Monday, June 28, 2010

What's special about Foo?

On my way home I thought a bit about what is so special about Tim O'Reilly's Foo Camp. If I recall correctly, I've now attended 3 times: 2007, 2008 and 2010. Probably what I am about to say is not new, although it does come from my atypical physicist / entrepreneur / amateur social scientist perspective.

There are famous and influential people at Foo, but I imagine other gatherings (that I don't get invited to, such as Davos :-) have even more.

There are smart people at Foo, but average IQs at meetings in certain subfields are even higher.

There are really creative and energetic people at Foo, and on these criteria I doubt it can be surpassed.

But, in my mind, the two things that make the meeting truly unique are:

1. The diversity of talents and viewpoints, with participants ranging from hackers to social activists to scientists to grizzled CEOs and investors. The people at Foo are deliberately trying to create the future and are engaged with all that that entails: technology, ideas, organizations, capital.

2. The unique *social* environment. Tim has managed to create a "social reality distortion field" which enables interactions that are passionate but simultaneously friendly and open. People are genuinely happy to be at Foo Camp, and they are generous, intellectually and otherwise, with others. If I hear an argument at Foo that I don't agree with, I will try to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, and factor in the unique knowledge and experience they bring to the issue. My questions will be friendly and non-aggressive. This is quite different from what happens at specialized meetings (e.g., among physicists) or in academia in general.

What can other meetings learn from Foo? If organizers are brave enough and set the social tone from the beginning, they can positively affect the quality of the event. Also, since interesting people are often multi-faceted, it might be worth setting aside some time in the evening for short demos or discussions on topics outside the main focus of the meeting. Sometimes at physics workshops I am amazed at how boring the dinner conversations are, given the special brains at the table. Some of the best talks I've attended at Foo are on "life topics'' such as dealing with success and failure, Paleo fitness, work/life balance, living green, etc.

Here is a great post by Scott Berkun, with similar thoughts about what makes Foo special. It seems that Scott and I went to almost entirely different sessions, which is probably why I barely had a chance to say hello to him this year.

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