My all-time favorite learning event

Every year for the last six, I have flown to Seattle to attend Gnomedex, far and away my favorite and most powerful learning event. This year’s Gnomedex, the tenth, is the last of the series, so I thought it appropriate to examine what has made the event so damned good.

Gnomedex X


Gnomedexers self-identify as geeks. Attendees share the belief that technology is good (awesome! cool!) and can help make Earth a better place to live. The badge of honor is to do something with tech, not just talk about it. Old hands share knowledge with novices. We respect one another’s expertise. We build on one another’s ideas. Participants are authentic.

Everyone is excited about learning new things and putting them to use. I probably take away more than most because this crowd is not in my traditional comfort zone.

Gnomedex might not work if it had thousands of participants instead of a few hundred. Everyone being able to fit in the same room fosters intimacy. People recognize one another from prior years. The downside is when someone asks me if I remember our intense hour-long conversation last year, and I would swear I’ve never met them before.
Derek Miller writes:
It’s hard to describe what gives Gnomedex its mojo: while it is irredeemably geeky, and often covers trends in technology and society before they hit the mainstream, it’s neither a dry technical meeting nor a science-fiction con. In a way, it’s like an annual online-community family reunion, except all you need to do to join the family is show up. I’ve made lots of friends and deepened other friendships there.

Derek has terminal cancer. Three years ago he addressed the crowd from his hospital bed. Yesterday I asked Derek how he was doing. He’s thankful for every year he lives. He’s not going to get better. I asked if he was doing everything he’d always wanted to do. Were this not Gnomedex, I wouldn’t ask something like that. By the way, Derek wrote “The Gnomedex Song.”

Listen to the Gnomedex Song


Gnomedex takes place at the Bell Harbor Conference Center. The food is superb. Snacks, ice water, coffee, and soda are always available. There are plenty of nooks, sofas, and meeting spots to foster conversations. The main meeting room is just the right size for our 300 people. Rows are tiered so everyone has a view. Chairs are comfortable.

Sound is professionally monitored. Gnomedex Day 1
Professional sound
Gnomedex Day 2
Tiered seats remind me of business school

Two very important elements which should be de rigeur at any tech-oriented event:

  1. Electrical outlets are close by every seat.
  2. Wi-fi is free, ubiquitous, and trouble-free.


All presentations take place in a single room. Concurrent events would water down the focus and energy level. Presentations are held to 20 minutes. Most are catalysts for questions. There is always time reserved for questions. Runners take portable microphones to the questioners and don’t let go of them; not giving up control of the microphone insures it’s being held in the right place. Gnomedex Day 2 Sex educator Violet Blue delivers her 20 minutes. She told me this was the rare conference where people weren’t hitting on her. We gave Violet a standing ovation for her voice against censorship.

The backchannel is very active. Between sessions and during announcements, the Twitterstream is projected onto the main screen. Tweets add viewpoints and keep people on their toes. I sometimes learn as much from the Tweets as from the core presentation.

Twitter backchannel on the big screen


Gnomedex Day 1 Gnomedex X
Both genders and all ages take part. This year four eleven-year olds blew everyone away. They conducted interviews with Scoble and many others. They manage a business remotely. They are astute at tracking their web stats and reacting strategically. They get a lot more page-views than I ever have.


Geeks and cameras go together. A vast array of high-end SLRs, pocket cams, video cams, and Flips are continuously recording events and interviews. All of Gnomedex is streamed live. You can view recordings of every session after the fact. As a result, the influence of Gnomedex reaches far beyond the 300 people meeting in Seattle. Furthermore, we’re green; we didn’t have a printed schedule this year.

What Doesn’t Work (for me)

I don’t like sloppy presentations, something you rarely see at Gnomedex. But at the other extreme, I don’t enjoy presentations that are too slick. For me, this guy qualifies:
Gnomedex Day 2
He began with a great analogy: how people at the airport crowd the baggage carousel, making it impossible for the rest of us to see. So let’s be more considerate. Back up a few steps. We’ll all be better off. Spread the meme and the whole world wins.

This message is being delivered flawlessly. No ums. No ahs. Perfect pitch. Dramatic movement around the stage. To slick. It almost lulls me into overlooking the subtest: Buy my book. Hire me to help you figure this out. Give away copies. The e-version’s only $15. Trickery! I was about to barf.

Online Artifacts

If you missed Gnomedex X, you can still listen in. Look at the Gnomedex site. Also, search for Gnomedex on Flickr and YouTube. Look at the MindMaps from Jeff Barr What went on? See The Sense of a Gnomedex and Notes Great events leave a healthy trail of breadcrumbs. The online artifacts of the event stay on line — enabling you to find people, links, and stories after the show is over.


What goes on in the hallways is more important than the presentations. Breaks are frequent. There’s a party every night. People get to meet and learn from folks they’d otherwise never know. You knew that.

Gnomedex X
Opening party

Over the years I’ve enjoyed shooting the shit with Mike Arrington, Adam Curry, Dan Gilmor, Steve Rubel, Robert Scobel, Charlene Li, Dave Winer, Jason Calacanis, Darren Barefoot, Steve Gilmour, Mark Canter, Sarah Lacey, Vanessa Fox, and other geek luminaries.


Chris Pirillo has his fingers on the pulse of the social web, is a bundle of energy, and seems to know everybody who is anybody. Perhaps more important, he’s a straight-shooter. Chris sets the direction, recruits the speakers, plans the event, is master of ceremonies, and schmoozes with hundreds of people.

Family Affair

Chris’s mother Judy is the official timekeeper; Joe runs the microphone to those who ask questions. Both are all over the place helping out. This year, both of Chris’s brothers joined in. At the final session yesterday, the family trooped on stage for a reminiscence.

Joe and Judy Pirillo

Some of you will remember that Elliott Masie’s mom and father-in-law took part in his early TechLearn events. His wife and sister-in-law are heavily involved. Unless one was raised by wolves, inviting one’s parents to an event sends a real statement. It says “I’m proud of what I’m doing. I want to share it with you.”

End of an era?

Why was this the last Gnomedex? Essentially, there’s not enough Chris to go around. It takes too much to put an event like this on. Chris says the only way he’d resurrect Gnomedex is with solid sponsorship and a professional events manager. He fears any sponsor would want to take control; professional managers would be out for quantity, not quality. I’m not so sure it would have to be like that.
Funding Gnomedex would build a company’s reputation in front of influential geeks like nothing else. Putting on a two-day event in Seattle would cost a pittance compared to any ad campaign. Think of the value Robert Scoble brought Microsoft by giving it a human face. I expect Son of Gnomedex to appear in 2012. That will give us true believers time to crowd-source our thinking and find a sponsor with deep pockets, long-term vision, and a pure heart.

Why Do Geeks Gather Here?