One of the things that makes ScienceOnline different from lots of other academic or professional conferences is that it is structured as an "unconference". So ... what exactly does that mean?
For one thing, it challenges the standard model of the expert at a podium at the front of the room, dispensing finished knowledge to the audience. The assumption is that the "audience" is really a group of interested participants who are bringing plenty of expertise to the table, and that they will be working together with the session moderator to figure new things out.
I've been to the rare academic conference with "workshop" sessions that achieve real engagement of, and participation from, nearly everyone in the room. At ScienceOnline, those levels of engagement and participation are not rare at all.
Some unconferences are so participant-driven that the program doesn't even exist until the conference goers convene. Folks use whiteboards or paper to describe a session they want to happen (whether they have the expertise to lead it or are looking for other participants who could share that expertise), and ideas, people, spaces, and blocks of time are negotiated on the spot to build a program.
For those of us in disciplines where conference presentations usually flow from finished papers submitted a year in advance, this process can feel a little destabilizing. It's not necessarily a bad thing.
The other unconference in which I've participated (She's Geeky) has used this process. Along with it, the conference organizers provide reminders:
"Be prepared to be surprised!"
"Whoever comes is the right people. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it's over, it's over."
In other words, part of the point of having an unconference is to cultivate serendipity, to foster connections of ideas and people that can happen organically but that might not happen with too much rigid planning. Working this way has its risks. There may be only a handful of people interested in what you want to talk about, and what people have to say may fit in a non-standard time interval. But the risks are part of the deal to unlock the rewards.
There was another reminder, whose placard I managed not to photograph, of "The Law of Two Feet" -- basically, that each participant should take responsibility for being where she wanted or needed to be, even if that meant leaving one group midway through or joining another already in progress, and that other participants should respect each individual's decisions rather than expecting a captive audience. This strikes me as the right attitude to take to cope with a session which turns out to be not what you expected or wanted to be a part of, rather than complaining later, "That's an hour of my life I'll never get back."
If you look at the ScienceOnline 2012 conference program as it's shaping up, you'll see that this is not a conference generating sessions on the spot each morning. Rather, there are multiple sessions in each time slot, each with a title, one or more moderators, and a description of the topics to be discussed. In other words, this is a relatively organized unconference.
My sense, though, is that even though the advanced planning that goes into the sessions seems to pull against the "un"-ness of the conference, it actually makes possible a lot more participant-steering of sessions to address things the people coming to the sessions want to talk about -- burning questions they have, experiences or expertise they want to share, resources, applications, connections to other things they care about, what have you. One way this can happen is via session wiki pages. For example, I'm helping lead two sessions, one (with Amy Freitag) on "Citizens, experts, and science", the other (with Christie Wilcox) on "Blogging Science While Female". Those wiki pages are just calling out for ideas, questions, or useful links. (Your ideas, questions, or useful links! What are you waiting for?)
Indeed, this is not simply a matter of shaping an hour-long discussion at the conference, but of jumping into a conversation now. It's not a conversation that has to end when the next session starts -- or when the conference itself is over. Nor is is a conversation that's restricted to the people who are physically in the room. You can be part of the conversation even without setting foot in North Carolina.
And this brings me to another way ScienceOnline strikes me as interestingly different from other conferences I've attended. At many of these conferences, sessions spill over to interesting discussions over drinks or meals. That happens at ScienceOnline, too -- but unlike discussions at other conferences that recede into memory when you get home, the conversations at ScienceOnline have a better than even chance of being tweeted, liveblogged, or otherwise captured and signal-boosted, making it possible for us (and you, and anyone else who want) to come back to them and push them further until we (not our feeble memories) decide we're done with them.