The magic of tribal events


This year, more than ever before, I’ve been thinking a lot about types of events. Strengths and weaknesses, formats, logistics, resources, what have you.

One notion has come up over and over again, in conversations at ThingsCon, at UIKonf, and years before at smaller events like Cognitive Cities and even atoms&bits: That there is a certain kind of event that allows, maybe for the first time, for a certain group to gather. To meet in person, put faces to Twitter handles, and to discuss ideas much more eloquently and deeply than your average web-based discussion allows.

A magical moment

When a group like this meets, it can be an almost magical moment. It can also feel very tribal in the sense that a group emerges with strong ties, that feels like finding the peers – the people who understand you – you should have met forever ago. It can trigger sentiments such as “We have never met before, but it feels like coming home to my family”, or “At last I found my people.” You will leave a different, better person.


A brilliant description of what makes a truly great meeting, event or conference, found in Katie Hafner’s highly recommended book Where Wizards Stay Up Late.


Personally, I fondly remember this from Reboot, and maybe a barcamp or two. I owe these conferences so much.

This type of event is hard to create, and they are far and few between. It’s almost impossible to predict which conference or meetup will have the special sauce that makes this effect possible.


Speakers dinner at ThingsCon, everyone deeply engaged in conversation.


I feel personally humbled by the folks who have attended one of my events and mentioned feeling anything like that. I heard a few mentions like this at ThingsCon; and even now, four years after the fact, I vividly remember words to the same effect at Cognitive Cities Conference. It’s the biggest compliment to receive, and maybe the most undeserved one, too: What makes a tribal event like that is the people attending, and that’s a group that is largely self-selecting.

Yet, it’s something to inspire to, and so it’s worth exploring how an event can be tweaked to nudge the odds of it becoming a magical event up just a notch or two.

What makes a tribal event?

I think there are a few characteristics that I believe many of these events share:

  1. They are scrappy & small(ish), yet are very ambitious and have a strangely large, maybe even global footprint.
  2. They are tribal in structure, effect and mental model: Recruiting participants from one or many strong communities.
  3. They are the event equivalent of what Bruce Sterling calls favela chic: minimum resources, but “wired to the gills and really big on Facebook”, in other words, highly networked and connected.
  4. They draw their particular creative friction from connecting the dots between interrelated, but largely unconnected communities. By mixing it up in interesting ways that spark debate and exchange, finding strong, organic connections hidden between the noise.

It’s a kind of mental model that resonates strongly with me. It’s very different than large, highly professional and sophisticated productions like NEXT Berlin or some other conferences I’ve been involved in. But at the same time, it’s something that (in hindsight, I believe) I’ve implicitly applied in events like atoms&bits, Cognitive Cities, and to some degree ThingsCon.

For now, these are just vague ideas forming in my mind, notions I’m trying to figure out and analyze further. If you have been thinking about this, please share your insights, I’d love to hear about them. There’s much to be done. Let’s get right to it.

Mozfest: Thoughts on a more sustainable Summer Code Party


Summer Code Party. Image by Mozilla

This year has seen Mozilla’s first Summer Code Party. SCP is a decentralized, global series of community events, and a simple toolkit to help local organizers get their events set up more easily. It’s also a template for three event formats ranging from so-called Kitchentables (3-5 friends hacking at home) to Hackjams for up to 50 participants.

At Mozfest, Mark Surman hosted a brainstorming session that also touched on the question how the Summer Code Party can be both spread even further and made more sustainable.

There were a few key thoughts and ideas that emerged in our group – apologies for not being having the participants’ names at hand – that I’d like to share. Curious to hear your thoughts on them.

For one, localized resources are always helpful. The more language are available in both tools & materials, the better. Everything that lowers the barrier of entry. While in our tribe everybody speaks English, to reach out to all the people beyond the inner circle it’s key to make participation as easy as possible, and language is a big part of that.

Another way of spreading the word is to make use of cultural specifics per country/region. As one participant pointed out, in Austria there is one presence reliably in every small town across the country: A local brass band. Is there a way – any way – to take advantage of that fact? Can the brass band be harnessed as an ambassador for an educational endeavor? What other cultural hacks can we come up with to tap into local communities? I’m sure there must be more of these types of very specific cultural and local hacks to grow Summer Code Party.

The third big point is to coordinate with the probably largest network of learners and educators, namely by partnering with the school and university system. The advantage in size is obvious. However, there are also specific challenges and needs there. Concretely, it’s anything but a given that educators have the skills and/or the confidence to teach web making. Providing more formal resources could be one way of getting them onboard. I think there might be a more appropriate way, though: Educators should use the same tools and formats that the Summer Code Party proposes to the “end users” – by hosting peer exchange Kitchen Tables or Hack Jams or similar formats. That way, educators become an integral part of the Summer Code Party, and like the kids they try to encourage and empower they, too, would be both teacher and learner simultaneously.

Curious to hear your thoughts.

Ignite Berlin 3 is go!


Ignite Berlin


On Thursday we’re taking Ignite Berlin to round 3. And boy, what a line up of fantastic speakers we got:

No sign up needed, but if you could let us know via Facebook or spread the word via Twitter (#igniteberlin), that’s always welcome. Like the last two times, we expect a full house, so come on time.

Dispatch from the road: NYC


NYC grit

As I’m sitting here in our temporary HQ, a lovely little apartment in the East Village, and it’s pouring down like there is no tomorrow, my mind is buzzing. It’s been a few quite intense weeks, and no end in sight. For weeks, my mental horizon (planning-wise) was Cognitive Cities (CoCities). Naively, I thought things might slow down a little after that. Of course this turned out to be complete nonsense, and instead the followup and our current trip to NYC and Austin for SXSW is just as intense, in a very different way. Exactly one year ago, Igor and I were on basically the same trip – first NYC, then Austin – but over the course of this one year, everything changed. Igor was here for his former employer, I was here as a freelancer. It was here that we first thought that working together might be a great opportunity, and from here that we first started the conversation between Igor, Johannes and myself that eventually (and rather quickly really) led to our starting a company together. And here we are, one year later and just about five months into this new adventure, a week after putting together a conference that hit quite a nerve, or so it seems, judging by the feedback we’ve been getting from the participants and speakers. (Maybe everybody’s just being very polite – but I certainly hope everybody truly enjoyed themselves and took away something for themselves.) Of course our secret agenda for coming to New York is to get some decent beans (Ninth Street ftw!). But in between, we also do a bit of work (hard to believe, huh?) and have the pleasure of meeting some fantastic people. So the last 24 hours already brought us a barcamp (Transportation Camp) and a number of great conversations – many of which bring us back to CoCities, and what we’re planning next. And that’s a kind of a big question, right? There are so many options: same event next year/bigger event/same event but different topic/smaller events/going more commercial/going less commercial (hah!)/going somewhere else/etc etc etc. Personally, I feel more concrete ideas emerging, but overall we haven’t really even had the chance to talk this over with the whole CoCities crew. During these conversations I’ve been learning something, though. (Many things actually, but let me focus on this aspect for the time being.) And that is how much CoCities helps us as a company: We’ve been working a lot under NDAs recently, so we cannot really talk about most our client projects. CoCities gives us something public, widely and openly out there, a manifestation of what we’ve been thinking about. It has, to some degree, become a focal point of our energy, but also of the way we’re perceived as a company and a team. To some degree that was to be expected, but the scope keeps surprising me. And so I can only hope that this conversations keeps going, and that more opportunities for collaboration will emerge from all of this, whatever shape they may take. We’ll be meeting many more people over the next few days in NYC and then head over to SXSW, where – if anything – it’ll get more intense. So for the time being, things won’t slow down. But that’s really ok. Because the way things are going now, I could keep going. Although after SXSW, a good night’s sleep might be in order. So keep those ideas for collaboration coming – let’s bounce ideas and see where we can take it from here.

Convention Camp 2010


Convention Camp LogoMy partner in crime Igor Schwarzmann and I were invited to speak at Convention Camp in Hannover this year. We will be talking in the Smart Cities slot. The working title of our presentation: “Future of Cities: Change of Perspective”. More on that as soon as we have something to show. This should be a lot of fun. Convention Camp is organized by the good folks at T3N.

Also, if you’re interested in smart cities and technology, you might enjoy the Cognitive Cities blog where we collect interesting trends from this sphere.

My Conference Wishlist 2010


sofa at reboot11 A scene from reboot11. I never really met the concentrated-looking person on this super-comfy sofa, but I have fond memories of the conference. (Which felt rather like a festival anyway.)

Over the last few years I attended a whole lot of conferences. Which was great fun (I mean it!), but one of my resolutions for 2010 is: go only to good conferences. do go to the good conferences. and as a reminder to myself, and also as a wishlist, here’s the events I’d like to attend this year (in kind-of-chronological order):

  • Social Media Week Berlin (1-5 Feb). It’s a great topic, and a bunch of friends and colleagues are organizing the Berlin part of the global Social Media Week, so it’s bound to be cool.
  • Republica 2010 (14-16 April). It rocks, it’s in Berlin, and I just like it. One of the best ways to meet all the social media folks and bloggers in one spot.
  • SXSW (12-16 March), at last. I’ve wanted to go for a while now, but it never worked out. Until now, so: yeeeah!
  • reboot12 (June-ish). I’m hearing it’s not happening this year. Just like most of the last 11 years. It was a blast last year, and no one should miss it. I’ll certainly try not to.
  • Picnic (22-24 Sept). A big “definitively love to” on this one. Haven’t been, but wouldn’t hesitate a sec. Only it’s still a long time away, so who knows.
  • Barcamps. Not sure which ones, but I certainly hope I can attend a few. Best place to discuss web things peer to peer over coffee or drinks, and to meet the nicest folks ever. Both aspects seem to be wired into the format.
  • atoms&bits, if there is a round two, since I co-organized the first one and had a great time doing that, so how could I miss the second installment?

The list is slightly longer than I hoped it would be. Then again, it’s a good sign there’s many things to be excited about, no?

I’m sure I missed some good ones, so I’m curious – what’s your conference wish list 2010?

republica 2010, Jeff Jarvis, Best of the Blogs


republica 2010I already got my ticket for republica 2010 a little while back, a little after the early bird tickets had gone out of sale. Republica advance ticket sales have been at a record high this year. That’s really good news as all republicas so far were great, and I enjoyed them a lot. For independent (note: not small) conference organizers it’s important to be able to plan, so if you think you’ll go (14-16 April 2010 in Berlin), I recommend you get your ticket soon. It’s extremely fairly priced and you won’t regret it.

The program isn’t set yet, but the call for papers (de) is still on until late January. So again, if you think you might want to talk at rp2010, now’s a good time to send in a proposal.

There are two things that already are set, though: First, Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor, author of Buzzmachine and What Would Google Do and a regular on This Week in Google will be one of the speakers. He’s been on the conference circuit for a while now, so you might have seen him talk someplace or another, but he’s always a great speaker and panelist, so I’m looking forward to this.

Second, Deutsche Welle will hold their Best Of The Blogs (BOBs) will be joining rp2010. I love the BOBs, it’s an award celebrating the best of the international blogosphere and highlighting those blogs whose authors fight for freedom of expression in often repressive regimes. Those bloggers and activists are real heroes in my book, and I feel honored I had the chance to meet some of them on past BOB events. (Disclaimer: I worked for Deutsche Welle twice at the BOBs, once as a live blogger, once moderating a panel.)

If you’re in Berlin in mid-April and want to see the German blogger, web and social media community in action, republica is the place to be. Hope to see you there!