Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) —
Recently, the White House Correspondents Dinner (AKA “Nerd Prom”) and its bevy of pre-parties, after-parties, and brunches hit Washington, DC by storm as it does every spring. But across the Potomac in Arlington, VA, a simultaneous gathering of government enthusiasts known as “Transparency Camp” occurred, sequestered from networking with influential media, political, and business titans. But why?
Transparency Camp is “an ‘unconference’ for open government: an event where, each year, journalists, developers, technologists, policy-makers, government officials, students, academics, wonks, and everyone in between gather to share their knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make our government really work for the people — and to help our people work smarter with our government,” according to the Transparency Camp 2012 website. It’s backed by the Sunlight Foundation, and it’s a great event. The topic matter is important. Microsoft even sponsors it, and other unconferences with similar topic matter in the U.S. and around the world.
Towards the end of Transparency Camp (and WHCD weekend), Alex Howard, a prominent DC-based reporter and blogger with O’Reilly Media, made this comment via his popular @digiphile Twitter account: “Shame that the objects of adulation & celebrity culture on display at the #WHCD aren’t watching & learning from #Tcamp12. #opengov #nerdprom”.
Perhaps it is. But whose fault is that?
The timing of Transparency Camp is curious. Here we have a gathering of intelligent, passionate people discussing how to change democracy and government and make it more open and accountable to citizens. Across the way, we have a gathering of virtually every influential journalist, media executive, and member of Congress who might potentially be an advocate of or storytelling vehicle for such change. What did the Transparency Camp organizers do to reach out to this audience? Not very much if anything, beyond double-hashtagging some cheap shots.
But it’s worse. When I casually made a couple comments to that effect via Twitter — and I won’t quote every single tweet I sent, and the replied tweets, and the side conversations here — I was surprised to see a lot of animosity toward Nerd Prom from at least some of the Transparency Camp crew.
A lot of the comments were about celebrities. Paraphrasing, people commented that WHCD was just a bunch of celebrities, was just about partying, was simply about getting your photo taken.
Well, sure it was. But those celebrities like Kate Upton, Bradley Cooper, and Sofia Vergara are just an attractant. You see, the people behind Nerd Prom and its ecosystem of events know that people want to watch it on CSPAN and fight for tickets into certain parties because of celebrity attendance. They’re the bait, the party is the hook, and we’re the fish. Easy, right? Perhaps the Transparency Camp organizers could learn a thing or two about celebrity promotion of their events and goals.
Why all the hating on celebrities? I don’t really understand it. Nowadays, celebrities are tech angel investors, they’re building websites like Funny or Die, they’re increasingly reliant on platforms like YouTube and Twitter, and they’re creating mainstream content for companies like Hulu. Twitter blew up because of three people: Oprah, Obama, and Ashton. let’s face it – tech can’t live without celebrities. Ashton Kutcher takes his passion for tech even further, working specific real-life gadgets and social media platforms into the fictional show he stars in, Two and a Half Men. I don’t particularly see the vast chasm between the values of open government and transparency and things that celebrities care about.
Transparency Campers, have you ever actually asked Kate Upton what she thinks about the open data movement in America? I didn’t think so. But you could have when she was in town last weekend.
More seriously, when someone of the intelligentsia uses the word “celebrity” in a derogatory tone, it usually implies a swimsuit cover model or a handsome leading man. But what about slightly less famous celebrities like Kerry Washington or Tim Daly? Surely, they are both “celebrities” and also capable of understanding complex issues affecting society.
But forget celebrities. The reality is that most people attending most of the Nerd Prom events are about as famous as I am. They are the up-and-comers, the workhorses. They are the assistant producers, the local reporters, the guys with a face for radio, the Congressional press secretaries, and the people who were more powerful 10 years ago but still attend these shindigs. Unless you’re a blogger or photographer, most of one’s time at these events is not spent stalking Chase Crawford or Claire Danes; rather, it is spent talking to friends, acquaintances, and potential business partners.
If you’ve ever wanted to talk about the importance of open government, the concept of an unconference, or the future of technology and democracy with an ambitious national TV news producer, a local on-air reporter, or a key Congressional staff member, Nerd Prom is the place to do it. Can you think of a better single event to do so during? You almost can’t not meet someone like that if you attend a couple of the parties. It’s unclear why the Transparency Camp attendees wouldn’t see this as useful.
You might object and say that while such people are physically present, they’re unlikely to care about the issues discussed at Transparency Camp. Wrong there, too. For example, I talked to my friend Angie Goff, a news anchor at NBC Washington, a long-time blogger and tweeter, and well-liked member of the media community, if she had ever heard of something called Transparency Camp. The answer was no. But she’s always interested in geeky tech stories and in the community at large – she’s interviewed me, Evan Burfield (chairman of Startup DC), Peter Corbett (director of DC Tech Meetup) and other “geeks” on NBC, and she emceed Microsoft’s recent Geek 2 Chic: DC charity event.
Angie Goff was interested in Transparency Camp. The problem was that she didn’t know it existed.
Not all geeks hate Nerd Prom. It’s not like the tech industry completely boycotted it. One of the biggest and by all accounts most fun parties this year was hosted by Google at the W hotel. Last year, Capitol File and Bing co-sponsored one of the larger afterparties at the Reagan International Trade Center. Why would Google or Bing sponsor a Nerd Prom party? I suspect for the reasons stated above, not to mention larger branding issues. This year a new tech company entered the WHCD activity fray when Tumblr hosted a private brunch for about 50 people in a speakeasy restaurant a few blocks from the White House.
New York-based media writer Rachel Sklar – herself no stranger to Nerd Prom nor being geeky – wrote two nice pieces on the new intersection of tech and WHCD for Mashable and Politico. Geek overlords like Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo and Zynga CEO Mark Pincus are increasingly attending WHCD and even hosting entire tables to, in part, evangelize their brands and goals to influentials, and probably even gather unique feedback. In some cases, after all, their social media platforms are being used to hide secret communications, influence elections, and overthrow governments. Opening such lines of communication is wise. Rachel writes,
It’s no surprise that the tech community does not typically revere anything preceded by the word “old.” In many ways, that point of view is one of tech’s biggest weaknesses, because with age comes wisdom, experience, and a larger sense of context, essential for dealing with the world beyond an early-stage startup. If you doubt, look no further than Eric Schmidt at Google, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, and John Maloney at Tumblr. There’s no shame in hearing from the grownups. Quite the opposite.
Rachel also makes the point that media, politics, and government have a tremendous amount to learn from the employees (and users!) of innovative companies like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Intstagram, not to mention more established ’startup’ companies like Facebook and Twitter. She writes in part,
If you want to figure out how, you should ask Liba Rubenstein, Tumblr’s newly-minted director of outreach for causes and politics. She just started — and she’s looking to “facilitate and package content around elections and governance.” Even if you’re not interested in her 500-million pageview help, at least approach the issue defensively. Remember: While Team Obama’s tumblr has been trucking along since October (example: 12,690 notes on the clip of the president slow-jamming the news), Team Romney apparently did not jump on MittRomney.tumblr.com fast enough, seeing as it currently features this quiz: “Who Said It? Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Or Wonka Contest Winner Charlie Bucket?”
There is little barrier to entry into the Nerd Prom world. Of course, you always have to work to drive attendees. But one can design an event surrounding the WHCD to meet one’s own goals. The aforementioned Tumblr event was a private Sunday morning brunch, where they rented out a “speakeasy” restaurant a few blocks from the White House, set up a buffet, and had about 50 people enjoy mimosas and coffee and food while they networked. About the most “famous” person there was Dennis Crowley of Foursquare. It wasn’t about celebrity; it was about leveraging a pre-existing rally of influentials to get something done; in this case, “launch” Liba Rubenstein and her new position that Rachel Sklar wrote about above.
There’s no reason that Transparency Camp’s organizers couldn’t have done a similar event – a brunch, a happy hour, a pre-event invite-only dinner – to promote their people, event, and mission, and answer Alex Howard’s original query about why the “objects of adulation & celebrity culture” aren’t watching and learning from their unconference. They aren’t watching and learning, frankly, because they don’t know you exist.
But perhaps the reason Transparency Camp didn’t want to reach out to the influential attendees of Nerd Prom is because there’s internal value in not widening the conversation and publicizing their movement. Mainstream media, politicians, and celebrities are easy scapegoats for a relatively small open government community that is in reality quite insular. And while unconferences are, in principle, open to all attendees and voices, in actuality the unique subculture and norms of behavior of such events make them difficult for newcomers to comprehend and thus discourage outsiders from participating.
My suggestion for Transparency Campers, and more broadly for other leaders of tribes who have interesting missions and stories to tell, and changes they want to make, is to get on Nerd Prom turf and make some connections that can broaden the conversation about your issues. It’s easy to not do it. To quote one of America’s favorite celebrities, Chad Kroeger: The first step you take is the longest stride.
Dr. Mark Drapeau is part of the Microsoft Office of Civic Innovation based in Washington, DC. In his lifetime he’s attended roughly the same number of unconferences and White House Corrrespondents Dinner parties.