Deconstructing the Gnomedex Conversation

I’ve been staying out of most post-Gnomedex discussions (and fights) intentionally. People seem to have already made up their minds about the event, one way or another. One thing’s for sure: people certainly are passionate about their personal and professional perspectives!

I decided to wait for emotion to subside before saying anything more about the conference and controversies surrounding it. I really didn’t want to shoot from the hip and say something that I may have regretted at a later date.

There seem to be two “factions” of Gnomedex attendees, but this wouldn’t be the first year such a schism existed. That we’re even open to supporting both sides speaks directly to our diplomatic tendencies. We took risks this year – bold, BOLD risks. Feedback has been largely constructive, if not somewhat impatient (unavoidable, realistic).

Problem is: you’re all right (and yes, you must accept that as a possibility). Some people got a lot out of Gnomedex, while others did not.

I do believe, however, that some people seem to have forgotten that everyone has biases and agendas – fact of life. We’re all biased, but the way we choose to deal with those biases (and other people’s biases) ultimately defines our characters… or lack thereof.

Robert Steele… what can I say? There’s someone who has strong opinions about stuff – who offends without realizing he’s offending. Someone who has radical ideas about how things should be done (and isn’t afraid to share those ideas with anybody who would listen). Someone who may dismiss a contrary thought or assertion outright. Someone who comes across as very intense. Someone who carries with him a few good ideas if you can look past any kind of personality or political differences.

My direction to Robert, in the weeks leading up to the event:

There are quite a few points that resonate with me, specifically where technology and shared ideas intersect with “the world.” Your charts are most helpful In this particular presentation – but I wonder if it may be a bit too much to throw at everyone?

World’s most pissed off end-user: YES! When you speak about Open APIs, you are speaking to us (to a great degree). When you speak about Open Spectrum, you are speaking to us (especially in light of Google’s most recent maneuver with the FCC). It’s good to see the High-Level Threats, “Our Advantage” slides, Vital Policy Domains, etc.

I’d also point out your Amazon reviews standing in the very beginning -which further reinforces your wealthy knowledge base and depth of research applied to come to these conclusions. I’m sure people will challenge your belief that Amazon should be the hub, which is a good point of discussion.

There’s so much to consume on many of the slides that your actual messages may be lost in the process – and I don’t want that to happen because what you’re presenting is SO VERY IMPORTANT.

I would SERIOUSLY advise against bringing up potentially divisive issues on-stage… if you bring up Cheney / Iran / Iraq at all, you’ll have defeated your mission and turned off the audience (which may be largely liberal, but politics is typically an emotional, personal – not logical – topic of discussion). In the time given, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to avoid. It’s a very touchy subject right now, and serves to divide and destroy the good will you have the potential to build here.

I just want to focus your message on the key sectors and success strategies without people dismissing your ideas because they may disagree with your political perspectives. It was the one thing that almost tore the community apart last year, and that was good for nobody. :)

This wasn’t the first time we took risks with putting someone “controversial” on stage, however. It’s happened at every single Gnomedex over the years, long before the blogosphere was a part of my own life. We’re surrounded by controversy every day – and some of us actually believe that the only worthwhile controversy to discuss is this social network vs that one (day in and day out).

Technology transcends everything.


Overall, Gnomedex is the best tech conference I’ve attended. The topics presented were varied and compelling in keeping Chris Pirillo’s philosophy of making “technology ancillary to its role in our daily lives”. I got a lot of new ideas, met smart, interesting people and I was pleased to see more grey heads than I expected.


Even among the digital leading edge who attend Gnomedex, being as wide open about cancer diagnosis and treatment online, as I have been, is still a bit unusual, but I hope that my appearance there encourages people not only to use the Internet as a way to get information and support, but also to get themselves checked out for the various diseases they might be at risk for, so that they can maybe get treated early and not have to go through all the crap I have.


In every large group there is the one person that seems to know everyone. I have found an easy way to identify the likely candidate is look for the one person furiously taking pictures who isn’t necessarily part of the event staff. In the affiliate industry that person is Deb Carney. For Gnomedex it’s Renee Blodgett who was kind enough to introduce me to some great people including Marc Orchant who organized a wonderful evening at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley where we caught the Charlie Hunter trio. Chris Pirillo definitely made a convert out of me. After all how can you say “no” to a host who is constantly placing a shoe on his head? Plus he know my weakness for coconut shrimp.


The real-time commentary and analysis was dramatically different from the often anonymous and frequently trollish commentary on IRC. And many of the people I follow and who follow me on Twitter were engaged in the proceedings in a way I’ve never experienced before. With a UStream live video feed and the Twitter stream, people around the world were “there” in a delightfully “in the moment” way. So whether the moment at hand was the standing ovation given by the audience celebrating Derek’s heroic spirit or the spat that erupted between Calacanis, Dave Winer, and others in the audience about conference spam, there was a meta-dimension of discussion and commentary that was something like watching Bloomberg or CNN.


At Gnomedex, I led a discussion about how the more you put yourself out there online, the more you may be giving up control of your identity. And it’s not just those who choose to live stream their lives twenty-four hours a day who have to think about how much we give up of the ability to define ourselves to others by putting ourselves out there online and if we’re invaded our neighbor’s privacy by blogging about how he gets the paper in the morning wearing just his underwear and who should have access to pictures of our kids.

I really want you to read Dave Winer’s well-structured (and quite fair) critique of Gnomedex 7.0, but allow me to surface just one paragraph from it:

If Gnomedex is to continue, it must get back on track, it must reflect our interests, the audience’s interests. Chris is a great entertainer, and a warm human being, but his vision of the political and economic future is not something I share, or would find interesting to discuss.

This is a very uplifting statement (coming from anybody). Gnomedex, most assuredly, will continue – but I don’t know if “back on track” is the right frame of mind for it. What is the “track” and how do we ever know we’re back on it?

What I’m asking for (directly and indirectly) is help in finding on-stage personalities who aren’t in the echo chamber, who don’t discuss topics that we’ve already beaten to death, and who have either offered or are willing to offer something to the world in general. Problem is, I only get pitched by PR agencies and people who charge hundreds if not thousands of dollars to speak at a conference.

In other words: why does every other tech / blogger conference have to talk about the same things (or see and hear from the same people over and over again)? Some people thought that Gnomedex was already “on track,” so to speak:

Generally the presentations at Gnomedex aren’t about particular products or companies. There are exceptions to be sure (for example, this year the CEO of JibJab gave one of the more interesting talks, which was almost entirely about his company). I don’t have a strongly held point of view on this subject; for my part I just want the presentations to be interesting. If that means talking about your company so be it.

And if you thought Gnomedex was boring, you weren’t paying attention – or you simply weren’t there, or you simply weren’t putting enough thought into what was being discussed, or you simply wanted to sit back and want to digest everything around you, you were checking your RSS feeds or responding to emails or surfing Google, or you simply define “interestingness” differently than others do (par for the course).

Continuous partial attention does NOT work well at conferences.

Discussions about Gnomedex have now become less about the conference itself and more about the people who are (and to a certain degree, have been) influencing the conference’s direction. Tris is at a tipping point, after having discussed it in an audio broadcast. In his comment thread, Scoble drops his two cents:

I really hope that next year’s is much better and that Chris gets back to Gnomedex’s roots. Celebration of technology and putting users at the center. Let’s go back to that and then I’ll be happy again.

Users were still at the center, just at a different kind of center – in the idealistic hopes that value could be derived from a conversation not focused on the latest blog widget. Maybe I’m wrong, and the industry still needs to talk about how FaceBook is taking over the world – in person, as opposed to hashing it out endlessly in our respective blogs. You were having a complete conversation in your own head before blurting out that ValleyWag published an inaccuracy about you – mere seconds after I closed the laptop with Derek. Your brain couldn’t have been further from the room, Robert. I love you, but Ethan nailed it:

We came close. Really close to something amazing. Darren and Derek approached that dark area that no one wants to enter. The area that makes us question our motives and understanding of our world THROUGH technology rather than using technology as a means to validate our own insecurities with unneeded self-import. RSS feeds will not feed a person for a year. The power of what is decentralized communication could bring just might, but we don’t look at that. Gnomedex showed that we’re all so caught up in being clever, irreverent, ironic and competitive (myself included) that we forget the real power granted through every glowing screen in the room.

Ethan then completes the thought: “If that was turned outward, think of where we’d be.”

My next question is: how do we get there, together? How can the next Gnomedex conference effectively funnel our collective knowledge and apply it to the world around us in a positive way? Does that come in the form of an official third-day, with small groups hitting the streets and re-convening at day’s end to share their experiences?

I’m not so sure my part of the blogosphere is ready for that level of reality yet. We place too much value on the outburst – a problem further complicated, exacerbated, and supported by a mob mentality. It’s okay to challenge the status quo, but not at every cost. Sometimes we need to step back and think about how our strong opinions can hurt someone instead of helping them. This problem has 254 shades of grey. Before even hitting the stage, Cali and Neal were nervous – especially after witnessing how “the crowd” ate one of their own on Friday.

I think one of the more disappointing posts I’ve read about this year’s conference came from Neal himself – on Blogger Elitism:

We spoke at Gnomedex 7.0. One guy said he walked out on our speech because he thought Cali was pretending to be interested in tech so she could get a cushy job working at home. That guy is an idiot. The sixteen+ hours Cali works a day on building the Geek Brief brand is nothing related to cushiness. Anyone who thinks someone can pretend an interest in tech and be successful is a dork because tech is boring if you don’t love it.

*sigh* I’m sorry, Neal – I really am. Sometimes those of us who have been doing it for years often forget that people have to start somewhere – and that everybody takes a different path to find success. Your story is still very much endearing to me – and I already know that it’s inspired others. Jason of Techraver:

The following day, Cali Lewis and her husband Neal spoke about the rise of their video podcast. Even though it wasn’t popular, I enjoyed it. I am a fledgling pod / videocaster so it was fascinating for me to hear their story. Thank you to Cali / Neal and Chris for bringing them on stage.

If I recall correctly, that particular session was threaded with plenty of audience laughter (which, I believe, was quite endearing and generally supportive). Presentation style aside, this is what RSS and podcasting and blogging and… technology can do for people. It’s liberating, but not necessarily in the ways we intend it to be.

And the people who don’t understand this are the ones who need to understand it most of all.

Now, before I bring this collection of thoughts to a close, let me state that I’m avoiding the entire Mahalo “controversy” at the moment because there’s more to the story than most people will ever know or understand. If I said anything about it, either way, I’d have to provide a complete historical perspective that would likely make a seriously weird situation even more weird. Too many personal and professional lines would have to be crossed – something I’m really not willing to do.

27 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Gnomedex Conversation”

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  4. I am glad you have responded Chris, and I think your candor here is very much in line with the personal giftings you possess that makes Gnomedex a possibility. It takes a unique mixture of diplomacy and passion to do what you do, making Gnomedex a continued success.

    I enjoy the open discussion Gnomedex represents, and simply want to see it protected from being redefined by new presenters who can’t countenance a tough question once in a while. Since openness is an undergirding principle emerging from blogging itself, then the speakers, no matter what the topic, need to be vetted so that they are ‘open sourced’ to have their ideas and contributions refined.

    We live in a hyper-sensitive world, and I hope Gnomedex can remain an oasis of intellectual honesty where agendas and clarity are openly questioned without the thought police labeling those that question things as brutes. Dave and others are not trolls because they raise objections. The real trolls are self-evident and easy enough to smart people to detect and dismiss.

    If you need speakers, I would be happy to volunteer and laugh at the detractors. My goal would be to raise the value of the conversation.

  5. I am not sure what there is to be sorry about Chris. You apologize to Neal because there were people who thought their presentation came off phony. I happen to be the “idiot” that he blogged about. I’d post on his own site but of course, he locked his own comments down. At least Cali earned my respect by engaging in discourse on my site and not running from criticism. Kudos to her.

    The trend that I see coming out of Gnomedex is that if you had even a slightly critical view of the conference and speakers you are disturbed. That is sad to me. I appreciate the work you and Ponzi put into the show – i really do. If you would rather us show appreciation by glossing over the areas that needed improvement fine, but truly, there were only a handful of really good speakers this year. Fortunately I got my money’s worth out of three speakers, else I’d have a reason to be really pissed off.

  6. Robert Steele didn’t bother me, but I feel I got nothing from his presentation, besides the entertaining twitters from attendees. He blew a great opportunity by taking his presentation the way he did, and as aggressively as he did. But, so it goes. I enjoyed every other presentation that I was able to catch on the live stream, and learned at least a little something from each.

  7. I “participated’ off and on from a distance via the streams, twits and artifacts . I think you and Ponzi deserve big huge attapersons for taking risks and pushing on the boundaries. It is at those very boundaries and edges that we learn.

    The digerati are a huge asset to the world. They are also at times a very insular group. The power of their brains needs the fresh air outside of their (our) own bubble.

    Keep pushing!

  8. Chris,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful commentary on this years Gnomedex Conference. For those of us who weren’t there, the boldness of the conference will make us wish we were (and hopefully get us off our asses and to the conference next year) and, for those who were, it’s good to see the organizers comments on how it all went.

    I’m also impressed at you staying away from the whole Mahalo thing. I think it’s already been hashed to death in other blogs and there is no reason to keep it all alive. Besides, it seems that Jason and Dave have kissed and made up and, maybe, things will get back to normal.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts with your loyal readers. Hope to meet you at next years Gnomedex!

  9. Chris
    The theme I brought back from Gnomedex 7 was “breaking out of the bubble”. Problem is, that’s appearing to be a lot harder to do than any of us imagine. Robert’s unintended gaffe during your wrap-up of Derek’s presentation was a valuable insight into just how far wrapped up we are in this little web 2.0 cocoon. Suddenly Valleywag and cancer were on the same level, fleeting twitter images jumping from one subject to the next. But of course cancer isn’t fleeting. The world outside the bubble is so much more important, and so far removed from 140 character phrases, as to make what happened at Gnomedex almost totally irrelevant.
    But Gnomedex was about (to me) shining a light on that irrelevance, forcing the issue a bit. What I would like most is for Gnomedex 8 to continue that theme, to start to bring the world in to, and us out of, this little inconsequential bubble we call web 2.0

  10. I’m sorry, in hindsight, for interrupting the end of a session with my own problems. Here’s why I interrupted the session: I was getting SMS’s from around the world (and in the room, even) wondering what was up because Valleywag was reporting that I had been fired. I figured that since the session was over and we were about to go to lunch I’d just answer the questions right there and then and keep me from having to answer the question over and over again during lunch.

    It was inappropriate, though, and sometimes in the heat of the moment we do stuff that later doesn’t seem very smart.

    Good for you to answer the concerns. I’m looking forward to Gnomedex next year.

    I’ll come back to your slam about “Facebook gadgets” in the next comment, just wanted to get this one out.

  11. >What I’m asking for (directly and indirectly) is help in finding on-stage personalities who aren’t in the echo chamber.

    Brian Cox. Brian Cox. Brian Cox.

    You need to get to Europe (and India and China) and bring some of the best speakers from there over here.

    That’s how to improve the echo chamber. I keep hoping that a conference steps it up in our industry. So far TED, “D”, and PopTech are the ones in the US that really push the boundaries in a way that you seem to want to do, but find much better speakers than you were able to put on stage.

    >Maybe I’m wrong, and the industry still needs to talk about how FaceBook is taking over the world – in person, as opposed to hashing it out endlessly in our respective blogs.

    Thats NOT what i want. But you personalized it again, which makes it very difficult to give feedback.

    What was missing from this year’s Gnomedex? A sense of play and enjoyment of technology. I miss Phillip Torrone.

  12. Chris,

    This was my second Gnomedex. I came expecting to spend the weekend reconnecting with a lot of friends, seeing some interesting presentations (including a few that might be announcements/newsworthy) and have a great time in Seattle.

    I ended up having a very professionally useful conference (somehow doing bizdev for an ad network is not as difficult as I thought it might be – something about helping people make money I suspect). I indeed also had a great time in Seattle, had great meals and met many really amazing people.

    All that said, I was very disappointed in this year’s speakers. In conversations I had at and around Gnomedex the rough consensus was that 1/3 of the speakers were kooks and aweful, 1/3 were okay, and 1/3 were good (Guy was perhaps great – but gave a speech many had seen many times before).

    But I think the opening and the closing speakers started and ended on a bad note – and that many other speakers in various small ways showed a mismatch with the audience (I know Michael who spoke on Open Money in other contexts but did find his closing requests for funding a bit off putting along with how he handled a few questions).

    One small bit of advice which I think though seemingly small was a big part of the change in feel this year.

    Last year there were short presentations BETWEEN sessions (from Make magazine etc). At many other conferences these short between session presentations (videos, music etc) give people some mental space. For MeshForum I call these “Interstitials” and generally program artists and others to give short presentations/demos (in many ways much like the ignite talks – which was I think one of the standout moments).

    Also there was a lack of cohesion between the speakers – a wide range of formats (one speaker, two speakers, lots of speakers for short periods) and not much of an overarching theme connecting the speakers and telling a story. This is hard, but I think a good flow to the speakers could have really helped.

    And another small item – not certain this was the case, but this year it felt like the lighting in the audience was darker than in years past – for me at least this drained a bit of my energy while sitting in the audience (you’ll note in contrast to last year, I asked many fewer questions – and most questions were asked by folks in the most well lit/near the stage parts of the space.

    I would suggest that you take a bit of a cue from SXSW – let people start to submit speakers – but also be proactive in asking for speakers – and frame those talks in some manner.

    But in addition to speakers – I would look into getting interviewers. I’d suggest that probably almost all of the speakers this year (perhaps not the ignite folks whose talks were very concise and focused) could have benefited from a truly great interviewer asking them questions on stage – and then supplemented quickly with questions from the audience.

    My suggestion would be:

    – have the interviewer give a short context setting introduction of a speaker (but not a 30 second one, possibly a 4-5 minute intro w/slides)

    – have the interviewer ask a few questions or one main one that leads into a solid but short presentation by the speaker (5-10 minutes probably – ala the ignite talks). This should probably set the stage for a viewpoint the speaker holds – something they are passionate about and working on (I personally don’t mind hearing about companies – but prefer to also get context)

    – then some follow up questions from the interviewer – say 10-15 mins (so this is the first 30 mins or so)

    – then for the remaining 20 mins or so, open up to a lot of questions from the audience (and ideally find a useful way to get some from IRC/twitter/backchannels as well)

    The interviewer should probably have access to a computer on stage – so they might expand on an audience member’s question – inserting additional points from the IRC for example. Ideally as well it might be possible for people in the audience to also add to a question so that the speaker then addresses more folk’s questions/issues/thoughts

    A key question to keep in mind in all of this is “what is the goal of the presentations?”

    – spark discussions?

    – capture and document a thesis/experience? (and share that with the attendees and through them the world)

    – make news/announcements (launch a new product, make a political point etc)

    – move the “blogosphere” forward on a given issue [I’d personally recommend against this last point – especially since there is by no means only one “blogosphere” and though Gnomedex is great, it doesn’t actually have everyone important on any given issue in attendance. That said, a session could certainly be scheduled with the intention of raising an issue and giving it a higher profile – along with one or more approaches to dealing with it (privacy vs. live streaming for example could have been one this year – i.e. disclosures, releases, commercial use, archives etc)

    Hope this is helpful. Getting speakers and scheduling them in a balanced and well flowing manner is by far one of the hardest parts to organizing a conference.


  13. Andrew said:

    “We live in a hyper-sensitive world, and I hope Gnomedex can remain an oasis of intellectual honesty where agendas and clarity are openly questioned without the thought police labeling those that question things as brutes.”


    Whatever happened to good old politeness, too?

  14. Scoble said; “I really hope that next year’s is much better and that Chris gets back to Gnomedex’s roots. Celebration of technology and putting users at the center. Let’s go back to that and then I’ll be happy again.”

    Chris, as a former Gnomedex’r, (absent the last two years – Did you miss me?) I agree with Scoble that it’s been my opinion that Gnomedex has moved away from its grassroots.

    What is this grassroots about which I speak? Perhaps a list is easier …

    * Gnomedex appealed to me because it covered cutting edge technologies that other conferences didn’t cover because they were too “early” to even be on their early adopter radar.

    * The speakers at Gnomedex seemed relevant to what was going on at the time and focused on technology more for its application than just how to “monetize” its use. Some of us “Geeks” just wanted to changes peoples consciousness through technology vs. just trying to make dollars.

    * Everyone was approachable. As Gnomedex has gotten bigger and bigger, this has just not been the case. There is a considerable air among some G’dexers that feel they are of greater importance than some of the other attendees thus I believe inhibiting the “sharing of ideas” format that G’dex was founded on.

    Once these aspects began to change, I think I found myself not finding the value that I once did in the conference.

    Thanks for the opportunity to allow me to voice my concerns.

  15. All I have to say is – from all the Gnomedex videos I have seen – I would LOVE to have been there. Maybe, if Chris ever gives up on Seattle and has one on the East Coast……!!

  16. I wonder what having the courage to hold a 2.5 day Open Space would yield, instead of speakers and presentations ? All the talent and passion that usually attends a GDX is impressive … I can imagine what it / they would get up to.

    The tough parts of the bold step of holding an Open Space ? First, the central question that forms the core of the invitation … that question is what gives structure and focus to an Open Space. The second challenge might be the right facility.

    The interesting possibility is what the “results” of a GDX Open Space would be over the following year, 2 years, 3 years and so on.

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