This past weekend, I attended my first ever unconference – Social Justice Camp, 2011.

I loved it!

An unconference is a participant-driven meeting. 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, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization. – Wikipedia

The unconference style lends itself to creativity, discussion, interaction, and human connection. The attendees are transformed from mute listeners to engaged participants who lead discussion sessions. The “conference” is about US, the attendees, rather than simply focusing on presenters who are experts in the field. Unconferences are about what expertise, experience and passion we can bring to the table and share with others. It’s speed-networking with depth, because you not only meet many new people but are immediately able to understand what drives them and what their point of view is.

In this unconference, I spent the entire day interested and curious, and I learned so much. I didn’t feel the urge to check my email or Google Reader or Twitter (which is an impressive feat, trust me) because I was truly actively involved in what was happening. I discussed and learned about social justice, homelessness, mental illness, failure at the personal & organizational level, the connection between domestic and international social change, and cultural relativism in international development. But: I wasn’t just taking notes, I was contributing to the conversation.

Unconferences are: social media meets the real world. On Twitter, I meet fascinating people every day, and have incredible discussions where I learn so much from those I follow. This unconference was the closest I’ve come to that in real life. It made for great connections and true, human engagement which is missing in many networking events as well as full-blown conferences.

Granted, I’ve never actually been to a conference but now that I’ve had a taste of one, I hope to to attend a more structured conference at some point in the near future as a point of comparison (another thing on my ever-growing life list).

Unconferences promote a free, open atmosphere in which ideas can manifest and creativity can take root. Even the most fearful and timid can become an eloquent public speaker for his/her cause.

How else can we promote creativity, free-thinking, and genuine human engagement – and translate the positive aspects of the social web to the real world?