Conference Notes Technology

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.

9 replies on “Some thoughts about FOO and elitism…”

Looks like you’ve independently discovered Structured Procrastination: “an amazing strategy … that converts procrastinators into effective human beings”.

…the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

I think those kind of events are fine so long as whats learnt can trickle down to everyone else, and the people there can speak for the others on the web on key issues. We can’t all go to FOO camp, but so long as I can read all about what went on there then I don’t have to!

Tom please stop making an example of me, I’ve said for the last two years that I don’t want an invite. Even before that I think it was implicit that I wouldn’t accept one, but I’ve been saying it clearly and unmistakeably for two years. Pick another issue, this one is dead as can be.
On the other hand, if there was open standards work done at this invite-only conference, then I do have a problem with that, esp if, as in the past, it’s in areas I actively work in. I would think any reasonable person would have a problem with that.
Hopefully you feel that’s “on-topic, informative and polite.”

After all of the talk people were having about proprietary stuff coming out of FOO, I was, like, “What did I miss?” Gee…I went to a session about the myths of innovation, a book Scott Berkun wanted feedback towards as he is writing it…a talk hosted by Zaheda Bhorst (Google) and co-hosted by Mark Shuttleworth (Ubuntu, $100 laptop) on how we need to get translating software into that long tail of languages, a session on hacking the corporation (being able to remain sane inside of a big giant company and stay intrapreneurial), Kathy’s session on Creating Passionate Users, I had my session on Pinko Marketing (mostly a discussion…I weaned myself off of Keynote), a discussion about old versus new media, I sang along with a group in the O’Reilly lobby for all hours, I got my laptop etched by Chris DiBonno (who you’d think would be in one of those proprietary meetings rather than dealing with a lineup of excited mac owners), watched werewolf for hours, had a great debate with Todd, who is an SEO guy, with Dave Sifrey and Lauren, a brilliant legal professor at Stanford.
I saw Mitch Kapor and others networking like mad to get their new products seen, but I don’t think that was about developing any big standards. I Christine had a discussion that was talking about the same thing XFN does, but she was quickly informed about that community-based standard.
I agree with you. It was innocent and enjoyable and uplifting and informative…if something evil and proprietary was going on, it was among a very small group of people who would have probably had the discussion in spite of FOO. The larger crowd seemed happier with the robot wars and general good will than developing proprietary standards that weekend.
But, like you, I may have been missing something.
Nice to meet you, Tom!

Why is Dave such a jerk off? Is there really anyone else who passively/aggressively complains about not being invited/not wanting to be invited to FOO? Is there a single event in the entire world that doesn’t have a limit on attendance? Would anyone want someone as boorish as Dave at their event?

A lot of open standards work gets done in private (I’ve done some with only a cat for company), there’s no reason it should impact openness.
Funnily enough, I’ve never got an invite to the Queen’s garden parties because I’ve said publicly I didn’t want one, and if I did get one I’d decline…

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