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Doing the FOO

June 12, 2012

I think it's going to take me quite a while to unpack the events of the past few days. I'll make a start now, at any rate.

It all began on Friday evening with the "graduation" ceremony and dinner for the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford which I have been luckier than lucky to be part of this past academic year. Ten months have zipped by faster than any ten months I've ever experienced to date. The brainpower and ideas I've been around have left me feeling both full of new energy and also like I've got an incredibly big mountain to climb. I'm up for it though.

And then over the past two days at FOO Camp, I've sort of felt like I've experienced the entire fellowship year on high speed. Like watching a movie in fast forward mode. It's been intense.

Let me back up: FOO Camp (which stands for "Friends of O'Reilly" Camp) was launched ten years ago by Tim O'Reilly, a publisher, conference organizer, entrepreneur and futurist. For one weekend every summer since then, O'Reilly has invited around 200 people whom he finds interesting for whatever reason to come and hang out at his company's headquarters in Sebastopol, a small town about an hour or so north of San Francisco. A few weeks ago, I received an invitation.

FOO is a sort of a conference, but in a very free-form, west coasty style mode. It was set up as a way for O'Reilly Media to see what kinds of issues are trending right now and to bring innovators together to brainstorm solutions to various problems.

After people show up (mostly on Friday night, though I turned up on Saturday owing to Knight Fellowship graduation obligations) they pitch tents in the orchards behind the O'Reilly office, sign up on the spot to give talks about anything and everything that springs to mind -- there were sessions this time on cloud robotics, what books people are reading, how to fix college education and hacking scooters to name just a few -- drink, eat, talk, make strange objects out of motors, LED lights, rubber bands and crayons and generally participate in whatever ways they see fit to do so.

O'Reilly himself wandered around in board shorts, a cap and short-sleeved shirt leading a couple of his own sessions, popping in and out of other people's and chatting with his guests.

The attendees were a very varied bunch. There were founders of successful startups, a smattering of government and corporate people (mostly from the tech sector), artists of various kinds, programmers, O'Reilly Media employees, academics working in trendy areas like robotics, media science and bioinformatics, and "Makers" (I can't quite get used to this term; it stems from O'Reilly's Make Magazine wing and it denotes the community of people who are into making things. As opposed to buying things. It just seems a bit post-apocalyptic to me.) The only quality that people seemed to share was a spirit of entrepreneurism.

What did I do? I attended a bunch of talks, met a great many fabulous people, ate and drank delicious things, felt way in over my head during talks about subjects like "cloud robotics" and led a late-night drinking songs session which eventually devolved into a drunken, quasi-sung, drinking games session. I slept for too few hours in the orchard in my new REI tent, test rode a newfangled type of electric scooter which will soon be providing a Zip Car-style rental service in San Francisco and had an image of my head turned into a miniature plastic bust via a 3D printer. All in all, I learned many revelatory things, got to share some of my experiences and way of seeing with others and had quite a bit of fun.

Here are a few random thoughts and questions I picked up from conversations and sessions over the weekend:

1. To combat the anti-competitive attitudes of the big telecommunications providers, small comms companies are finding niche markets such as areas that don't get service from the major players or only get spotty service. These mom and pop ISPs are creating opportunities and breaking telco monopolies.

2. Our ability to record data makes it less important for our brains to remember things than it used to be. The issue now is to remember where to find the information we've recorded.

3. How can we record our experiences at the same time as being fully present in them?

4. To what extent is it possible to control our memories? With companies like Facebook and Twitter 'deciding' how far back to allow users to access their posts, and users sometimes posting information about other users that the other users don't want to see and be reminded of, individuals can't always delve as far back into their pasts as they'd like to or choose to discard unwanted memories.

5. Today's business models seem to be less and less about money changing hands between two parties. The Internet is full of "invisible economies" where value is created often by middlemen springing up to make those economies work. For example, creates value by connecting people who want to launch projects with their supporters. PRX creates value by linking independent radio producers with program directors at radio stations who might want to buy their work. There are in addition, more businesses springing up around helping people navigate these marketplaces. For example, there are now "Kickstarter consultants" who are helping people launch projects successfully on Kickstarter as the failure rate is quite high.

6. The internet economy thrives on community. Making money is ultimately not about selling ads to your community but figuring out the value of what you can do with your community.

7. It's possible to earn a thriving living as an individual brand on the Internet. One person I met who came to prominence making lighthearted four-minute videos on YouTube (which have gained a particularly large following among teenage girls) makes money by selling ads, merchandise and books, running a record label, hosting a conference for online video professionals, aspiring video makers and fans, receiving grants from Google to create special video content and -- this is the best part -- selling 2D glasses for people who get headaches from watching 3D movies using the traditional 3D glasses but still want to go to see these movies with their friends/family members/lovers. Seriously. He sells the 2D glasses for $8 a pop.

I'm sure more thoughts will percolate over the next few weeks. This experience is going to stay with me for a long time.


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