foo, nofoo, barcamp
I wasn’t invited to foo camp this year – and that’s a good thing.
I attend quite a few conferences each year, and wish I had a lot of time to attend even more. Half of them match up with the ‘Chief Geek’ half of my title, like MySQL UC and OSCON, and the others fall into the ‘CEO’ half of my title, like D and Web 2.0 (though I can’t for the life of me seem to get an invitation to Web 2.0 this year, despite being a previous attendee and a Web 2.0 CEO. Other people at SmugMug have, though. Go figure.).
But foo camp is the best there is. I learn more in the two days at foo than any two months the rest of the year combined. It’s like mind-melding with super-brilliant people and having your brain sucked while you’re sucking theirs. Not to mention the best Werewolf games I’ve ever played. 🙂
Over the weekend, there were some alternatives to foo in the area. Scoble had his nofoo fireside chat at the Ritz (you can read more about our discussions) which was a ton of fun, and easily had the best view. But it wasn’t foo.
On Sunday morning, I stopped by BarCamp Stanford for a few hours, and there was some interesting stuff going on there. One Stanford student showed us his HCI work with the Staples button which was fascinating, and someone from Yahoo showed us a really cool search widget using JSON. But it wasn’t foo.
And it finally dawned on me why foo is so excellent and so difficult to replicate. It’s because Tim & Co. apply a filter to those who are invited. Now, before your hair catches on fire, I’m not talking about a quality filter – there were clearly quality people at both nofoo and barcamp. I’m talking about a diversity filter.
At foo, it’s not all Web 2.0 geeks. You’re eating dinner that first night with one of the guys on the original US spy satellite program to snoop on the Soviets – and he’s got photos, diagrams, and details of exactly how the cameras worked, how they’d get the film back, and how they’d get it developed. During the Geodata & Geomapping session, it’s not just Google Maps mashup artists like us – there are hardware guys asking the mashup guys what they’d like to see next year, and whipping out prototype GPS chips that can be embedded in anything. One session you learn about bioengineering and the state of getting your own chunk of DNA printed. The next, you’re watching someone show off their chocolate printer. Yes, we went from printing DNA to printing chocolate.
The point is that foo is diverse and unique. They intentionally don’t invite the same people every year for this very reason (see? I really am glad I didn’t get invited this year). With completely open-ended things, like nofoo and barcamp, I’m afraid it becomes a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Web geeks show up because they read blogs and heard other web geeks were going to be there. Rinse, lather, repeat.
(I think it’s only fair at this point to mention that foo and its diversity does have its fair share of problems. The O’Reilly team puts this on for free for us every year, so I’m happy to help put chairs away, clean up trash, etc for a few hours every Sunday afternoon. So are quite a few other campers. But there’s a large contingent that just sits on the porch chatting away, watching the O’Reilly team lug stuff around. Seems rather rude if you’re really ‘friends’ of O’Reilly. I have a feeling everyone at BarCamp pitched in and cleaned up together.)
I’ve become a big fan of applying non-standard thinking to a given problem. Freakonomics applied economic thinking to (at least on the surface) non-economic problems – with fascinating results. The Culture Code does the same thing – applying psychology to marketing with amazing results. foo is like that – the application of brilliant, non-standard thinking from people who are not experts in your field is enlightening.