When I got the invitation to SciFoo, I thought I'd decline. I halfways assumed I ended up on this email list accidentally and had a scheduling conflict already (I meant to be in Germany at this time to help my husband with his move). In addition to this, they didn't reimburse travel expenses and my budget for such purposes is typically permanently overstretched (they payed the hotel though).
Mostly however I've been hesitant because I am very skeptic about the merits of unconferencing. I'm not much of a believer in creative chaos - it is typically more chaotic than creative, especially if crammed into two days. The possibility that anything comes out of such a gathering except for empty words, a large exchange of business cards, and self-celebration just seems very small. The only thing I knew about SciFoo was what Lee told about last year (which had something to do with Martha Steward, I can't quite recall the details). It didn't sound like a meeting I'd want to be at. If the only thing you bring back is names of people with Wikipedia entries and a T-shirt, I can find better ways to spend my time and money. Neither did I ever have a large interest in visiting Silicon Valley, and had never heard of O'Reilly Media.
So, why did I go then? Well, first, out of curiosity. Second, because California is always nice. Third, because it was a good excuse to avoid Stefan's move. Forth, because I'm in a midlife crisis and don't know what to do with my life anyway (but don't worry coz I've said that for at least ten years now).
Thus, admittedly I was negatively biased upon arrival. We were told the first evening we're supposed to socialize and make friends and have FUN! Luckily, there were plenty of British people around who looked about as enthusiastic as me upon being told to socialize at 10pm with a 9 hour jetlag.
Despite my cynical attitude I realized fast most of the people on the meeting were luckily reasonable, normal though over-averagely intelligent, and one could actually have sensible discussions. I mean, seriously, I was afraid I'd be facing 48 hours full of smalltalk and 'What are you doing, oh how interesting' with totally crazy VIPs (California seems to attract them).
The first evening I talked to some bloggers about how weird it can be to meet people you only knew online previously. Some of them are just what you'd expect, but others are quite different. It didn't come as a surprise to me I'm considered falling into the latter category. My writing output doesn't match my chatting desire. Typically, I'm a spectator who will process information later. So that's what you get right now.
Surprisingly though it was easy - it was really easy to start a conversation. The atmosphere was very relaxed, the desperados trying to impress others were missing which I believe makes a big difference to conferences I typically go. It seems to me everybody assumed everybody else is at SciFoo because he or she is doing something interesting. In addition to this, everybody could suggest and hold a session under the same circumstances. Thus the organizers did not impose any hierarchy of plenary and parallel sessions which put all of us on an equal starting level. Likewise, we were all staying in the same two hotels, no economy housing elsewhere for the financially less fortunate.
I have neither founded any company, nor written several books, nor won a Nobelprize, but it turned out being a theoretical physicist is quite cool these days which was an uplifting experience to begin with. I ended up having dinner with a Nobel-prize winner because Frank Wilczek's wife apparently thought I look like a nice person to sit with; most interesting conversation I've had was with a guy from Pixar (Toy story 3 is coming), I learned something about advertising in science and politics, the doom and gloom of a civilization heading for break down (that's you guys between Canada and Mexico), data sharing, and city planning (I used the opportunity to complain extensively about the lack of sidewalks in North America). Funnily enough, about half of the people I talked to wondered like me what they are doing among all the VIPs (just check the blog reactions).
All together it was a very positive experience. Though the intensity of the meeting has advantages (most notably, more people will be able to come), a large disadvantage is that you aren't really able to follow up on a thought or a conversation and to get something running at place. One would hope that people keep contact with each other, but there is always the risk once they are back at their desk you turn into an annoyance in their inbox. It would have been nice to stay for some days for some more relaxed meetings with people who you've found share some of your interests. Also, because of the large amount of parallel sessions everybody was left with the feeling of having missed something - an effect that I noticed often happens at conferences with parallel sessions but usually fades after some days if people have a chance to catch up and hear what was going on elsewhere.
What did I learn from that?
- Well, for one it seems to me an important aspect of the success of that meeting is a carefully assembled list of participants, and a carefully unassembled schedule.
- In addition, creative exchange benefits noticeably from having only participants who actually are interested in being at the meeting. (In contrast to the invited plenary speaker who will leave immediately after his talk.)
- Not trying to worsen differences in experience or career by dividing participants into different housing or different types of talks also seems to considerably improve casual exchange.
- Constant supply of food and drinks keeps people in a good mood (Nothing new about that. Btw, I still need $1500 for catering at our upcoming conference, otherwise people will have to eat the PI-pens. If you know anybody who can afford that, please, please email me.)