Geek Gatherings

Geek Gatherings

Geek used to refer a carnival performer who bit the heads off chickens. Now it’s the proud moniker of most of the people with whom I’ve spent the last two days. The Jargon File says a geek is:


A person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance. Geeks usually have a strong case of neophilia. Most geeks are adept with computers and treat hacker as a term of respect, but not all are hackers themselves — and some who are in fact hackers normally call themselves geeks anyway, because they (quite properly) regard ‘hacker’ as a label that should be bestowed by others rather than self-assumed.

See also propeller head, clustergeeking, geek out, wannabee, terminal junkie, spod, weenie, geek code, alpha geek.


At least 80% of all geeks are guys. They used to be the fellows who couldn’t get dates in high school. Things are different now. Most of them have graduated.


Marginalia:
A frog tells a geek, “Kiss me. I am a beautiful princess. I will be your if you just kiss me.” The geek puts the frog in the pocket of his jacket and keeps on walking. The frog yells, “Hey, why haven’t you kissed me?”

The geek replies, “I’m too busy to have a girlfriend, but a talking frog, that’s a cool thing to have around.”

Geeks are dedicated learners. They go to great lengths to stay ahead of the curve. Not content to merely implement the ideas of others, geeks are driven to invent the future. The way they meet, share information, and conduct their meetings holds many ideas for corporate meetings, starting with the fact that the geeks love to go to meetings like the two I just returned from.

  • FOO Camp

O’Reilly and Associates invited 225 people “who’re doing interesting work in fields such as web services, data visualization and search, open source programming, computer security, hardware hacking, GPS, and all manner of emerging technologies to share their work-in-progess, show off the latest tech toys and hardware hacks, and tackle challenging problems together. the fifth annual FOO Camp.” Here’s Tim O’Reilly’s introduction, from the event wiki:


FOO Camp started out as a lark. We had a lot of extra space in our new building as the result of the dotcom meltdown, and we wanted to do something fun to make use of the space. Internally, we tended to use the term FOO for “Friends Of O’Reilly”, and we’d occasionally do “FOO parties” at our conferences for the conference committee, speakers, and authors in attendance. Sara Winge, our VP of Corporate Communications, used to joke about having a “FOO Bar” at these parties.

So we invited a bunch of people up for a big party at our new campus, and decided to run it as a self-organizing conference.

It was such a success that we decided to do it again. And we realized that it actually had a great business purpose: to make us smarter as a company, by introducing our employees to our extended family of people who collectively comprise “the O’Reilly Radar,” and by introducing these people to each other. Each of us had great contacts who we wanted to introduce to other folks at O’Reilly and to each other, and we also had people we wanted to meet that an occasion like this gave us a great excuse for reaching out to.

So now, the way we think of FOO is this: it’s our chance to get to know new people who are doing interesting work in fields that we are trying to learn about.

Here’s the problem: the first FOO camps were so successful that all the original people want to come back. We had to choose between just throwing a party every year, with the same people coming each time, or mixing it up, inviting a mix of people we already know and love, and people we think we’d like to know and think we’re going to love. We only have room for about 200 people, so we have to make some hard choices about who to invite.

Net-net: if you didn’t get invited, it doesn’t mean you’re not a “Friend of O’Reilly.” You might be so good a friend that we hope you’ll understand why we need to give your place to someone new. And it doesn’t mean we won’t have you back (or for the first time) another year.

FOO camp is notoriously self-organizing. O’Reilly provides food, showers, facilities, and a wi-fi network. Participants make up the agenda when they arrive.

You bring your ideas, enthusiasms, and projects. We all get to know each other better, and hopefully come up with some cool ideas about how to change the world.

Last year, Business 2.0’s John Batelle wrote, “Talking with attendees, I couldn’t help thinking that Foo was more than fun — it was important, and not just to the characteristically self-involved lot who proudly wear the geek label.”

O’Reilly is located an hour north of San Francisco in Sebastopol, once the world’s largest producer of apples and now famous for its Z
infandel wines. FOO campers are encouraged to sleep over, either outside in the former orchard or in someone’s workspace inside.


There’s the problem: there’s no enough space for every A-list geek. My pal Jason Shellen posted this to his blog,

Why I’m not going to Foo Camp
I wasn’t invited.

If you are the type of person who reads this blog and might be prone to drop one of those ‘so…going to Foo Camp‘ lines to see what brand of smart kid I am – well, I didn’t make the cut. I don’t know what to tell you.

The following day, Russell Beattie wrote,

I just read Jason Shellen’s post about not going to Camp Foo, and wanted to chime that I’m wasn’t invited back this year either. Unlike Jason, however, I’m quite upset about it. I personally know enough people who are going to make it somewhat embarrassing – like I didn’t make some sort of intellectual or professional cut or something.

Origins of BAR Camp

Less than a week before FOO Camp 2005 was set to open, this post appeared on Andy Smith’s blog:

FOO Camp happens every year, it is an invite-only event for tech luminaries hosted in Sebastopol, CA at the O’Reilly headquarters. People camp out, have sessions, and work with other great tech minds to come up with awesome ideas. The problem is the exclusivity: everybody isn’t invited.

Meet BAR Camp, an open, welcoming, once-a-year event for geeks to camp out for a couple days with wifi and smash their brains together. It’s about love and geekery and having a focal point for great ideas, like SHDH more in-tents (GET IT?!), like FOO but open.

BAR Camp came together in under a week. Chris Messina and Andy Smith started the BAR Camp ball rolling.


From
Chris Messina’s blog:

When we embarked on this strange and fantastic journey, we knew that we had a week. We had no money, no sponsors, no venue and no idea if just the five of us or 50 random folks would show. But we knew that we had to stage BAR Camp and that, among other things, it would serve as a demonstration of the decentralized organizing potential of the Web2.0 Generation. We set out to prove that what the good folks at O’Reilly could pull off in a year with a couple years’ experience and tens of thousands of dollars, could be cobbled together in a week by a crazy gaggle of savvy geeks, leveraging only the web and the our reach into our social networks.

So here we are, five days later and two days from the event. We’ve had a venue donated to us. (Three days before things were to start, Ross Mayfield volunteered SocialText’s new offices in Palo Alto as an urban campsite.) We’ve got a fabulous logo (thanks Eris!). We’ve got some sponsors lining up up and a bunch of great advisors. And we’ve got buzz.

This is turning out to be the exact kind of unprecedented success we were hoping for—and from here it can only get better as we lead up to the kick-off.

Remember “flash mobs?” People coordinate on their cell phones to all show up at a given location at the same time. Two hundred people cram into the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel and before management can say “What the …?” the crowd vanishes. BAR Camp strikes me as a “flash conference.” Lots of people, technology, logistics, and experts create a successful conference in six days flat.

The geek world will not be divided into warring camps. One event is open to all, the other is invitation-only, and they each have their place. Tim O’Reilly chimed in that he supported the BAR Camp efforts.

It’s terrific to see Ross and crew doing this. We’d love to invite anyone and everyone to FOO Camp — there are lots of people who we know and love, and lots of people we don’t know and would love if we knew them — but we just can’t accommodate everyone.

Ross Mayfield agrees, as do Chris and Andy.

To be clear, Bar Camp is not anti-FOO, quite the opposite. You can see from Tim’s post that he has opened the concept for others to extend, others have before, and that’s all this is. The only difference — open as in door — is really an experiment that could go either way. I hope something magical happens that connects
the two camps during the event, prototyping a model for scaling.


Carefully picking participants is a tried and true facilitation technique that O’Reilly does masterfully (Tim says how, in comments), it sets the stage for self-organization. Unfortunately this creates a tension, healthy sometimes, between an in-group and an out-group. It was hard for me to think about not having the FOO experience again, but recognized the need to clear the cache. FOO will be fantastic and I hope my friends (hi ingy!) come home with wonderful tales and new initiatives.


But you need to remember what has changed — the cost of group forming has fallen — so anyone create one of their own, almost instantly. This will not lead to more competition between groups, but understanding across them.

On Tuesday, Dave Winer’s blog pointed to Andy’s page about BAR Camp, quoting “an open, welcoming, once-a-year event for geeks to camp out for a couple days with wifi and smash their brains together.” I commented on Andy’s blog, “Where’s the BAR Camp wiki?” He replied “barcamp.org” and added,

And yes, we’ll be documenting the whole thing — one thing we want more than anything is for BAR Camp to live beyond this one weekend. Think: BAR Camp in Box. That’s basically what we want coming out of this year’s event.;D

I visited the event wiki and signed up. I had planned to attend the monthly meeting of Future Salon at SAP Labs in Palo Alto on Friday; easy enough to drop by BAR Camp afterward. Driving over the Dunbarton Bridge to the Western side of San Francisco Bay, I decided to blow off Future Salon, figuring that you learn more from the unfamiliar than the tried-and-true.

  • BAR Camp

DSC00694Around seven o’clock Friday evening, Chris stands atop a concrete pedestal in the courtyard outside SocialText’s new offices to kick things off. People are asked to introduce themselves to the group using no more than name, location, company affiliation, and three words. Some of the words of three that I remember: geek, entrepreneur, save world, ninja, real-time, fanatic, blogger, society. I say “author, informal, learning” and later will explain that I’m at BAR Camp both as a geek and as an anthropologist studying how techies learn about new stuff from one another.

DSC00655Ross gave us a look at a new applet that enables you to call up a wysiwyg editor in a blog or wiki. This Java will be folded into both SocialText and Kwiki but will also be available for free to the community at large.

DSC00660A dozen large pizzas arrived, beer bottles were opened, and three or four discussions among five to a dozen participants got going. Eugene Kim and a handful of us hunkered down outside to discuss Extreme Usability. We passed the talking stick, speaking the argot of software design and programming to relate Extreme Usability to Agile Software Development, Extreme Programming, rapid prototyping, constructive friction, pair programming, Homer Simpson, and Ruby on Rails. The Homer episode and Ruby were new to me, so that part of the discussion would have meant about as much to me in Greek. I drew analogies to developing business processes that John Hagel and John Seely Brown describe in The Only Sustainable Edge. Eugene facilitated the session, encouraging everyone to contribute. He was also recorder, tapping notes into his PowerBook to be posted to the wiki later on.

DSC00720In the “small room,” five people were hunched over their laptops, tapping away. I asked if this were a session. No, not a session. What were they doing, then? “Just hacking,” came the response. This seems to be a standard behavior at geek events. It’s kosher to drop out of the live event and hook into the virtual reality of the net. Check mail, tweak code, surf blogs – these are all as legitimate an activity as conversing face-to-face. I sense that just being among their own kind gives off sort of a contact high.

DSC00703I spied a fellow I’d met at lunch during Gnomedex: Scott Beale, proprietor of Laughing Squid. He’s managing publicity for BAR Camp. I wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed his photographs of Gnomedex and also to show him the purple Laughing Squid sticker on my ThinkPad. Geeks put stickers on their computers just as Harley riders get tatoos. Geeks have introduced themselves to me in airports because they assume someone whose computer sports stickers for Laughing Squid, FireFox, Creative Commons, and the Michelin Man must be a member of the tribe.

I headed back to my motel room a few miles to the north. Much later, ten to twelve geeks pulled out their sleeping bags and camped out in SocialText’s offices. (How many corporate types will go that far to advance their learning?)
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  • Saturday morning.

It’s 10:00 or 10:30 am the next morning.
Eighteen of us are jammed into the “big” conference room. Thirteen have Macs. I see one Dell, one Toshiba, and I’m on an IBM X40 ThinkPad. A woman from c|net is loosely leading a discussion. I sit on the floor in the center. We’re about fifteen minutes into a half-hour session. Another couple of dozen folks are scattered around the offices here.


DSC00717 DSC00699 DSC00696

Back to the “big” room, outfitted for a prototypical geek get-together. One person is taking notes to be posted on the event wiki. If some great idea comes up, we want to share it with the world, not lose it. A conference phone hosts a daylong session for remote participants. The live chat session on our topic is projected onto the wall for all to see. Here’s a bit of the conversation:

A content company should be in the business of facilitating community to generate content. In the Blogosphere, often the users know more than the hosts. Denying the experts access misses the boat. Web 2.0 on the way. Talk as well as listen.

Brewster Kahle’s doing cool stuff putting thousands upon thousands of books, but who’s got time to read them? Do we need an electronic Cliff’s Notes? Also a lot of great stuff is trapped in gated communities. Where is the needle I’m looking for in this haystack? RSS? Too much information. Serendipity and friends are a less confusing way to find good stuff. ROJO is a collective web recommendation site.

Riana: Is there a business model for simply collecting content? Jay: the editorial function is what adds value. Otherwise, there’s no free lunch.

DSC00707Much of society can’t answer the question “What’s in it for me?” They aren’t like us. They don’t understand intellectual property issues.

How important is it for people to be critical thinkers? Only four or five of us raised our hands when we were ask if we sought out alternative viewpoints on the web. A news viewer can give you your own version of the news. The liberal sees far out stories; the conservative sees Republican stories. Yahoo: Looking for more of the same or new ideas? Netflix is doing something similar.

DSC00710Safeway cards: invasion of privacy? Some guy was convicted because the court subpoenaed membership card data that showed he had purchased lots of booze not long before he did something irresponsible. In Berkeley, people who consider purchase-tracking an invasion of privacy frequently swap Safeway cards with one another to confuse market researchers.

Geek events in the late 90s were different. Geeks talked about getting rich and the value of their stock options. People found it tough to live in their own skins. Everybody wanted to be a Steve Jobs.

DSC00658Then came the dot-com meltdown. It was like nuclear winter. Companies went down the tubes. Money vanished. Everyone disappeared. People are coming out of that now, but they are coming back as themselves. No more play-acting. They’re out to change the world.

An engineer who developed some version of Finder for the Mac joins the conversation. Tom likes the conviction and energy people bring to geek gatherings. They are the kind of people who lay in bed at night thinking about their particular cause. He always looks for this enthusiasm in prospective employees; it’s more important than technical chops. People feel deeply about this.

Geeks are passionate. That’s the rule in a many communities, from owners of Mini Coopers to collectors of guitar picks.

DSC00706A woman comes by with a tray of BAR Camp buttons. She says that in the old days, this would have taken weeks. Now “the Asian sweatshop button factory” (she and a volunteer) is operating in the front room. “Where are the stickers?” And of course, no geek gathering would be complete without t-shirts. I got my BAR Camp shirt but somehow missed getting one from Laughing Squid.

DSC00665A silent auction took place on a table near the front door to raise money for food and beer. About 20 hard disks had starting bids of $5 to $20; various computer gear was tagged to sell for a little more.

Anybody use Skype? Yesterday the guy sitting next to me talked with the CEO of a company that was ready to release a new product that integrates Skype into Microsoft Outlook. A killer idea…until another group released a product with the same functionality; and it’s free.

As I said earlier, FOO Camp and BAR Camp are meant for one another. From the Jargon File.

FOO 1. [from Yiddish "feh" or the Anglo-Saxon "fooey!"] interj. Term of disgust. 2. [from FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition), from WWII, often seen as FOOBAR] Name used for temporary programs, or samples of three-letter names. 3. Used very generally as a sample name for absolutely anything.

BAR 1. The second metasyntactic variable, after FOO. “Suppose we have two functions FOO and BAR. FOO calls BAR…” 2. Often appended to FOO to produce FOOBAR.

BAR Camp and FOO Camp each gave lip service to how great the other guys were. None the less, when someone projected an image on the wall of the big room detailing how many photos of each have been uploaded to FlickR, showing it was FOO Camp 255, BAR Camp 255, cheering broke out.

Chris highlighted a socially oriented browser that sits atop FireFox. Mike showed us Movido, with which people at a meeting can post photos from their cell phones to create an immediate who’s who directory for a meeting like this one. A group talked about blogging for dollars. Jacob presented the “motorcycle” project, a wi-fi content sniffer, by reading off a list of passwords belonging to those in the room.

I left around 3:00 pm so I’d be able to attend Dave Winer’s OPML Roadshow in Berkeley later in the evening.

DSC00711On the ride home, I reflected on how BAR Camp differed from corporate sessions. A corporation would have tried to cram everything you needed to know into the two-day session. Content would have oversaturated people’s brains after two hours and excess information would be pouring out of their ears. They’d be learning more and more about less and less.

BAR Camp provided exposure and teasers for dozens of contents. We focused on breadth, not depth. If something grabbed your attention, you could follow up with the speaker afterward or you could check a recording or see what was listed on the wiki or go to the relevant website. This format treats learning as an ongoing process; the meeting is but step one.

BAR Camp also created a social structure that may or may not persist. If I want to check something out with someone I spoke with, I can locate them via the wiki. The network expands.

Everyone at BAR Camp was friendly, excited about the future, and up. “Hi, my name’s Bob.” I don’t know how late things went Saturday night, but I bet it was 2:00 or 3:00 am for the die-hards.

  • OPML Roadshow

DSC00729Dave Winer is a handful. I’ve followed his presentations, inventions, emoting, recalcitrance, rants, and reconciliation for the last 25 years. Dave tells you he has a big heart but he’s renowned for being a prickly character. He’s always enthusiastic about something. For a long time, that something has involved the net and outliners. Dave played a major role in developing RSS. His newest invention is OPML is short for Outline Processing Markup Language but it’s a whole lot more exciting than it sounds. He has been barnstorming the land, spreading the OPML gospel.

Early on in the meeting, people in the back of the room complained that they couldn’t see. Dave said that was tough, because changing the size of the font would screw up his demo. The audience was not pleased. In a matter of moments, Dave clicked the browser buttons to display a much larger font. This new Dave’s a more mature fellow than the old Dave. I think he’s prepping to be a respected thought leader. More power to him.

Unlike BAR Camp, this was a meeting with a mission. Dave let us know that he was here to demo OPML. We were here for a product introduction. Sessions in New York, Cambridge, and Toronto had come before, but tonight’s meeting with over a hundred in attendance was the biggest by far.

Dave’s goal was to make the journey from input to publication as short as possible. He would make a change to a blog page and bingo, it would appear on the net. OPML is Open Source. You want to change it, hire yourself a programmer. OPML, a dialog of XML, began life as the way to describe RSS feeds. Dave has added an environment that makes is OPML into an authoring language. He answered many questions from the floor, requesting that please ask ‘em when they got ‘em.

Scobelizer said:

Dave packs them in for OPML Roadshow
Wow. Just arrived at Dave Winer’s OPML Roadshow (movie here) in Berkeley and there’s a ton of people here. What a great weekend for geeks! Ray Ozzie is here. So are a ton of geeks who have changed the world.

Dan Farber wrote in the next day’s ZD Net,

At the Berkeley Roadshow, Dave called his OPML Editor the “next thing the Internet should do.” Dave wasn’t exactly tooting his own horn. He said that he isn’t concerned about the business models (he says he has plenty of money)–he wants to find people who “think big” and want to change the world.

The audience is chock full of celebrities: Steve Gilmour (ZD Net), Ray Ozzie (Lotus, Groove, and now Microsoft CTO), Bob Scoble, Buzz Bruggeman (Active Words), Tom Abate (SF Chronicle), Bob Scoble (Microsoft Geek Blogger), Scott Rosenberg (Salon), Tim Ayers and Wes Boyd (MoveOn), and others. I told Ozzie I’d love to interview him for my book; maybe, he said, “I’m kind of busy right now.” Phil Wolff asks Dave, “And a year from now?” Dave says that’s not for him to say. That’s why OPML’s Open Source.”


  • BAR Camp Encore

The OPML event shut down around 9:30 pm. Dave Winer, Steve Gilmour, Bob Scoble, and others drove south, dropping in a BAR Camp around 11:30 pm. Dave recorded BAR Camp background noise that makes a great background for looking at his photographs – and more than 750 photos of BAR Camp already posted to FlickR.

Tom Conrad, CTO of Pandora, says,

All of these meetups are such a great thing for the tech community – so many great ideas getting passed back and forth. I’m really looking forward to this one. If for whatever reason you’ve hesitated to attend one of these “open invite” events, I’d encourage you to get over it and stop in. In my experience there’s always some great conversation and everyone is made to feel welcome.

Scobelizer opines, “Next year we should sponsor Barcamp, and a few other events like it. It’s been a remarkable week.”

  • No more presentations

DSC00666At most corporate events, presenters parade to the podium, facetiously saying they want to share their thoughts while their body language, tone, and PowerPoints tell another story. Most of them want to tell you how it is and how it’s going to be. This is like your boss sharing his thoughts on what you’re going to do next. Questions come after the presenters have had their say.

There were no presentations at BAR Camp. No PowerPonts. No better-than-thou. No podium. No positions carved in stone. Instead of presentations, campers had conversations. We were equals, co-discovering new ways to look at things. We sat in circles. No one was in charge because we were all in charge.

Doc Searles, a highly influential blogger, wants to “reboot the whole conference system.” In Linux Journal, Doc writes:

The problem is mass habituation. We’re so used to the whole routine: picking up badges, grabbing coffee and cookies, sitting in rows behind tables with laptops flopped open, surfing the Web or answering e-mail while keynoting CEOs from sponsoring companies drone PR while the PowerPoint deck shuffles by, complaining about the absent power strips and bad Wi-Fi connection. The list goes on. And on


What’s the alternative? Give control to the audience. Respect what they bring to the table. Here’s Doc again:

A guy I was talking with had a cool idea for conferences like this one. Set it up like any other conference–with speakers, panels and so on–and then announce at the beginning that all the speakers were bait, that the whole conference is completely open. Anybody can learn anything from anybody. Bring up the house lights, arrange the chairs in circles, roll out the hors d’oeuvres.

With no speakers, every attendee’s expertise is a “source” for every other attendee. Conversation becomes the most efficient and effective means for moving and growing knowledge throughout whole crowd. The idea here is a profound corollary to Bill Joy’s observation that “most of the smartest people work for somebody else”. The balance of smartness in any conference session heavily favors the audience. So, what’s the most efficient and effective way for everybody to share what they know?

We’ve been lecturing at conferences for the last umpty years. Audiences have been opting out through schmoozing in hallways, hanging out on IRC channels, blogging, IMing and e-mailing each other. In other words, they’re going to other sources of knowledge.

Doc has many suggestions.

Hold collegial meetings, not sessions. Some of the best sessions at conferences are the BoFs, or birds-of-a-feather sessions, held after hours.

Record all sessions and make them available on-line in open audio formats. This also helps sell attendees on coming to the next conference.

Make the Web a living and permanent resource and document archive. Provide wi-fi.

Dave Winer was the first person to use the term unConference. He closed the OPML Roadshow with, “What will matter is how we work with one another.”

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