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White House Correspondents Dinner: Why Do Geeks Hate Nerdprom?

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.

Why?

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.

Images from Esquire, Philip’s Tech Blog, and Digital Inspiration.


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Comment by Gadi Ben-Yehuda on May 10, 2012 at 12:02am

My response is here: http://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/mark-drapeau-misses-the-mark

Upshot: Mark is arguing that it is only through engaging celebs on their own terms and in their own milieus that Gov 2.0 can advance its cause.  This is not true.  That is one way, but not the only way.

Comment by Alexander B. Howard on May 9, 2012 at 11:51pm

When people don't speak truth to power or confront the reasons why trust in institutions is at historic lows, it's important to ask whether and how chatting up Sofia Vergara at a packed party is going to change that dynamic. 

Let me be clear: I don't "hate" nerds. In many, many ways, I am one, although to be honest I prefer the term "geek." Hating myself is of little interest or use. Some of my classmates and friends are part of the Washington press corps or serve as Congressional staffers and strive to do their jobs with integrity. I don't hate proms either, though I think the increasing costs involved in them may have grown to be a burden for many families.

What I do dislike is misrepresentation and half-truths in service of an unclear agenda. Some of the mistakes above are basic. For instance, I made that observation via tweet on Saturday, April 28, prior to the White House Correspondents Dinner itself, not "near the end of the weekend," as Mark Drapeau wrote above.

I can't speak for why the organizers of Transparency Camp chose the same weekend or that location; my understanding is that both decisions were coincidental, not an intentional choice to "sequester" the unconference across the river, as Drapeau asserts. To respond further is up to the people at the Sunlight Foundation who organized the event -- but to suggest that the event or its participants was somehow in a "corner in the room," Corey, isn't accurate. You're buying into a false narrative.

There's also the notion that "tech can’t live without celebrities." Drapeau corrected me in the DC Tech thread he linked to in the Huffington Post version when I made this observation writing that by "tech," he meant "social tech platforms." 
https://www.facebook.com/group...

Fair enough. (I noticed that didn't change in the second version, so maybe he did mean it?)  In this context, what would Pinterest and Tumblr and Reddit be without celebrities? Hard to say.

On a higher level, since Drapeau initially published this on a Microsoft blog without a disclaimer, should readers here take this post to mean that Microsoft views the open government movement as "an insurgency" that has "animosity" towards the establishment? If so, what does that mean for how the post should be viewed? A commenter in the DC Tech group raised this concern, and not entirely in jest. 

Could transparency threaten the interests of Microsoft? Would it therefore be useful to depict the people working towards more open government as an "insurgency," a term with resonance from decades of long wars abroad?
 
Some members of the working media who eschew the glamor of these parties continue to do quiet investigative work that holds government and corporations accountable. For instance, consider the reporting that has resulted a delay in the open standards consultation in the United Kingdom, after Microsoft was accused of "trying to exert clandestine influence on a UK government consultation which could slash the software giant's £700m income from the UK's public sector," are reported by the Guardian:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/tech...

Primarily, Drapeau seems to be arguing that people who work in open government and want to make a difference -- like him? -- should take advice from his "influencer" playbook and take the opportunity to network with power players in the media and government while they're in town. If they don't, he asserts, his social set simply won't know that they exist. 

This is, as Sunlight Foundation's policy director John Wonderlich pointed out on Twitter, untrue. Here's an example of how data from the open government work of Global Integrity and State Integrity ended up in mainstream media: 
http://www.foxnews.com/politic...

The Sunlight Foundation itself has also been widely cited and quoted in both media and government over the years. 

When I share posts Google+, Twitter on Facebook and get critical feedback, I generally will incorporate it into subsequent drafts and articles. Drapeau linked to a thread on Facebook, paraphrased it without acknowledging any number of critiques, and then doubled down at the Huffington Post with a more inflammatory headline about the animosity of the "open government insurgency."

For instance, Jamey Harvey, the founder of a Spronto, a DC-based startup, and former WMATA chief enterprise architect and deputy CTO of OCTO in DC city government, made the following comment: 

"Fundamentally, one of the values of the open government movement is one should not need a ticket, or a relationship with a gatekeeper or need to be a celebrity or to dress a certain way in order to have access to the government. Another core value is that any citiizen should have direct access to the data, in addition to the interpretation of the data through journalists like Mr. Blitzer and his network. These are both quite radical notions and neither one of them is in sync with the values of the White House Correspondents dinner."

Another commenter, FriendlyLook founder James Chidester, levied a different claim: 

"An early chapter of Microsoft's playbook to counter adoption of open source software was to marginalize advocates by characterizing them as out of touch "geeks", "hippies", and even "communists". (And in an update to 2012, Mr Drapeau is now leveling "insurgency" at the open government folks)."

And Clay Johnson, former director of Sunlight Labs, asked about the outcome from Drapeau's approach: 

"Are all three of the people who liked this article on your websites celebrities? Are your cultivated relationships from NerdProm actually achieving real results? There's a thin line between 'non-tangible' and 'waste of time.'"

Drapeau paraphrases these comments as saying that "WHCD was just a bunch of celebrities, was just about partying, was simply about getting your photo taken."

This a useful example of the difference between the practice of journalism and whatever it is that Drapeau does on Microsoft's behalf as a director of "innovative engagement." 

Even when given the opportunity in a second draft, Drapeau says little about the dynamic of insider access, elite power and money that combine to make government less open and accountable to the people. 

This is the same culture that wasn't covering the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or the Protect IP Act (PIPA) on broadcast or cable news until the Web blacked out on January 18. (Did the corporations that own the networks affect that? Hard to know -- but worth asking.)  http://mediadecoder.blogs.nyti...

And yes, this is the same media culture that puts the faces and bodies of many of the same celebrities that were at the WHCD (see: Lindsey Lohan and Kim Kardashian) and reports on their lifestyles on TV every week.

For whatever reason, Drapeau seems to be unaware of all of that context -- or perhaps unable to acknowledge it on a Microsoft blog, where this was originally published -- along with the backlash at this spectacle from outside of the Beltway. 

It's a fact that Tom Brokaw, one of the founding members of WHCD, raised real questions and concerns about it on "Meet The Press" this Sunday: http://www.politico.com/blogs/...

While I'd like to believe that networking at these parties with all of those non-celebrities could result in an explosion of new features about the things that come up in open government, I'm not sure Drapeau's strategy holds quite as much water as he suggests. 

For years, I've been working to draw more awareness of what's happening in open government in the United States and beyond using the digital tools available to me for years. (And for a while, so was Mark Drapeau, writing at places like Mashable and even my home base, the O'Reilly Radar.) 

I'm thinking of issues like networked accountability for environmental degradation, digital privacy, education, energy, healthcare, or the largely unaccountable "surveillance state," a topic that doesn't seem to lead the evening news much. These issues do receive coverage in the tech and political press but generally not cable news.

That's one reason that I went to the W myself that Friday night, where I talked briefly with Senator Wyden (D-OR), HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, NBC digital head Vivian Schiller, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, NYT media writer David Carr, the aforementioned Rachel Sklar, and a host of other people from media, tech and government. I also rubbed elbows, briefly, with "Mr. Shue" from "Glee" and made eye contact with Woody Harrelson across the room and Piers Morgan at the bar. 

Attending that party, as is the case with so many others that weekend, required an invitation, in this case from Google and the Hollywood Reporter. I could go because someone chose to give me that privilege.  I accepted because I was curious about the party, given the unique combination of tech, Hollywood and DC. The mixer was not open to the people, just as many other meetings and events that take place in DC are similarly publicly accessible.

Transparency Camp, by way of contrast, is open to the people and much more open to a layperson than Drapeau implies. More than 400 of them came from all over the world to talk about how civil society, journalists and technologists can make governments more open and accountable.  Here's what I learned in 2010:
http://digiphile.wordpress.com...

Could the camp's organizers have set up a brunch or mixer on Sunday, bringing people away from unconference back across the river to meet some of the producers and staffers Drapeau referenced? It's certainly possible, though it would necessarily have taken time away from the knowledge and expertise exchange. 

While reasonable people can differ, I find his assertion that there is "internal value in not widening the conversation and publicizing" the open government movement to be contrary to my experience, particularly after attending an international open government conference in Brazil that attracted 1200 attendees from 70 countries. http://radar.oreilly.com/2012/...

Less seriously, if I had met Kate Upton at the W on Friday night, I would most likely not have asked her what she thought about the open data movement in America. If we were introduced, I'd be far more curious about what it's like to have become this famous, all the way to her recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover, starting with a video of her dancing at a basketball game going viral on YouTube. I would have asked what it's like to have a direct relationship to fans online and how she balances public life with private life.  Generally, when I meet people who have led interesting lives, I like to ask them about their experience, as opposed to buttonhole them about my work. 

If Upton had showed interest in asking me what's happening in digital government, however, I would naturally be open to talking more with her. This post makes it sound, however, like the "Transparency Campers" missed out on a real opportunity to engage her and others about open data… so in the spirit of open public discourse, I've followed up with her:
https://twitter.com/#!/digiphi...

If I hear back anything from her, I'll let you know.

Comment by Corey McCarren on May 8, 2012 at 4:41pm

Movements, whether Occupy, the Tea Party, or in this case open government, have a tendency to find a corner in the room, crawl in it, and blame everyone not in their corner. Movements lose their value when they do this, as do their members. Great advice.

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