Saturday, September 26, 2009


This post is going to be a linguistic geek-fest. Consider yourself forewarned.

I recently applied for a job as Producer/Developer for a Social Entrepreneurship "Unconference". The term "unconference" is relatively new. Here's the definition according to Wikipedia (not my favorite reference, but there aren't many definitions out there):

An unconference is a facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose. 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 and sponsored presentations.

While the term is new the idea is not. I've been a part of so-called "unconferences" since I was a teenager. The gathering I go to on Star Island would be considered an "unconference". But, I have a problem with the new terminology. First of all, I don't think it's a good idea to define something by using it's opposite as the basis for explanation. I don't define myself as a "not-brunette", or a "not-mathemetician" to say that I am a red-headed writer.

I understand the trickiness of trying to create a new vocabulary when current vocabulary isn't doing the job. One has to establish a context, and that's hard to do if the frame of reference is a new or obscure idea, so sometimes it's easier and more effective to attempt to change the connotations. The problem arises when the word that's chosen changes the denotation as well.

The difference between connotation and denotation is this: Denotation=the literal definition of something, regardless of the feelings or ideas the word elicits. Connotation=the idea or feeling that the word produces. So let's look at the term "Unconference".

"Unconference" was created to establish a difference between itself and traditional conferences. Traditional conferences not only have high fees or sponsored presentations, but they may also have a predetermined program where experts talk and amateurs listen. It is a one-to-many format. In other words, B-O-R-I-N-G.

"Unconferences" tend to rely on participants to drive the programming. It is co-created. It is a many-to-many format where experts and novices alike have a chance to speak up, participate, and design the program. The commonalities between conferences and "unconferences" rest in the fact that they are both bringing together a group of people for a common purpose.

Now let's look at the etymology of "Unconference". It's Latin in origin. We have "Un" (not), "Con" (together), and "ferre" (bring). So the denotation of Unconference means "not bringing together". It means the complete opposite of it's intended meaning.

So, I'm suggestion a slight variation that gives a nod to the fact that these gatherings are born from traditional conferences, but have evolved: DEconference.

De=formation from (at least in this case)/ removal or reversal

Deconferences take apart traditional conferences and reconstruct them into a more inclusive, rich experience, but they are still derived from conferences and acknowledge that fact.

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