A social conference is a physical embodiment of the web 2.0 world and like the web itself presents a unique and invigorating opportunity to communicate and connect. Is this the future of conferencing?

Last week I attended my very first social conference, a fascinating and refreshing format for learning and thought exchange that will no doubt grow in popularity as attendees of such events evangelise about its effectiveness.

The theme of the conference was  the likely impact that the BRIC Countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are likely to have on the world and  our lives as they realise their economic potential.

A central theme was:

“As hundreds of millions of new skilled workers join the global labour pool and more and better jobs become outsourced, what are the implications for our young people’s education, career choices and well being?”

The topic was interesting but the format was fascinating and in many ways can be seen as the physical embodiment of the participative web 2.0 world of blogs, wikis, podcasts, MySpace and YouTube.  

Indeed prior to the conference itself, the highly accessible and usable conference website (developed in Drupal) set the scene and allowed attendees (the cast) to start deciding the themes for discussion, uploading their profiles, blogging, and meeting each other online. As with most social conferences, the agenda was set through the pre-conference online discussion, providing a groundwork for further engagement at the actual conference.

The social conference, hosted at Channel 4, followed the Open Space format developed by Harrison Owen, and started similar to a Quaker meeting, with a single microphone encircled by about a hundred people. After the introductory presentation from the hosts and moderators from Policy Unplugged attendees were invited to propose a series of themes or questions that were then written up and signposted throughout the space. The larger group then dispersed to a series of discussion sessions running in parallel. 

The thought provoking topics included:

  • Is technology killing basic skils?
  • What will happen to national education when countries become irrelevant?
  • How do we adapt our children’s learning to 60 Million PhDs from the BRIC economies?

On the separate tables there was active and animated discussion and debate the various topics, and where possible attendees arrived at a consensus or recommendations to the topic. Most refreshingly people were encouraged to use the “Law of 2 feet” and move between the topic groups to find the one they find most interesting or to which they want to contribute. I was one of these’ ‘bumblebees’ and truly enjoyed hearing the engaging, open thought being expressed. The format works particularly well for policy and social enterprise topics such as this where it is the idea and the ability to express and debate it that matters the most. 

Compared to standard conferences, where you sit passively and politely as you hear a series of experts speak, and maybe get a chance to ask some questions at the end, this was far more dynamic and engaging. In fact it seems most of the time when I do attend conferences the best part is the coffeee break where you get to talk individually or in small groups. The social conferencing experience is in a way enabling the whole session to be that best part. Like the web itself, it is the many and various conversations happening at once, as well as one’s ability to move among them, that makes it such an exciting place to be.
Have you attended a social conference? Would it be appropriate for your next event you host? 

See the photos from the event.


Chris Rourke is Managing Director of

User Vision,

a usability and accessibility consultancy.