Peter Bihr and Max Krüger have written a 43 page handbook on how to organize your own independent conference: The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook.

You can download it for free as PDF, or an e-reader friendly version for a small fee.

It’s great Peter and Max wrote down their experiences. This May when I visited their ThingsCon conference, and later that week Re:Publica, both in Berlin, I realised how long it had been that I went to a conference where I was a mere participant (which I was at these 2 events), and not somehow involved in organizing it or speaking at it. I also realized how long it has been since I visited a ‘proper’ conference.

Independent events have been the mainstay of my curriculum of professional learning. Visiting Reboot conferences in Copenhagen, SHiFT in Lisbon, the BlogTalk conferences in Vienna, a range of community initiated open data conferences across Europe (over 50 in 2011 and 2012 alone), more BarCamps than I can list, Cognitive Cities and ThingsCon by a.o. the aforementioned Peter Bihr, State of the Net in Trieste, all had one thing in common: there was no real difference between my speaking and my participating and there was no difference between the organizers and the community present.

Usually this happens,in Peter’s words, “for a simple reason: each time we were looking for an event — a focal point where we could meet like-minded people or those with shared interests — we could not find one“. Because quite often the right setting simply isn’t there, or the organizers actually don’t have your learning or interaction as a goal. Because you’re interested in emergent themes around which there isn’t enough going on yet for established conference organizers to see an opportunity. The last ‘proper’ conferences I went to on my own accord were in 2004 and 2005, when I and others proferred it is “cheaper to host your own event than visit one“. Conference and event organizing turned into just one of those things you do in your community, and for me now really requires of the organizers to have a role and be part of that community. I haven’t looked back, and all the events I visit voluntarily are indie events.


During my opening remarks at Make Stuff That Matters, birthday unconference 2014 in our home, by Paolo Valdemarin

Over the years, with others I have organized a lot of indie events as well. Examples are many workshops, the first open data barcamps in the Netherlands (which over time became the Open State Foundation), Data Drinks (now bringing together some 250 people in Copenhagen), international conferences for some 350 people in Rotterdam and Warsaw (because doing it in a city or country where you don’t reside and have no contacts gives it that little extra edge 😉 ), the global FabLab Conference in 2009 (where as additional obstacle course we opted to spread the event over 4 Dutch cities with buses transporting participants and on-board workshops), the BlogWalk series of 2004-2008 in 11 cities on 3 continents, and of course the three Birthday Unconferences Elmine and I organized right in our own home (2008, 2010, 2014).

Elmine and I were so energized from doing those birthday unconferences we created an e-book (download PDF) on how to do it. Mostly to find an outlet for that energy we felt, and as a gift to all who had been there. Even then we saw it was a welcome document although focussing on a very specific type of indie event.


How to Unconference Your Birthday e-book, properly printed and bound

And now Peter and Max have written down their experiences in the Indie Conference Organizer Handbook. This is a great gift to all of us out there visiting, participating and trying our hand at our own events. Let’s make good use of it!

BlogWalk

We have decided to formally end the BlogWalk series.

After 11 sessions, bringing over 250 people interested in social media from all kinds of academic and business backgrounds together across three continents, we look back on a series of very inspiring meetings, that generated all kinds of spin-off and combinations of people collaborating.

When we, Lilia Efimova, Sebastian Fiedler, and Ton Zijlstra, started this in March 2004 it was a different environment. We felt the need to create a space for free format conversations between professionals around shared interest relating to social media. Then that type of space was scarce. Most conferences gave wall to wall death by powerpoint, leaving next to no room for real exchanges between participants. Informal meetings were just that, informal, leaving no room for any real exchanges around professional themes. We also felt the need to be able to meet those that we interacted with intensively on-line in a face to face setting.

The BlogWalk sessions served that purpose well. Our connections to eachother strengthened a lot. There are many BlogWalk participants I am in regular contact with, and there are a good number of them that I regard as colleagues and close professional peers.

The need we felt in 2004 however has been addressed, and the environment nowadays is different from back then. It seems that creating your own event, your own un-conference, has become more normal, and more accepted as a viable format for professional exchange and learning. I find, in fact, that a majority of the events I go to these days follow that free flowing format. Not quite a BlogWalk format though, as we aimed to really open the space up completely, with next to no structuring and programming beforehand. Free enough however to feel our needs from 2004 addressed. And it already showed in the frequency of the BlogWalk sessions in these past years. In 2006 and 2007 we only did one session. That is different from the 5 we did per year before that.

It was fun, it was inspiring, it was extremely valuable. I am glad we three had the chance of doing this in Enschede, Nuremberg, Vienna, London, Umea, Chicago, Mechelen, Sydney, Innsbruck, Seattle, Bonn and Amsterdam. (See a list of all BlogWalk salons) Now it’s time to let BlogWalk as an event go. I’m pretty sure we will keep meeting like this from now on, there is however no need to call it BlogWalk anymore. Even if we may do so every now and then.

Thanks to all of you who participated!

Taking Bohemianism to be a mindset more than a (forced or chosen) lifestyle, as described in the previous BlogWalk posting, I’ll now have a look at the things I took out of the meeting.
Speed, Space and Scale were the three words that sum BlogWalk up for me.

Space
Space is about physical, temporal and psychological space.
In the physical sense it is interesting to see the ways in which traditional offices are left behind as working places. To be not only replaced by parks, coffee bars, and homes, but also by new office concepts. Such as the Queen Street Commons on Prince Edward Island, or the WorkSpace in Vancouver, and the idea Thomas kicked around of having a coffee bar with a few meeting spaces and office materials. People working in these spaces are not looking for permanent places, but for spots with the right infrastructure.
In the same way they create their own infrastructure such as FON in stead of office LANs, and Plazes, IM and YASNs in stead of water coolers.
A second aspect to physical space is the felt need to travel. Social networks span the globe, not as a replacement but as a widening of more local networks. Travel becomes a must, because more social contacts generate more face to face meetings. Going abroad for meet-ups, be them Reboot(s), BlogWalks, BlogTalks, BarCamps or the odd day off or other, is less luxury than necessity, and a natural side-effect of the ever widening virtual networks. This brings new priorities to budgets and leads to new evaluations of decisions.
In the temporal sense space is about creating the time to focus in the midst of the constant and immense stream of (presence) information that is so easy to get absorbed by. (This relates to speed as well: space is created by slowing down at the right moments)
Psychological space to me is about balancing inside out and outside in perspectives, your social networks, periods of divergence and convergence, and being able to not worry about things that require attention but may have slipped your mind. Creating new information strategies befitting the new world of information abundance fall in this category, as well as things like Getting Things Done, and 43 Things.
In all these three areas we see new routines and tools popping up.

Speed
Speed refers to both slow and fast. I enjoyed the book Tyranny of the Moment by Eriksen a lot, and Digital Bohemiens seem to be experimenting their way to routines in dealing with the effects of speed.
The fact that life is speeding up is to me the unavoidable side-effect of the increase in the number of connections between people, as made possible by the internet. Roman roads, railroads, global shipping, telegraph, they all had the same effect: speeding up life, by the additional dynamics and transactions these new connections caused. The internet does this on an unprecedented level, as it potentially connects each human with each other human at the speed of light.
For a Digital Bohemien this slow and fast phases are highly pronounced. All the communication and social interaction is at high speed. The e-mail, the IM, the YASNs, the Twitterin, blogging and continuous sharing of micro-formatted information. If you aren’t careful your whole day is consumed by this constant stream of unlimited interaction. So again the challenge is to balance this with enough slow time to create results and be productive outside of your communicative tasks. Slow time to focus, to reflect, to prioritize, to write, to create. Mind you, focussing is not a solitary task by definition.
Scale
Scale actually impacts both Space and Speed. The term came up in the afternoon discussion. Because scaling ultimately never is only a question of increasing quantity. At a certain level the quantity creates a qualitative shift. Information when scaled to the level of abundance as it is now, requires not just more of the same information processes we are used to, but new information strategies that take this scale into acount. A qualitative shift.
For the Digital Bohemiens this is true for their infrastructure (building new ones with different design principles like modularity, openness, interexchangeability.), travel (from incidental travel to a travelling existence with a city as local anchor point), social networks (global span, 24/7), and the balance between dynamics and more slow time (where dynamics isn’t the incident but the norm, and focussed prioritized time requires switching of). All these signify qualitative shifts that have quantitative origins, where Digital Bohemiens are experimenting and groping towards new rhythms and routines. This is the way the change of self leads to societal change.

Speed Space and Scale are the three words that summarize the things that inspired me at BlogWalk in Amsterdam last week. But first some thoughts about the theme Digital Bohemiens.
The theme of this BlogWalk was Digital Bohemiens. In Germany a book (Wir nennen es Arbeit, We Call it Work) has been published that describes the large group of creatives in Berlin that work independently, free-lancing, and see the city’s cafés and parks as their offices which they inhabit with their laptops. Romantic as this may sound, it is good to note that this behaviour is at least partly the result of structural problems on the German labour market for new members of the work force.
To me it seemed a useful theme as it creates images in your mind easily about what type of person you are talking about. To me the theme merely served that role, and the part of the group discussion that tried to come up with definitions of a Digital Bohemien was not for me. Looking deeper into the behaviour of the, let’s say, avant garde of internet users is for me a way to create a notion of the type of behaviour that will become mainstream. The bohemian, outsider’s part of it all is therefore perhaps romantic, but not my main concern. Especially since the outsider’s part has rough edges that are often frustrating and hard to escape. Ana-Despina Tudor words this well, almost poetic, and Bicyclemark said as much during the day itself.

That is why I ridiculed the notion of Bohemianism somewhat last Friday, typefying Bohemians wearing floppy hats and Howard Rheingold shoes (mind you: Howard is a worthwile rolemodel in this digital age, the pun is about his shoes, not him). And why I came up with the idea of creating a bumper sticker “Ex Bohemian” to stick on your SUV.
I concur with Gabriela Avram, who formulates digital bohemianism as a mindset more. Looking at that mindset we can look at how that manifests itself in behaviour. Manifests itself in Speed, Space and Scope. I’ll leave that for the next posting.

(both photos by Elmine)


(photo by James Burke)
After each BlogWalk, in looking back, I not only feel the need to reflect on the theme and the conversations, but also on the format.
All BlogWalk sessions are in a free format for most of the day, with a walk around town after lunch.
To be able to keep the format as open as possible we need to arrange a number of things up front, so that the space we create during the session itself feels ‘safe’ and comfortable to move around in.
The first prerequisite is making sure everybody can know who is coming to the session. Therefore BlogWalks are by invitation only.
Another important part is the dinner on the evening before. It allows people to already get to know eachother a bit better, to establish context and a notion of shared understanding and language.
For those that missed the welcoming dinner it takes a bit more time to get an overview of the group during the day itself. Lilia felt this I think when she proposed an introduction round at the start of the morning, where I thought that would only keep us from diving into the ‘real thing’ immediately.

Morning session (photo by Elmine)
The expectations participants bring with them are important too. Some are not used to a meeting with no predefined agenda or desired outcome, though I think most immediately take to it. It only becomes a problem if participants do not really feel that it is their own responsibility to make the day worthwile for themselves.
I as an organizer don’t feel responsible for the success of the session itself (whatever the shape or form success has for each participant). I do feel responsibility being host to the event, and in making sure all is set for the social part of the event. So that participants may feel at home quickly. Getting something out of the day, and helping others to do the same is not my task as a facilitator, but it is part of my role as a participant.

Lunch: long tables (photo by Elmine)
Riina in her reflections on the BlogWalk session mentioned that she did not care much for the seating arrangement during lunch, and for the length of the group discussion in the afternoon.
She, like me, I think prefers 1 on 1 conversation to group sessions. At the same time I have seen in previous BlogWalks people generally feel the need to do a group discussion in the afternoon. Might be they implicitly think that that is the only way to make sure you don’t miss anything from the conversations, or it may be it is needed as part of the group-forming process. Another, simple explanation, is that people simply want to sit for a while after the walk through town, and need some time to rest.
However it is up to Riina and me as participants to change the situation if we feel it is not useful for us anymore. Which begs the question why Riina and I did not end up in a private conversation in a corner of the room e.g. Were we not attuned enough to the other(s)?
Also talking about the long benches which were difficult to get out of, my first reaction is that it’s ones’own responsibility to break out of situations you do not feel comfortable in. I moved around quite a bit during lunch. As an organizer, the lesson I take from this, is that next time I will discuss seating arrangements (multiple tables, easy to move) with the places we go to. The same was true for the dinner on Friday night.

Afternoon group discussion (photo by Elmine)
My general conclusion, based on suggestions Johnnie Moore gave, and discussion afterwards with Sebastian, is to fiercely resist the urge to add more structure during the day itself. I think we need to do less in terms of structure and guidance during the day. We do need to do more up front and afterwards, in managing expectations, helping people get acquainted quickly, setting the scope of the theme, and offering a space to continue the exchanges after the event. Because this time around we had, in contrast with the first BlogWalk sessions, a number of participants with no fitting on-line space available to do that for themselves. So we need to play host to the group of participants longer than the session itself.
So my list for next time:

  • Manage expectations and self-responsibility better
  • Keep a steady communication going in the weeks before the session, feeding info piece-meal and building energy
  • Invite everybody to explore the theme up front and write about it, as well as exporing the on-line spaces of other participants
  • Try to get as many participants as possible to the pre-BlogWalk dinner on the night before
  • Add a conversational space to the BlogWalk.eu platform in which closed group conversation can take place before and after the event
  • Do less structure during the day itself
  • Take physical surroundings for meals and during the session in to account
  • Build a rough template/script for all this


Continueing conversations on the tram (photo by Elmine)
Summary: Create the open space (physical, mental and timewise) for BlogWalk by adding more structure to the preparations, and taking structure out of the day itself.

Right from the very first BlogWalk in 2004, I have always been amazed about the effort in time, travel and money people are willing to make to attend a BlogWalk session. It was no different for me at BlogWalk Eleven, in Amsterdam last Friday.
With people coming in this time from such diverse directions as Ireland, Paris, Brussels, London, Copenhagen, Estonia and Bucharest, as well as from all over the Netherlands, mostly just for the one day, I cannot but feel humbled.

Johnnie Moore and Thomas Madsen-Mygdal in conversation (photo: Elmine)
Not that I think all these people are making that effort just for Sebastian, Lilia and me. They are making that effort because they trust themselves to be able to turn meeting 25 interesting people into a day full of worthwile conversations. That we three can be host to those conversations is already enough to feel humbled.

group conversation (photo: Elmine)
So my thanks go out to those that attended the dinner on Thursday, the day long session and/or the dinner on Friday night. Of course the first impressions can be found on-line already. Both Gabriela Avram, as well as Riina Vuorikari have published their impressions of BlogWalk. Bernie DeKoven created an interesting posting based on the Twitter-messages his colleague Gerrit Visser sent from the venue. And then there are the numerous pictures on Flickr. I could not take any pictures myself due to a problem with my camera (no, it wasn’t the batteries).

Bicyclemark (with cap) giving a guided tour. (photo: Elmine)
I also want to publicly thank again Peter Kaptein for providing us with the space in his building at Instant Interfaces, and Mark, better known as Bicyclemark, for the guided walk through the back streets of Amsterdam.
This morning I transcribed the text of all the post-its that were created from the discussion and conversations. They can be found in the BlogWalk wiki. I hope they can be triggers for further interaction.

Filling the windows with post-its (aka the WindowsWiki) (photo: Sebastian)
In the coming two posts I will add some thoughts on the way the format of the session worked this time, and of course talk about my own take-aways from last Friday.

Mark Wubben, Alper Cugun, Carla Hoekstra and Riina Vuorikari walking in conversation (photo: Elmine)