Some thoughts about FOO and elitism…


I’m going to try over the next few days to capture retrospectively my FOO experience in a little detail. I didn’t think I’d have enough time to do it, but it turns out that when you’re trying to avoid writing your talk for major conferences in the US there’s no end to what you can accomplish (as long as it’s not in any way related to the talk in question). So my flat’s almost completely clean, I’ve scanned in every photograph I own into Flickr, I’ve ordered food, and done lots of washing. I’ve caught up on a month of back e-mail. I’ve even cooked, for god’s sake, and I never do that. It makes sense that the weblog should get some much-needed attention in the process.

But before I get into the substance of the event I wanted to stick my oar in about some of the FOO elitism arguments that have been roaming around the Valley recently. I’m not going to comment on my personal beliefs on why Dave Winer was not invited – that’s between Tim and Dave – and in fact you can read some of Tim’s reasoning on Om Malik’s site that might give some clues, but I do think the whole thing is rather overblown and here’s why:

Everyone who attends FOO feels honoured to be there, but let’s be clear – invitation-only events happen all the time in the tech industry. There are more conferences and seminars happening in and around Silicon Valley than there are days in the year. And any individual or company is free to start their own event and invite whomsoever they choose. I went to a Microsoft Social Research Seminar earlier this year with a lot of the smartest people in that part of the industry and no-one batted an eyelid. If all events were invitation-only then I might have some more concerns, but they’re not. It’s never been easier to show off your great work in the industry and have it seen, nor to find places to show it off to people who will respond to it. I find it ridiculous that anyone can look across the valley to Sebastopol – past MIcrosoft, Apple, Google and Yahoo! – and somehow come to the conclusion that O’Reilly have their iron grasp on the creative direction of the Internet and are leveraging a couple of hundred person camping trip to cement it. I just don’t buy it – and as a consequence I’m pretty sure that the arguments that protesting FOO is about the misuse of power or influence or propriety or something are just bunk.

Another thing I’ve heard expressed is some concern that FOO is some kind of power-brokering Web 2.0 dark-masterplan dominance play, but I can only say that in my experience it’s quite the opposite – the value in FOO is not in bringing together the powerful in order to assert control, but in the cross-pollination of disciplines. It’s about meeting people who are talking about brain imaging and hacking, seeing the robots playing football, listening to the sociologists and chatting to the people who grow diamonds in their cellars and are trying to build tricorders. It’s about stepping out of your worldview for a minute and seeing a larger picture. Confounding yourself. That’s why there are ten talks going on at any given time and why some of them get barely one person attending them – because it’s an event based on multiple voices rather than establishing a consensus. I think anyone who came to the event looking to assume their rightful place in the cadre of the dark cabal running Web 2.0 would be more than a little disappointed by the general lack of interest in playing that particular game. Unless I went to the wrong sessions, of course. Which is quite plausible. FOO seems to me an oddly and beautifully innocent event. I’m sure people do business there, but it does generally seem to be more about genuine enthusiasm and excitement about technology than these larger questions of politics.

But still the charge remains that it’s the same old group of people who wander in and out of the event each year, and I’m afraid I don’t buy that either. I was lucky enough to go last year – my first and I thought at the time plausibly my last opportunity – but this year was completely different. There were something like three times as many people at the event this year, which means necessarily a couple of hundred new people were there. If that doesn’t convince you, then maybe you’d be convinced by Tim’s assertion that one model they were considering for next year would include none of the people present this time. I don’t don’t know if they’d make such a severe change – and I’m obviously deeply hoping that I get invited again next year – but there does generally seem to be a committment in O’Reilly to find a way to bring in lots of exciting new people. Again, I don’t buy that it’s the old guard. And I’m unconvinced by the idea that only the powerful and influential get invited. I’m pretty sure Jeff Bezos would still be there if that was the rule, but that wouldn’t explain why they let me in.

No, FOO is a great experience but a necessarily limited one – and what people should be thinking is how can they learn from it to create a variety of other events, private or public, invitation-only or free-for-all that keep a vibrant culture moving forward. The Bar Camp people – for all their initial hostility to FOO – have actually stolen many of its best elements and made it their own – ad hoc and fully open gatherings of creative nerds. It’s a different experience but it’s an exciting and complementary one. I just wish more people had followed their lead.