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In an open room, ideas flow

Like the Web sites, a Portland "wiki" conference embraces free-form sharing

Saturday, February 04, 2006

MIKE ROGOWAY, [The Oregonian]

Even by the relaxed standards of technology conferences, this weekend's gathering of Web enthusiasts in Portland set a high bar for informality.

Close to 100 people showed up Friday without a schedule, a roster of speakers or a single item on the agenda for their three-day meeting.

Instead, they hashed out their itinerary Friday morning while sprawled across a conference room floor. They wrote with felt markers on butcher paper and taped topics to the wall, along with a time and place for each to be discussed.

The [RecentChangesCamp] brought people to Portland from across the U.S. and as far afield as Australia and eastern Canada. They came to exchange ideas about online communities and about wikis -- collaborative Web sites that allow users to add, revise or delete material.

Billed as an "un-conference," attendees described it as the physical embodiment of a wiki: the agenda is set on the fly, and unstructured discussions go where participants take them.

Many conference-goers had only a vague idea of what to expect, but came for the opportunity to swap ideas and experiences with like-minded technologists.

"Everyone with wikis faces some of the same issues, so it's nice to be able to talk about those things," said Michele Jenkins, who runs a site called She came from Montreal with her husband and their 5-month-old daughter for the gathering.

[RecentChangesCamp] is named for a feature on wikis -- "recent changes" -- that displays a site's freshest revisions. The success of the online encyclopedia has fueled a surge in wikis' popularity, and they are now used by companies, hobbyists and others to share ideas among a dispersed group.

Oregon is home to a number of initiatives promoting open-source technology, often built collaboratively and available for free. Wikis were invented by Portland software engineer Ward Cunningham, who opened Friday's session by encouraging participants to open themselves to others' ideas and resist the urge to dominate a conversation with their own thoughts.

"Suppress that enough that you can listen to other people and feel where their passion comes from," Cunningham said. "That's, I think, a very wiki way to work."

The meeting's loose format is called "open space." It parallels wikis and open-source technology, encouraging collaboration and the free exchange of ideas by allowing anyone who attends to suggest a discussion topic, according to Michael Herman, a conference facilitator from Chicago who helped organize [RecentChangesCamp].

"We end up with an agenda that perfectly fits who's here," he said.

Even wiki enthusiasts weren't sure the unstructured format would work Friday, and some wondered aloud whether it would descend into chaos -- or into some kind of hippie technology fest. "I really had no idea what to expect. I didn't know whether there would be people with no shoes on and caftans or what," said Mike Cannon-Brookes, chief executive of a Sydney-based company called Atlassian Software Systems, which designs wiki software.

A couple of people did come in sandals, and many wore jeans, but no one was burning incense. And once the meeting broke up into a dozen discussion groups, it suddenly seemed focused and orderly.

Cannon-Brookes noted participants arranged the schedule of discussion topics in chronological order and said it reminded him of the way wiki users jump in to organize the hodgepodge of information posted on the Web sites.

"It looks like it's turning out pretty well," he said.

Mike Rogoway: 503-294-7699,

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