What I learned at FOO Camp ’10

I was invited back this year to O’Reilly’s FOO (Friends Of O’Reilly) camp, an unconference weekend event held at O’Reilly’s headquarters in Sebatapol, CA.  What is FOO? About 250 people are invited to camp out on the lawn at O’Reilly Media HQ and spend a long weekend together. Big schedule boards go up Friday, with room for 10 or 12 sessions to happen concurrently- anyone can organize one on anything. No restrictions. It’s that simple.

By 1) creating a great environment, 2) inviting great people, and 3) getting out of the way, amazing things happen. This sounds obvious but experiences with all 3 elements are rare. How many times in your life have you been somewhere with all three? For an entire weekend? I’m amazed, inspired and exhausted every time I get to go for this reason.

I’ve written up notes from past years and here’s what I wrote in my little Moleskine this year:

  • Jane McGonigal ran a session on being time rich – This was one of my favorites, in part because she’s a fantastic facilitator (more on this bel0w). The session was about becoming time rich, overcoming hurry sickness and re-framing how we use time.  I quit my job in 2003 largely with this goal, and it was great to be in a room full of people who were interested in the same thing. We talked about Rescue Time, and other tools to make us more self-aware of where our time goes. However most of the session was about attitude, self-awareness and things that transcend the tools. We agreed to hurt people who tell others “Looks like someone who has too much time on their hands” as it betrays the false belief that those who are busy deserve higher status than those who have free time (See the cult of busy). Watch the twitter tag #timerich for more.
  • Knowledge vs. Wisdom: I ran a session asking what wisdom was. I asked people to imagine the wisest person they knew (during a long moment of silence) and then report on what words they’d use to describe that person. Words included: calm, present, aware, joy, humble, available, listening and love. The idea that wisdom = context came up, which I liked very much. Whitney Hess told the story of the four sons from the Torah, and how admitting ignorance and asking questions are two big parts of being wise (echoed by Socrates core ideas). The irony of the session was that despite the interesting comments on self-awareness, being present, etc. some in the room weren’t listening much to what others were saying, which perhaps reflects the essential irony of talking about wisdom – talking is not doing. Can you be wise and have a big ego at the same time? I wish I had asked this question during the session – the results would have been fascinating.
  • How to get 1million views on YouTube. Tim Shey and June Cohen of TED talked about their lessons learned in popularizing video on the web. Some fundamentals were: build a community on youtube (it is its own huge and vibrant social network), make content your audience asks for, have great audio quality but don’t obsess about video, and make many videos. Most of the success stories Tim mentioned involved people who produce regular shows, rather than people who post one amazing video and have it work. And daisy-chaining, ending one video with links to related videos, or parts of a series, is an easy way to raise conversions from one view to two or more. As always, the way to get popularity involves work – sorry, no magic tricks.
  • The dictionary of theories: Sumana did a session on theories/frameworks, where we talked about different frameworks from different domains that try to frame or explain everything. We talked about Cargo Cults, Cognitive Bias, Metaphors we live by, Overton Window, and more. It reminded me of a book I picked up years ago called The Dictionary of Theories, which on any random page can set a curious mind off thinking about the world from a new point of view. It begged the question, is there a theory of theories?
  • The web and forgettingSelena ran a session about privacy online and the right to have data of yours disappear. This was fascinating for many reasons, in part because of how wide the opinions were in the room. I found myself thinking about Technopoly – that the problems raised are real but they are non-solvable, as they’re the other edge of the sword of the potentials of the web and social networks (Making something digital means it absorbs all the good and bad of digital things). I also found it interesting how anecdote heavy the conversation was – Monika Lewinsky, The star wars kid, and a few other examples were often the primary arguments for why something was, or was not, problematic, but there was little discussion of how likely these experiences (e.g. not being able to get control of your identify back) are, if there is any evidence they will happen more often.  We rarely choose how culture develops – and much of the conversation was in the spirit of cultural criticism, which I enjoyed.

Randomly Interesting Quotes I heard

Most people I like don’t like other people

Shit flips all the time  (shit meaning “which things are winning, and which things are losing”)

ERBFDB – Emotionally Retarded Big Fat Douchebag

No one is ever going to really know about anyone

I will now disabuse you

The music of his personality

Meta – Observations

  • The elimination of pretense accelerates progress. A theory on why FOO works so well is that many who are invited are CEOs and alpha people in their worlds – they are used to being the center of attention. But by putting them in tents and in the camping vibe, where everything is shared, the default status becomes ‘we are equal’. And the quality of ideas and conversations rises with less ego in the way. There are no keynote sessions, no badges with ribbons, it’s all stripped away. If more executives, politicians and world leaders met this way, I think the results would be amazing.
  • Would FOO, or any great conference experience, be better if it were deliberately made less intense? Or paced based on learning theory? – The theory of retroactive interference, that suggests our brains learn best if they’re not crammed with an overloading of knowledge.  What are the limits for knowledge absorption at an event like FOO? Would it better if there were fewer sessions? More designated breaks between sessions? A recommended (but not-enforced) default break/nap/meditate time for people to go off alone for a half hour to digest, as the learning theory literature suggests, what they’ve already experienced? Being overwhelmed with wonder is an emotionally positive experience that is inspiring and helps makes bonds form (sharing ‘an experience’) , but the brain science suggests its not the best way to learn.
  • There was more ego this year (maybe?) or We need Facilitators! I left more sessions frustrated than past years because either the moderator or participants, made poor use of the wisdom and experience in the room. There were folks who spoke too often, and about themselves, especially on the first day. In one case the 3 experts on the subject (whom I know where experts) in the room never spoke, but people who knew very little spoke quite often. Sometimes the speaker just gave a lecture, despite the conversation sized numbers of people there. I likely had a bad draw this year – there must be ~120 ‘sessions’ over the weekend, and I dropped in on perhaps 20 – but facilitation at FOO, and in the world, is still an undervalued talent. If I’m back next  year it’d be great to see someone do “How to facilitate a FOO session” as the first slot on the schedule (There is how to run an unconference session, but it’s not nearly as good to read about facilitation than to learn about through  experiencing someone doing it well)
  • The trajectory of social fatigue. This hadn’t happened before, but by Sunday I avoided anyone I hadn’t already met, and even most of those I did. Combined with the sad ‘end of summer camp’ feeling of watching everyone take down their tents, it took me until I got home late that night to start feeling like myself again. Perhaps there should have been a session on “How to deal with social fatigue” Sunday morning – but I suppose no one would show :) If you introduced yourself to me and I was a jackass on Sunday, I’m sorry. Actually, if I was a jackass at any time, sorry for that too.

If you liked this, I’ve written summaries for past years as well.

14 Responses to “What I learned at FOO Camp ’10”

  1. Jeff

    Great summary! I’d love to attend one someday. Sounds like a cross between TED and Burning Man.

    I really like the unconference concept—I’m helping organize one for community managers just before OSCON, the Community Leadership Summit (http://communityleadershipsummit.com) but there are always multiple interesting sessions going on simultaneously. Other than drift between them, how do you choose which to attend? Obviously this isn’t limited to unconferences, as I have the same problem at OSCON & other confs as well, but it seems more pressing at unconferences.

  2. Scott Berkun

    Hi Jeff:

    I’ve never been to TED or Burningman, but it does seem a fair number of folks at FOO have.

    One trick I learned this year was to wander by the rooms (in this case, tents) a few minutes after the sessions have started, and notice which ones have the most energy, or people laughing, and stop in and listen. So many of the sessions are interesting, but the ones being run better tend to have visible signs of it based on walking past.

    Sometimes it’s fun to go into the session you have zero interest in based on the title – you might just have the most to learn there, rather than in a session you already know well.

    Now and then I’ll pick a session based on the name of whose running it. I might know of them but never met, or saw them speak, and that’s enough to go.

    A great title is huge – a title that asks a question or demonstrates a clever sense of humor suggests whoever organized it has put more thought into than someone who just writes “lets talk about SQL” or something equally vague and boring.

  3. Jon

    Thanks so much for putting into words the thoughts so many of us had. There was definitely an arc through which egos passed; from self-important, to humbled, and back. But I think this is natural, like the summer camp events of our collective youths. The friendships and bonds we nurture afterwards are the lasting effects of the unconference, though.

    Great ideas for next FOOCamp, too, hope to see them implemented.

    Perhaps an alternative to “1:30pm – Yoga – Grass”
    We could post, “Post-Lunchtime Nap – Shady Tree (Bring your own mat)”

  4. Scott Berkun


    > We could post, “Post-Lunchtime Nap – Shady Tree
    > (Bring your own mat)”

    I like this idea. I do wonder if people would come though.

    I have seen events that have a mellow, chill out room, with nice lighting, comfy seating, and the right kind of music as a safe communal place to mellow out.

  5. Mike Nitabach

    Dude, that sounds like a fascinating conference. This whole thing about being “time rich” totally resonates with me. There is no way to be creative and innovative if you don’t have time to think. There is a culture in the laboratory sciences which lionizes sheer number of hours physically performing experiments, and poo-poos time spent reading, writing, and thinking as “wasted”. I deliberately reject this culture in running my own lab, and make it clear to all of my scientists that I do not count their hours at the bench.

  6. Colleen

    Thanks for sharing the highlights for those of us who will never be FOO enough to be invited.

  7. Selena Deckelmann

    Thanks for the great wrap-up, and I’m so glad you stopped by the forgetting session.

    I hadn’t heard of Technopoly, and will check it out!

  8. Ben Scofield

    I’m a big fan of the worst member of the band theory, and I think one of the huge wins for Foo Camp was that it gave every camper the opportunity to be that person at least once (I was lucky — I got to feel that way the whole weekend).

  9. nicepaul

    “How to get 1million views on YouTube – sorry, no magic tricks”?

    You’re right, I’ve got 15million+ views with my magic trick ;-)

    But Tim is right, I should be producing regular shows now, and having recently left my fulltime UX designer role at Clearleft, I intend to have more time to do just that! (yeah, right…)

  10. Ellen Daehnick

    Finally, a summer camp I can get excited about. That sounds like the best weekend of the year, wrapped up in big thinking and deep-woods off.



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