Deconstructing the Gnomedex Conversation

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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.

Age:

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.

Health:

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.

Business:

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.

Distance;

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.

Identity:

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.