Long before BarCamp, there were conferences. And they sort of sucked in various ways. Lots of people found that the interesting content at conferences wasn’t so much the formal presentations as the discussion that took place in the hallway, the “lobby track” as it has come to be known. It seems quite strange: you pay sometimes quite a sizeable amount of money to attend a conference, and then you don’t spend any time actually listening to the material presented at the conference.
But there is a problem with the lobby track that doesn’t exist with the formal tracks: it doesn’t necessarily scale to include everyone. If you are a little bit shy or socially awkward, perhaps you don’t get talked to if you try and enjoy the lobby track. What if there were events where the formal track and the lobby track were very, very similar?
Enter the unconference. The unconference is a conference that every attendee is allowed to participate in, much like anyone can have a blog, or anyone can edit Wikipedia. The distinction between speakers and listeners is blurred because if you are attending, you will probably be speaking also. Sessions are less like lectures and more like conversations. There are lots of small groups. To use an academic analogy, it is more like a seminar than a lecture; organisers and speakers are more like convenors than lecturers. The traditional conference panel is rarely present in unconferences.