Defending the Geek Retreat (again)

It annoys me that I have to write another one of these pieces, but I’ve come to realise that this is a standard slot of time I need to schedule after attending these events. For whatever reason, Geek Retreat draws what appears to be the most criticism with the most volume. Albeit within a tiny community, and albeit for a very short moment in time.

This year’s Geek Retreat took a risk [full disclosure: I was one of the organising committee and I was directly involved in the project discussed here]. Instead of making it a gathering of digerati gathering to try and make the industry, the internet, the world a better place, we decided to focus on what made the Geek Retreat special before: an opportunity for some influential, interesting people to get together, socialise, talk about geeky stuff and maybe get some interesting projects and ideas moving over the weekend.

We also took another risk this time, limited to a particular group of people at the retreat of which I was one. And that was to create a fictional view of the Geek Retreat that intentionally parodied the event, even creating a fictional attendee. We accepted that Geek Retreat is always controversial and always stands in the firing path of criticism like being elitist, and so we fuelled that fire a little. It was a dodgy manoeuvre I’ll grant, and one that ran the risk of annoying people. It also ran the risk of making the Geek Retreat seem even more pointless and irrelevant than people already believed it to be.

Perhaps both of these outcomes occurred. I have had some conversations today that confirm this, and I must say my overall response to that is: meh. Shrug. Whatever.

I haven’t done the math, but I suspect close to 100 people have attended Geek Retreat over the past three years, and I’ve rarely (if ever) heard negative views from those attendees. This weekend was no exception. People had a good time. They hung out. They drank some fine beer. They did some meaningful projects and some frivolous ones. And that, my friends, is all.

At no stage (at least not recently) has the Geek Retreat held itself up to be anything more than a voluntary, paid-for weekend conference for people to come along and mix fun with some innovation and work to see what transpires. It’s a melting pot, and it’s an unconference. No-one quite knows what will happen but generally it’s proved to be worthwhile.

Levelling criticism from the outside, particularly when we’ve flooded the airwaves with some fairly juvenile material, is probably fair. But as the real information emerges (Heather Ford has posted a good summary here) hopefully it will be judged more on what happened than what didn’t. As a matter of fact, a number of interesting initiatives were kicked off and a good deal of more serious information was shared. It’s the nature of a noisy ruse that it’s going to be noisy.

I guess in the end I’m willing to stand up and have my part in this thing thought of as being stupid or pointless firstly because I had fun (which I’m sure I’m allowed) and secondly because everyone is entitled to their opinion and I’m fairly well used to being at the centre of one or other controversy. I’m even willing to go as far as to say that we might have taken a few missteps and may not have serviced the reputation of the Geek Retreat well by doing so.

But then again, part of playing a prank is feeling guilty and having fun at the same time. I think it would be to compound the absurdity of this for anyone to take it more seriously than that. The detractors were already there before we even drove to Stanford this weekend. Their criticism was going to ring loud whether we went to look after AIDS babies or plotted to overthrow the governments of the Free World. That’s not a presumption, that’s a matter of historical record.

To all and anyone who was either offended or irritated; to any participants who do or did not want to put their name against such a thing; to anyone who was caught up in it and feels a fool for it; and to the industry as a whole who (as one conversation I had today has it) would feel “fools by association” because of this, I make a personal apology for my part in this. That was not my intention and there was nothing mean-spirited about any of it. Mark: I don’t feel that I owe that apology, but I’m offering it anyway because these kinds of things tend to have a life of their own, and I still have to work with everyone in 2011 and I can’t afford to burn bridges over a joke — even one that I happen to think had a valuable and serious side for anyone who could look beyond the nonsense.

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9 thoughts on “Defending the Geek Retreat (again)

  1. I can’t believe you care so much about the opinions of contacts and colleagues. Argeant was just the brilliant cherry on top of a brilliant idea because of the exact reasons you cited- invaluable insight into peoples opinions and reactions. Really, organise a "Nerd herd" for the sense-of-humorless. I attended expecting nothing – it turned out to be the first time that I was surrounded by so many peers and prodigies – at the same time and on so many levels, I was quite simply blown away by the degrees of insight and experience people were willing to share freely – which encouraged me to do the same. The community can not but be better for it.We saw first hand – that almost anything is possible, that passion is at the heart of success, what it takes to push your idea to fruition and what can be accomplished in a meager 3 days. I think the foundation to all of this was the introduction: that is is not a competiton, and that it is not meant to be more that what it is- ie we all had a license to do as we pleased, something that goes down exceedingly well when you’re in good and respectable company. When we are given the freedom to escape the confines of our professional lives, how can anything un-incredbile result? Even the most pointless projects and activities had a lot to teach.I don’t think I’ve properly thanked you for your part in the organisation: Thank you. Best weekend ever. I would have enjoyed spending it on the beach with friends and family- but that would not have contributed nearly as much to my understanding of things I really care about.

  2. Jason – the project web sites speak for themselves, I hope, and the movie at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRgHOOJjsPs is a genuine picture of what went on. I’m not a massive fan of the Argent prank myself – everyone else at the retreat was too busy working on other projects to tweet or blog much else, so there was always a risk that the prank would assume disproportionate importance. At the same time, I’m surprised that so many people took it so seriously. Once you actually go and read the Argent and GeekFactor websites, it’s pretty obviously a spoof.Also interested to hear that "unconference" now = "douchebag". That’s news to me. Since when?

  3. I’m not too much of a fan of the current attitude we as GeekRetreaters (I went last year) are showing towards criticism. The "meh. Shrug. Whatever" approach or telling people "they don’t know what they are talking about because they haven’t been to a Retreat", then at the same time poisoning their one source for insight into the retreat with mocumentry styled (ref Poe’s Law) tweets and videos.The net effect here is simple: a whole lot of videos that bash the retreat all over the internet, some fake blog posts and tweets and overall more negative publicity than positive publicity. The only real picture we have of what happened this year is Heather’s post.That having been said I’m sure the GR was awesome and everyone had a blast – we should market it as such 😉

  4. Absolutely fair comment — and I hope any trusts that were bruised can be mended over a beer or a coffee which, after all, is how they were earned in the first place. No-one likes to be pranked. I’m not sure there’s ever exactly an excuse for it, but sometimes our friends behave like dicks. Hopefully we will all be allowed to say sorry and pay for it in the traditional way: by having our cars covered in shaving cream or the furniture in our lounge nailed to the roof.That’s just what friends do. You’re Australian, surely this sounds familiar?

  5. JC – thanks for the post. well articulated as always. what I have seen of the recent GR stuff looks gold. I loved the Saul setup too, especially the youtube / zoopy thing – which knowing Saul must have been intentional.I for one was extremely offended by, what I view too, as childish outbursts criticising GR. All were unwarranted IMHO. I even took Rich Mulholland to task when I saw him, and he admitted that he was only irritated with "using twitter as a personal PA system" – the rest was just an escalation, that knowing him, was more just baiting people. I was still offended by it. In fact, Rich offends me all the time – why am I still friends with him? :-)I will say that I was upset with the Argent stuff *only* because I was told to follow it by someone I trust. When it turned out to be a spoof, that trust was betrayed. If I hadnt of been asked to follow it, then I wouldnt have been upset. It seems that others felt the same way as me.anyway, to paraphrase what @brianpinnock recently tweeted; any press is good press, so I hoped the net effect was a win.Spratt

  6. I’m making it because I genuinely didn’t intend any harm. If I’ve added qualifiers its by way of explanation.Still, I won’t beg for forgiveness. I’ve said what I believe I ought to have. Hopefully I can leave it there.

  7. An apology isn’t an apology if the person "offering" it states that they don’t feel they owe it, but are merely making it so that people won’t be cross with them.

  8. See, I understand where you are coming from – that this isn’t elitist, it is just a bit of fun – maybe a springboard for some new ideas, great new ideas even. That it isn’t just about the haves and the have nots of teh interwebs, even though it was rammed down our twitted throats at every possible opportunity that "they" we there and "we" were not. I get that. Really, I do. But then you went and used the word "unconference" and it all went 100% douchebag again. #gathering2, anybody? That said, I appreciate your efforts in writing this. You really didn’t need to. And you probably shouldn’t have.

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