I tweet a lot from journalism events. I think I can say that few people tweet as much about journalism as I do. I didn’t tweet much from News Foo Camp last weekend.
But other campers and I tweeted enough that our tweeps wanted more.
This was my first Foo Camp and the first Foo Camp focused on news. Foo, if you don’t know (I didn’t), stands for Friends Of O’Reilly. Foo Camps are organized by O’Reilly Media, which collaborated on the planning of this camp with Google and the Knight Foundation.
News Foo was one of the best events of my professional career: stimulating and thoughtful interaction with creative and innovative journalists, entrepreneurs, digital thinkers and technology pioneers. Four aspects of the camp, some of which made me a little uneasy, have been the subject of some Twitter grumbling since the event by people who weren’t there:
- News Foo Camp is an invitation-only event.
- People could go off the record.
- Heavy tweeting by participants was discouraged.
- The camp didn’t release any public report or summary of the wisdom shared
I was flattered to be invited and more flattered when I saw the list of people attending. News Foo invited a cross-disciplinary group that included entrepreneurs just out of college and people who have been pioneering technology and digital journalism for decades. The group did include business leaders but also solo entrepreneurs and working journalists. The invitations produced a dynamic group that resulted in creative discussions that might lead somewhere.
Sara Winge, vice president of the O’Reilly Radar group, explained the News Foo approach in an email:
There was much discussion at News Foo about the value of curation of information. The process of constructing invitation lists for Foo Camps is curation of people. A big reason to have these events is to bring together people who might not encounter each other in their regular lives, in hopes of cross-pollinating, exploring the edges, and as Tim puts it, building new synapses in the global brain. So, we engage on a messy and iterative process of thinking about what mix would help that happen.
The really tough part of the process is that we can’t invite everyone whom we’d like to include. Why not? Well, there are limits to the room we have at whatever facility we’re using. We also think there’s something to the Dunbar number — humans probably can’t create the kind of connections and community that happen at a Foo Camp if they’re in a group of 1000 for a weekend. The alternative to invitation-only is first-come, first-served, which does theoretically give anyone a shot at attending, but doesn’t guarantee it, as space limitations still exist.
My last thought on this issue is to quote Larry Wall, creator of Perl, who said, “There’s more than one way to do it.” Foo Camp is one kind of event that we created (building on work done by Harrison Owen in Open Space and even the San Francisco Folk Music Club’s annual NY Camps!). We’re delighted to see variations of it spread — everything from first-come, first-served Bar Camps to other invitation-only events like The Lobby to corporate private events that companies including Disney and Google have run. Anyone is free to create a similar event.
My friend Elaine Clisham noted:
It’s a valid criticism, but you would not get the same mix without inviting people. That said, I might encourage more openness by next time inviting 100 or so people and accepting applications for another 50 or so slots (probably not first-come, first-served, but accepting people who enhance the mix of the group).
I was more uneasy about the ground rule that people could declare statements off the record, even after they made them, which made live tweeting or blogging unworkable. Tim O’Reilly calls this frieNDA, a casual sort of non-disclosure agreement. Sara explained:
frieNDA: The frieNDA policy came out of a desire for people to have a place for frank discussions, which at time could include information they (or their employers) wanted to remain private. To reiterate, it means that:
- Everything is assumed to be on the record unless the speaker says otherwise.
- If you don’t want to be quoted, say so.
- You can request that something be “off the record” retroactively, after you’ve said it.
- If you explicitly quote someone, ask permission.
- Please respect any request for privacy.
While I favor openness, I also liked the candor of News Foo. I did not hear frieNDA invoked much. I didn’t use it myself in the group discussions, though I might have said some things in confidence in private chats.
Another point from Sara:
I think people sometimes confuse the frieNDA policy with our suggestion that Foo Campers focus more on participating than recording. I certainly can’t do both with 100% attention, and neuroscience suggests that the same is true for just about all humans. You said, “I listened and talked more than I took notes.” That’s exactly what we were encouraging! How was it for you?
This was a major adjustment for me, and not an entirely bad one. I have attended hundreds of journalism events, and since early 2008, I generally have tweeted a lot from them. Tim O’Reilly encouraged being active participants in all the discussions and noted that tweeting less would lead to discussing more. He was right. Over the course of three days, I tweeted only five times from the conference (not counting retweets and late-night or early-morning summary tweets). Mostly I just discussed with other participants issues relating to the future of news: matters ranging from business models to community engagement to ethics. I listened a lot more than I talked, which was a welcome experience for someone who has been a guest speaker at hundreds of conferences and seminars.
A couple tweets in the post-News Foo discussion asked whether other conferences should similarly discourage tweeting. I don’t think so. If an event is mostly speakers and panels presenting to audiences, Twitter can share the experience with a larger community and can provide a dynamic back channel at the event itself (showing tweets on a screen can actually enhance the experience). But I will agree that if you’re a group gathered around a table, you’ll be more involved in the discussion if you’re not trying to share it with a broader audience.
I have blogged critically about secrecy at news-industry gatherings, but that criticism simply doesn’t apply here. The discouragement of tweets was an encouragement to engage in the discussion, not an enforcement of secrecy. I understood that we were free to tweet occasionally and to blog and tweet our impressions and key takeaways. An event with a hashtag and hundreds of tweets is no secret. I have blogged about News Foo, as have David Cohn and Alex Hillman (please add your link in the comments if you’ve blogged about it). Social media accounts were so plentiful that Mo Krochmal, who didn’t attend, see curated a strong account using Storify.
Some of the criticism of News Foo for not being more transparent presumed that something tangible had come from it, perhaps a manifesto for transformation of the news business that we were refusing to share. “If #newsfoo was truly awesome, it can’t just be secret sauce for the club,” tweeted David Johnson of American University.
There was no “secret sauce.” I understand O’Reilly will be posting Saturday night’s “Ignite” presentations. But the results of News Foo will be seen over the coming months and years in the ideas, inspiration and connections that people came away with. I can think of several tangible results I hope to see at TBD from my discussions and contacts from News Foo, and I’ll share those results as we achieve them, but that will take time. And that’s how results are measured, not in reports but in actual change.