections, but you can too easily lose touch without adding something ongoing.

Combining online and offline networking is exactly what I talked about on a social media panel at PodCamp this year. (My next post explores that combination in detail.)

Want To Check Out an Unconference?

You can find or create a BarCamp on any topic you can think of. I’ve seen them on everything from yoga to real estate.

I hope I’ll see you at the next PodCamp Western Mass, which might be only six months away! The social media focus of PodCamp is relevant to nearly anyone. Everyone is welcome, whether 16 or 65, newbie or advanced.

Until the next PodCamp, many Western Mass PodCampers go to Western Mass Tweetups, where people who use Twitter hang out in person. Others are welcome too.

My PodCamp Western Mass Review

Having been to a big city BarCamp, I have to brag that my local PodCamp Western Mass (PCWM) is the best. I mean, we got t-shirts that said “This one time, at PodCamp…” Love it.

Perhaps it’s the smaller size, the focus on social media (which seems to draw particularly friendly people), or something about Western Mass being such a friendly culture. I’m sure it also has something to do with the dedicated and thoughtful organizers — Morriss Partee, Kelly Galanis, and Jaclyn Stevenson — not to mention tons more who helped.

What’s extra nice about an event about social media is that it’s natural for us to stay in regular contact via Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And then there’s all the fun stuff PodCampers make after the event: videos, photos, and blog posts from PodCamp Western Mass. Prolific, talented folks!

If I could change one thing about PCWM, there would be even more of that peer-to-peer energy in each session, such as classrooms set up as circles of peers instead of lined up in rows.

Well, if I’m going to have opinions, it might be time for me to help out with the planning. That would be the true spirit of a BarCamp — jump right in.

I have learned a lot of practical things at the PodCamps I’ve attended, but for me, the gold is in the personal connections I’ve developed that continue over time.

Thank you PodCampers for a great event!

What do you think about unconferences and/or PodCamp? Leave your comments below.

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  • lesleylambert

    I love these unconferences and all of the great new people I meet at them…people like YOU!

    • Hi Lesley! So glad I met you at PodCamp last year! Proving my point precisely.

  • jac

    Awesome post, Val! Funny, I've never thought of you as introverted – and I agree with the addition of peer-to-peer energy. See you soon, jac

    • Hi Jac, Thanks for chiming in. I met you at my first Tweetup and I continue to learn from you online and at PodCamp. Thank you for being one of the PodCamp organizers!

      I am an introvert but I'm not shy and I am very social. Shyness and introversion are not the same. An introvert recharges alone or in small groups and they prefer meaningful connections to lighter ones. Big events can be draining for me unless there are meaningful one-to-one connections that recharge me. Podcamp works perfectly.

  • Really nice, Val! And not too long…I especially like your explanation of an “unconference!”

    • Hey Dale. Great to meet you finally at PodCamp. Thanks for stopping by. Appreciate your expert feedback.

  • Having been to a couple of podcamps, I too enjoy the “unconference” feel, but really feel that there should be a pre-signup for people wanting to speak or have discussions…that way there can be more of a balance, and not so much chaos at the beginning of the day, and missed opportunities as the board changes thru the day.

    Maybe just a couple of room set up in advance, and others open.

    • Hi Reikob,
      Good points. At the unconferences I've been to, there has been some pre-planning. One of the events (in NYC) had too much pre-planning and it ended up feeling like a regular conference to me.

      It would be good to find that balance between inclusion and efficiency.

      At PodCamp Western Mass, about 5 sessions were pre-planned, in order to ensure well-planned coverage of key topics. There is also an online sign-up for people to submit topic ideas to get the ball rolling.

      I think there are ways to address chaos at the beginning of the day, such as good facilitation of the opening planning session.

  • dancummings

    Nice wrap up Val. I have attended several BarCamps and conferences but Western Mass ranks as one of the better functions both from a fun and financial standpoint. The technical sessions are on the same caliber as “big city” events and the after party was great. One extra tidbit I did learn was not to bother with bar hopping once the party is started because the magic of the day is lost in the move. Looking forward to attending the next camp.

  • Great additions Dan. Thanks for adding that. It was great to meet you there!

  • dancummings

    Nice wrap up Val. I have attended several BarCamps and conferences but Western Mass ranks as one of the better functions both from a fun and financial standpoint. The technical sessions are on the same caliber as “big city” events and the after party was great. One extra tidbit I did learn was not to bother with bar hopping once the party is started because the magic of the day is lost in the move. Looking forward to attending the next camp.

    • Great additions Dan. Thanks for adding that. It was great to meet you there!

  • Thanks for pointing our your post to us! I think you hit it on the nose with “There’s something about the non-hierarchical style that draws the right energy for networking and long-lasting meaningful connections. More peer-to-peer friendliness and helpfulness; less showing off who knows more.”

    • Glad you found it helpful RezBiz. Your upcoming unconference on resilient business in Western Mass looks awesome!

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