GeekRetreat 2011: What really happened (or did it?)

If you were following the GeekRetreat on Twitter last weekend, you may think that the event took a horrible turn for the worse by turning into a reality tv-type event. The story started on Saturday, where I apparently announced that this wasn’t the GeekRetreat but Geek Factor – a mix of Fear Factor, Big Brother and Survivor, Geek Factor pitted 37 geeks against one another in a battle to control the title of uber geek. After a number of intense challenges including a Treasure Hunt, Swimming Race and staring competition, Argent Brown, CEO and Lifetime President of Argent Rockstar Corporation, apparently emerged victorious, winning R100,000 from the GeekRetreat Foundation.

Although many of the activities were similar (there was, in fact, a treasure hunt at the retreat) the GeekRetreat was far from a competition. A spirit of play, respect and support permeated the event, where geekstars could test out new ideas and practice geekdom in what GR fellow, Elodie Kleynhans referred to as a very ‘safe’ environment.

GR fellows arrived on Thursday evening to a room with a very different setup to traditional conferences. Instead of dozens of chairs facing a podium, the chairs were arranged in a circle and before long geeks were playing a geek version of musical chairs where ‘the wind blew’ others like them to another chair in the room. 36 geeks from Joburg to Cape Town to San Francisco were there. The San Franciscan, Andy Volk, had come to the event last year and couldn’t resist the opportunity to come back again. ‘I got great value out of the retreat. It’s definitely worth traveling half way around the world for.’

Next up, Jarred Cinman and I explained the format of this year’s retreat. We have learned over the years that the most valuable interactions happen during the games and in the corridors – opportunities for us to have fun and collaborate with one another and through that collaboration learn who we want to work with in the future. Instead of just talking and debating, this year was about actually making something – an app, a website, a campaign, a competition or an activity – over the remaining three days.

As the smells of Cornelie de Villiers’ great cooking wafted over to the conference room, we collaboratively designed the schedule for the next few days. Each day was punctuated by scrum sessions in which the large group would come together to decide what had been done, what needed doing and whether anyone was facing any challenges. In actual fact, the scrum continued throughout the day as teams worked in a small corner of the conference room, in peoples’ rooms and outside, with a constant dialogue running about what was happening, who needed help and how priorities needed to be shifted.

In the next few days, fellows worked hard at their projects – asking folks from other teams to help them with interviews, content, and coding. In between gadget time, we swam in the lake, hugged the calf that is being reared on the farm, did frog dives off the pontoon, visited the local brewery, taught one another how to knit and danced to 80s music. In skill share sessions ,comprised of 10 minute how-to’s and conversations, fellows showed us how to make a box out of a sheet of paper (Pam Sykes), how to fold iphone headphones (Henk Kleynhans), how to program (Paul Furber) and how to keep healthy (Elodie Kleynhans), amongst other geeky and non-geeky tips.

In the end, eight projects were developed and showcased over the course of the weekend. Geek Factor emerged from the GeekRetreat documentation project with the goal of creating a spoof GR campaign. The team wanted to create a series of competing narratives about the GeekRetreat, emphasizing the fact that what people say about the event is often very far from individuals’ experiences and that people often believe what they want to believe on the Internet, not stopping to question or critically analyze what is being ‘reported’. In documenting GeekFactor, the team built spoof websites for GeekFactor and Argent Brown’s Argent Rockstar Corporation, shot video diaries documenting competitors’ feelings about how the competition was going, maintained a series of new Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and used the analogue power of rumor to weave a narrative about the retreat that was very far from the reality of what was really happening.

Said Jarred, ‘The decision to be unreliable narrators on the retreat was an experiment in how information spreads, how reputation informs communication and the fluidity of perspective. Critically the project showed what the weekend was about by showing what it wasn’t. Accused of being elitist, self-aggrandising and an excuse for inebriation, we took those accusations to their logical extreme. The ultimate geek ego was embodied by Argent Brown; the geeks indulged in hacking contests and staring competitions; and reports of self-important dialogue were legion. Retreatants themselves were kept partly in the dark and the stark contrast to the retreat as it was and as it was reflected became more and more pronounced giving everyone a unique and vivid experience of what it’s like to become victims of the new media we both create and live within.’

Henk Kleynhans from Skyrove, who donated the bandwidth and bandwidth management for the event, launched a project to ask DSL subscribers across the country to test their DSL speed in order to elicit real data that shows which service providers provide the fastest network connections. Bootstrap Secrets, a project led by Elan Lohmann, built a website where entrepreneurs can give others advice about running a startup in South Africa. The website’s focus is on anecdotal advice, tips, lessons and __ and contributors are encouraged to be as honest as possible. Speaking to the GR fellows, Elan said, ‘We couldn’t have done it without the fantastic submissions from you guys. In the next few weeks we’ll be inviting specific people who aren’t here to contribute tips and advice through Twitter.’

Solve my fucking problem – inspired by What the fuck is my social media strategy and Writer’s block – was a website developed for people to submit their problems. According to project lead Andy Hadfield, the team was experimenting with a viral campaign that would inspire businesses to solve real world problems.

Geeks @ Play saw fellows creating a play list of things they wanted to play at over the weekend and tagging each activity with their initials once they’d completed it. According to project lead, Leslie Maliepaard, stargazing, ‘hug a calf’, ‘lollipops and cupcakes’, and diving off pontoon were some of the most popular activities, with the least popular being ‘climb’ a tree’ and ‘twitpic a bunny’. Other fellows added onto the Play List by creating a paper progress bar, showing how far each fellow at the retreat had gone in achieving their playful activities. Leslie is keen to explore these ideas even further after the retreat, exploring ways to take these playful ideas online by inspiring people to play with their friends on Facebook. ‘This showed me that it’s easy to play, that everyone wants to have fun and that sometimes it’s important to take time to play,’ said Leslie.

The Reputation group explored the problem of deciding who to follow on Twitter and to dedicate scarce attention resources to. Led by Len Weincier, the team wanted to build a reputation graph that showed reputation levels relative to one another, inspired by the ELO ratings for chess and from X-box Live. After asking GR fellows to rate one another according to whether each was a ‘cool geek’ or an ‘uber geek’, the team used 3 different algorithms to compare the data. By looking at the graphs that resulted from adding up individuals’ ‘scores’, then weighting scores of scorers according to whether they were more positive or negative than others, the team ended up learning a great deal about how complex reputation graphs are and how their concept could be extended to real world situations in which people could offer one another favors with some kind of understanding of how good they were for it.

The Pitch Off team led by Pete Flynn created a Pitch Off competition for fellows to pitch five social entrepreneurial business ideas to judges and then to the audience. The five brave souls pitched their ideas and got valuable feedback from GR fellow judges, Alex Fraser, Brian Pinnock and Elan Lohmann who all have experience having ideas pitched to them in their businesses. Fellows learned a great deal from the pitches and the feedback they received. Said Pete, ‘It was interesting to see how differently judges scored their ideas – just emphasizing how we shouldn’t give up when we receive negative feedback from someone.’ It was a close call between contestants but Sam Christie won the final prize with his idea to use computer labs in low-income schools as call-center hubs.

The Geek Movie team produced a movie from interviews with almost all the fellows at the retreat on their experience of being a geek and what advice they would give to young geeks. The team led by Pam Sykes, Elodie Kleynhans with help from Luisa Mazinter, Larry Claasen and Jon Maliepaard said in their final presentation that the result was totally different from what they expected and that the process where everyone pitched in and where there was very little hierarchy worked really well.

It was an emotional farewell after prizes and thanks to everyone who helped make this year’s GeekRetreat such an incredible success. In final words, fellows emphasized how inspiring it was to find a community with such patience, understanding and tolerance. Tasleem Williams said how inspired he felt about the potential of Africans after seeing the incredible showcase of products. Others noted how lonely it is to always be on the outside and how it was wonderful it was to meet people just like them.

With these words, my job is done. I wish the next team everything of the best as they prepare for the next GeekRetreat. Onwards and upwards.

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.

Twitter made me do it – my thoughts on the .za Geek Retreat

The past few months have been an important story in soul-searching for me.

After being shoved gently out of the international non-profit I helped build for three very long years in August, I looked beseechingly to my fellow South Africans. ‘Tell me you’re not as cruel as the rest of the world?’ I seemed to be saying.

Volunteering to judge the SA blog awards was one of my first attempts to re-enter a community that I’d never quite felt a part of. I was a global citizen – a citizen of the world! One toe in South Africa and the others vaguely placed ‘overseas’. I used my citizenship when I needed it, but I was not quite fully committed to the place that only made me sad and frustrated.

The awards only deepened my sense of alienation. A post pointing out what the results of the awards said about the lack of diversity in the South African blogosphere was highlighted by the award-winners, and its henchmen moved swiftly over to hblog to tell me that I should shuddup and go sit on a traffic cone.

As is the case with these debates, a lot of people joined the fray Continue reading “Twitter made me do it – my thoughts on the .za Geek Retreat”