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A circle of jerks

Every time a GeekRetreat takes place, a bunch of people who weren't there attack it in public forums for being elitist, insular, or otherwise beneath their dignity.

Social networks have many benefits. For example, they give you something to do while you wait in a queue or sit around procrastinating. But they also pose many dangers.

Some people inadvertently expose too much private information and end up becoming victims of stalkers or identity thieves. Some run their mouths off or publish embarrassing pictures of their friends while drunk, only to be surprised in the clear light of morning that these messages pose a risk to their careers, or diminish them in the eyes of their peers. Companies run serious reputational risks from consumers who never used to have a public voice, but now can complain to the world, fairly or otherwise.

And then there is the danger of exposing your fragile ego, depressing negativity and perennial vindictiveness by criticising and insulting others.

This frequently happens during and after events where people gather. Want to organise such an event? Put on a flameproof suit, because whoever doesn't get to go (or can't afford it) will doubtless nitpick loudly and call your event elitist in the most vicious terms.

The most recent example is GeekRetreat, founded by volunteers Heather Ford, Eve Dmochowska and Justin Spratt. It was run for the third time since its inception last weekend, in the Stanford Valley near Hermanus in the Western Cape, and was organised this year by Ford, Dmochowska and Jarred Cinman.

GeekRetreat is a weekend-long gathering of a varied mix of people whose interests broadly coincide around technology, social media and the Internet. Some are hardcore techies, some are marketing types, some are journalists or bloggers, some are entrepreneurs, and some are more interested in funding start-ups than running them. All proudly self-identify as "geeks". The format is loosely based on the successful Unconference model, in which the agenda and activities are, as much as possible, left up to participants to decide once they arrive at the venue.

Critics, however, call the weekend away an elitist and exclusionary waste of time. Most of the critics (with a few exceptions) have never attended one. This is not because they were not invited or because they applied to go but were rejected, although listening to the complainants makes you think they were somehow excluded.

No way!

Some critics complained that – shock! horror! – there appeared to be some participants who actually had fun.

The first GeekRetreat, held in 2009 near Johannesburg, was put together by invitation and word-of-mouth, as one might expect from an event with no prior public profile. However, it is now open to anyone who applies. In principle, organisers want to restrict numbers, to ensure that everyone who wants an opportunity to speak during the weekend can do so, and to permit every attendee to get to know every other attendee. Therefore, they ask applicants to provide a reason why they want to go, to find out what they might contribute.

Rejecting some applicants to an event can often be justified. Some objectives are mutually exclusive. Wishing to limit the size of a group, charging a fee to cover costs, or holding it in an attractive location, inevitably means some people can't go. Selection is one solution to this problem, and while it has its downsides, it also has benefits that random or first-come-first-served methods cannot offer.

In principle, this is the challenge GeekRetreat organisers face. In practice, however, they say not one application was rejected this year. So much for being an exclusionary club, or being able to hold the organisers responsible for who did and did not attend.

These considerations didn't stop a few noisy critics from denouncing the event in the most rude terms. Some of these curiously angry-sounding rants described the event, rather crassly, as a "circle-jerk".

According to the attendance records, a total of 93 people have attended one or more GeekRetreats. Of those, only six have attended all three, and 20 have attended two. That leaves 67 people who have attended only once. Half the attendees in 2011 were first-timers. This hardly describes an insular group that excludes others and exists only to stroke egos.

Another common theme was that GeekRetreat organisers and attendees refused to accept criticism. Not that it is surprising to hear defensive reactions to crude insults, but is there some underlying substance to this allegation?

As it happens, while the first GeekRetreat had a fairly vague theme about making the Internet better, the second had a more specific focus on education. The 2011 GeekRetreat was significantly different, in that it was built around teams working on selected projects. This appeared to be a direct response to criticism, both from attendees and outsiders, that there appeared to be little by way of specific deliverables or legacy to the event.

One could point to projects or initiatives that emerged from this or previous GeekRetreats. Obami, the social networking tool for schools that made its public appearance at the inaugural event in 2009, springs to mind. So does BootstrapSecrets.com, which emerged from this year's event. The start-up funding concept Crowdfund.co.za, though long-delayed, was originally an idea pitched at GeekRetreat. Even the merger of social marketing agencies Cambrient, Stonewall+ and Brandsh to form Native has been linked to serendipitous meetings at a past GeekRetreat.

However, those who've been to a GeekRetreat are equally likely to cite intangible benefits, such as learning from others, sharing ideas, meeting people, finding collaborators, building relationships, or just having one's mind stimulated. Is the only measure of an event's value to participants whether it has outcomes that can be measured?

Some critics complained that – shock! horror! – there appeared to be some participants who actually had fun. They were swimming, larking about, or even drinking alcohol. This, to the critics, was proof positive that they were just wasting their time.

And therein lies the rub. Why are the participants in such an event accountable to anyone else for how they choose to spend their time? What is it to anyone else, even if their time was entirely wasted? What is it about gatherings such as these that make people who choose not to go so vocal and vicious? Is it jealousy? Are their egos so fragile that they cannot bear watching other people gather without them?

As a sarcastic response to the vocal few, participants at GeekRetreat raised an unusual defence. As Heather Ford wrote: "The team wanted to create a series of competing narratives about the GeekRetreat, emphasising the fact that what people say about the event is often very far from individuals' experiences, and that people often believe what they want to believe on the Internet, not stopping to question or critically analyse what is being 'reported'."

The spoof, which the outside world saw as a reality-style contest dubbed GeekFactor, won by an entirely fictional character, was controversial even among GeekRetreaters themselves. Needless to say, having their chains yanked only incensed the critics even more. But Cinman says: "It showed what the weekend was about by showing what it wasn't. Accused of being elitist, self-aggrandising and an excuse for inebriation, we took those accusations to their logical extreme. [The] stark contrast to the retreat as it was and as it was reflected became more and more pronounced, giving everyone a unique and vivid experience of what it's like to become victims of the new media we both create and live within."

Ultimately, the matter is simple. GeekRetreat is organised by volunteers. It is attended by people who want to be there. What further justification do these people need for getting together?

If you listen to the circle of jerks that freely opine about them in public forums, they should sit at home and stare at computer screens, because real geeks aren't supposed to meet in real life – let alone have fun, talk about the ideas they're discussing, or plan business ventures over drinks.

Truth is, it is nobody else's business what they get up to, or whether their weekend has any value to them or anyone else.

I've been to GeekRetreat, twice. I wouldn't trade those splendid days with splendid people for anything. That's enough justification. The critics can go swivel.

Full disclosure: Ivo Vegter is not associated with GeekRetreat in any way, other than as a participant in 2009 and 2010. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not purport to reflect those of the organisers. He did not attend the 2011 event.


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