TEDx: use our brand but make sure people know it’s not us

In my networks class today we were talking about co-creation: what it means to co-create, when it makes sense to do it, how it relates to the two-sided market model, and the state of Steven’s iPad. Now, with soy latte in hand and my first seat at Free Speech Cafe (!), I’m thinking about how this all relates to networking events like TED and their latest offshoot, TEDx.

Organised by potentially ‘anyone in the world’, TEDx events are independently organised events with a distinct TED flavor. TED determines the platform (events share the same format, documentation and purpose) while organisers ‘curate’ the content on the platform.

This is an example of a two-sided market model because TED must court both speakers and participants in order to develop a successful product. Much of the value in bringing both together is in the value of the brand and the extent to which the brand’s promise is fulfilled by both parties. Having one’s brand dependent on external parties who aren’t formally contracted with one another is a new and fascinating phenomenon. In the past, you knew that the company selling you a conference ticket was responsible for your experience. When TED informally contracts out this service to people who aren’t responsible to TED, they must trust that the resulting product will fulfill the brand’s promise.

TED has done something pretty clever here in order to gain maximum value out of connecting with people who want to co-create the brand with them, while still attempting to mitigate some of the risks. TED makes sure they select the people who will organise the events (‘no one can host a TEDx event unless he or she has been granted a license to do so by TED’) and they have clear guidelines about the use of the logo and the TED format. Instead of asking organisers to use the TED logo, they use the logo marker (‘TED’) as a way to signal to users that this is the TED platform but that content is independently curated (‘x’). It’s almost as if they’re saying: ‘This is TED but it’s also not TED. We are the platform, but we are not the content on that platform’.

I’m not sure how analogous this is to video game platform producers who have video game developers producing video games on the platform, but it’s definitely new, and it’s definitely something that people who produce events must think about – especially those like TED whose brand is global and who are then under pressure to find a way to scale up the event in the most efficient way.

I’m left with a lot of questions. How do you extract the platform from the content in an event? What role does the brand play in an event like this? And will TED try to control the brand in new ways if and when there are any risks to it by this move towards ‘co-creation’?

Learning entrepreneurship by being an entrepreneur

Tina Seelig just gave a wonderful talk at the iSchool titled: ‘Entrepreneurship is an extreme sport’. She talked about how important it is to teach entrepreneurship by doing. The video above was made by a team of her students at Stanford where she teaches a class on entrepreneurship. The students were given a pack of post-its and told to create as much value as possible out of the resource in a limited period of time.

The success of the course led to the Global Entrepreneurship Week. According to the website, Global Entrepreneurship Week ‘connected young people everywhere through local, national and global activities designed to help them explore their potential as self-starters and innovators’. I’m interested to see what happened in South Africa. I had a look at the site, but can’t see similar activities to Seelig’s entrepreneurship-by-doing philosophy. Looks like there was a lot of talking and networking – all great and valuable but I think that the real value of Seelig’s approach is what’s missing in SA.

By actively practicing entrepreneurship, said Seelig, students learn about: identifying opportunities, challenging assumptions, leveraging resources, creating value, learning about teamwork, taking risks, and learning from failure.

Failure is an important part of learning to be an entrepreneur, said Seelig. A colleague of hers has a philosophy of punishing inaction but never failure.

Her advice to people in places that look down on failure? ‘Try to create a hub where you actively promote a culture that doesn’t punish failure,’ she said.

Seelig noticed that students do much better in the course when it is linked to extra-curricula activities rather than linking it to a grade.

‘At the start of the class, I tell my students to: never miss an opportunity to be fabulous,’ she said.

SA could take a leaf out of Seelig’s book: ‘What I wish I knew when I was 20: A crash course in making your place in the world‘. In a way, I guess we’re the national equivalent of 20 🙂

Can a conference get too big?

In my final hour of sxsw, I realise that my.sxsw2010 is a story about queues (a.k.a. ‘lines’).

There was the line/queue to the Mozilla party that snaked around the back of the building and out onto the street. I had been in the VIP queue/line, but when I realised that, despite all my efforts to be one, I was not, in fact, a VIP but rather a JAP (just-another-(one-of-7091)-persons) I stomped unhappily down the street. Just then, my (Mozilla) friend, Aza, hung out the window of the party inside and handed me an orange bracelet.

‘Aha! I have the esteemed orange bracelet!’ I thought, as I marched stealthily toward the blonde bouncers at the front of the line/queue with a smirk and a silent: ‘You thought that I was a JAP. How do you feel knowing that I am, in fact, a VIP! Huh?! Huh?!!’

I now know that orange bracelets don’t get you places. Orange bracelets are just… well… orange bracelets. They are not the key to transforming one from a JAP to VIP. They are not the key to the pearly gates.

Luckily for me, Mark, the god of the Mozilla Happy Hour looked down at us and gave the universal signal for: ‘Open the pearly gates for this woman!’ I was in! And with that, came all the heavenly gifts that a sxsw Mozilla Happy Hour must bestow upon us (including a mob of smart heathens and greasy delights to sop up the free-flowing beverages). I saw old friends and made a few new friends. I was happy. I felt secure. All because I was connected to the god of the Mozilla Happy Hour.

Other lines/queues were not so accommodating – mostly because my sxsw pass didn’t come with a similar god of the Mozilla Happy Hour. There was the line/queue to the bathroom, the queue/line to purchase an overpriced soy latte, and the line/queue to get into a movie called ‘Tiny Furniture’. Apparently the queue/line was so long that the volunteers had calculated it to be too long for me to, indeed, see the film. So I went to the shorter line to watch a worse movie. I fell asleep in the first 5 minutes. I’m sure the movie was fine. I was just exhausted.

I was last here in 2003. The interactive event was just getting started then. I remember feeling exhausted then, but not overwhelmed. And now I realise that there’s a pretty big difference between the two.

Me, Andy, Jack, Ivo, Gaby, Allan, Spratt - pic by Gareth Knight

sxsw is an amazing event. I’ve been inspired and I’ve learned some really practical things that I will actually use after this. But I’m left feeling like I need to lie by myself in Child’s Pose in a dark room for at least a week. Last night I couldn’t do it anymore. I went for a swim, looked up at the skyscrapers around me and marveled at how lucky it is to have guides in this world.

I think sxsw needs to find a way to enable us to guide one another – first-timers with old-timers; locals with out-of-towners.

But even guides won’t change the length of the lines/queues. When some sessions are so big that people feel they can walk out because they won’t be noticed, or even if they’re noticed, no one knows who they are anyway, the conference is probably too big.

At 17,000+, sxsw might just have gotten too big. At least for me.

InfoCamp comes to Berkeley

I’m on the team at the iSchool organizing the upcoming InfoCamp. It all started when we were sitting in a meeting last semester talking about doing an event in the Spring. Someone mentioned InfoCamp. I emailed the organisers and Kristen and the team from InfoCamp Seattle welcomed us with open arms. It’s been a great experience so far – all the richer for having the Seattle team as supporters and collaborators (and providers of great event content that we’ve used as templates). Makes me realise how cool this model is and how we should do it for GeekRetreat – especially the principle of letting local groups decide on the specifics of the meeting but still sticking to some core principles around the unconference format, lack of advertising etc.

Anyway, more on that soon, but in the meantime, check out InfoCamp Berkeley and if you’re in the area, and you’re interested in information design, policy, experience or organisation, you are most welcome – to attend, speak and/or help out.

More below:

Mark your calendar–the first annual InfoCamp Berkeley is taking place Saturday, March 6 at UC Berkeley!

InfoCamp is an unconference for anyone interested in user experience, information architecture, interaction design, user-centered design, information design, librarianship, online search, information management, informatics, and related fields.  InfoCamp features an egalitarian, community-driven format in which you, the participants, create and lead most of the sessions!  The purpose of this format is to encourage collaboration, interaction, discussion, and real-time innovation. And, it’s a lot of fun!

Tickets are just $20 and can be purchased here:

Learn more and keep up-to-date with the latest information about InfoCamp:
InfoCamp blog

WikiWars and the politics of despair

Dror Kamir talks about the war of the wiki at WikiWars in Bangalore

Last week, I was in Bangalore for ‘WikiWars: Critical Point of View‘, a workshop organised by the Centre for Internet and Society (India) and the Institute of Network Cultures (Netherlands). As our invitation letter outlined, ‘WikiWars is not a traditional conference. It has attracted not only people from across disciplines but also people with different kinds of stakes in the Wikipedia knowledge network that we seek to build.’

I was pretty nervous about the event. It was the first time that I spoke publicly against the architecture of  “free and open” organisations and projects, and the first time in a very long time that I’ve presented an academic paper rather than speaking from my experience or with my “free and open” advocate hat on.

I’ve discarded that hat for now. I think I had probably discarded it a long time ago – or at least started to understand that my role as critic will be much more useful. I had started to become disenchanted many years ago, but kept thinking that I just needed to work a bit harder, be a little more convincing, in order to prove that we really could build something better, more globally united, more fair and just than what we had built before.

WikiWars was an eye-opener. Almost everyone came from a similar place. Many of us are (or were) Wikipedians or open-source activists, and this is, I think, what differentiates this kind of critique from most of the mainstream criticism that we hear about Wikipedia. The perspectives of the participants came from a very deep understanding and experience of Wikipedia. It was this experience that made the one perspective from an academic with little (or no) experience of Wikipedia so stark against the background of such rich experience.

There were geographers, political scientists, social scientists, media researchers and artists – a hodgepodge of the people from Israel to Taiwan, the United Kingdom to Australia who shared what is so rare these days: a critical perspective on one of the world’s most powerful information sources.

At the beginning of the event, co-organiser, Geert Lovink talked about the role of the critic. ‘We know what a literary film critic is, but what is an Internet critic?’ he asked. ‘Usually the way we look at critics is that they are losers, but they have an important role that can be very productive – productive because there is a direct relationship between the way we talk about things and about how they are actually represented.’

‘It shows that people from the outside care so much that they will put something like this on,’ said Lovink. ‘It is a desirable state of emancipation that Wikipedia research moves out of the Wikimedia Foundation.’

After I had presented, I talked to Nishant Shah, research director at CIS, who must be one of the cleverest, most eloquent people I have ever met. He talked to me about the ‘politics of despair’ and said that my talk reminded him of this. ‘Despair is not negative,’ he told me. ‘Negative would be if you ignored it.’

I feel like many long, dark days of isolation are over – for a while at least – and that this is a community that I have the utmost respect for. Watch this space. WikiWars will be publishing a reader later this year with the papers from the event series.

My presentation | My draft paper

The power and the peril of self-congratulation

Justin Spratt, Elan Lohmann and Daniel Neville shoot the breeze in true GeekRetreat fashion last Saturday

It’s exactly a week since GeekRetreat Stanford Valley and I’m sitting in my freezing cold Berkeley apartment collecting my thoughts and the countless pages of notes that I wrote on the plane back to the US on Monday night. (Moving around the world at such an alarming rate is such wonderful medicine for perspective.)

After some heart-warming perspectives from participants (Marlon Parker, Snowgoose, Jarred Cinman, Eve Dmochowska have all written insightful, provocative posts – but there are others still emerging) there has been a great deal of debate whether the retreat is a ‘talk fest’ or whether ‘anything changes’ as a result.

I think this debate is fascinating – but for less than obvious reasons.

The first is implied with the horrible ‘circle jerk’ term (which I promise never to use ever again unless it is absolutely necessary). If you don’t know what ‘circle jerk’ means, please look it up, or take my watered-down explanation here. The term refers to a group of young men sitting around in a self-referencing circle pleasuring themselves. Although gross, I think this is a really good analogy for the kind of self-referencing, isolated, homogenous, male-dominated community that often dominates when members of the South African IT community get together.

On the other hand, I’m struck by the liberal use of this term for every event initiated by this community.

Self-congratulation, where not warranted, is no good (although I can think of much worse things). But I find it incredible how hard we South Africans are on ourselves, and how seldom we are able to congratulate ourselves and one another. I always remember an old mentor telling me how we Africans grow up with a very large burden. Everything we do has to save the world, or the continent at least – and it robs us of the kind of play and enjoyment that enables innovation to thrive. Being in the US I understand the value of congratulation, and I also understand the value of play – both of which need to be nurtured in order for us to build anything worthwhile.

I also think that the circle-jerk term is probably a symptom of the dissatisfaction that many feel with the self-referencing, smallness of the ‘IT crowd’ in SA. There are, however, some incredible people on the outside (and even the inside in some cases) who are optimistic about breaking up the circle and looking for some deeper meaning for the community.

This is the last that I’m going to say about it personally because I’d rather spend my time on more important debates, especially ones where the critique is more well-informed. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled that there has been critique – it shows that people care, and that is our greatest battle overcome. I only wish people would be critical about important things like why a particular strategy for mentoring young geeks was chosen, why the culture of the retreat is dominated by particular world views, or why IT pros find it impossible to have a constructive discussion about race and solutions towards diversity.

I, for one, will continue to sing the praises of those who came and shared at the GeekRetreat – and especially those who will continue the conversation after the event. I’m only certain of one thing these days and that is that ‘change’ comes in different forms and that deep, meaningful change happens slowly, gently, without the kind of fanfare that we’re used to.

As Elaine Rumboll said in one of the sessions, ‘It’s questions that change the world; not answers.’

For me, and for most (if not all) of the people who attended the GeekRetreat, so many questions were fired inside of me to say that that, for now, is enough.


GeekRetreat scholarships available!

We’re gearing up for the next GeekRetreat from 15-17 January in Stanford, Western Cape. I can’t wait! It’s going to be awesome 🙂 And, best thing is that we have 11/12 scholarships for people from non-profits/social entrepreneurship ventures related to education and the Internet! More below:

If you’re working on or have an idea for an education project that uses the Internet to improve quality/access/diversity of education in South Africa, please fill out the form here by 7 December at the latest. If selected, you’ll join 50 social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, tech journalists, and PR people making the Internet better for South Africa one byte at a time.

Scholarships are sponsored by Old Mutual and Sentient Communications, and will go to candidates who will get the most out of connecting with some of South Africa’s most important digital entrepreneurs.

The retreat will be held from 15-17 January 2010 in the beautiful village of Stanford in the Western Cape. Scholarships will cover participant fees + airfare (if necessary).

Find out more about the GeekRetreat by visiting the FAQ.