Apr 29, 2011

GEL Conference notes

I’m on the plane home from New York, having just spent two days at GEL Conference, and I feel the need to capture a few snippets about the conference while it’s still fresh. If conference wrapup blog posts annoy the hell out of you (like they usually do me), then feel free to read it and be annoyed. Or just skip it. Up to you.


We live with instant access to information–from anywhere, at any time. This is useful! And exciting! And powerful! But that access has shortened my attention span and made me incredibly impatient–if I can’t find it & grok it in under 30 seconds, it takes too long. Which makes having uninterrupted time to enjoy new experiences and learn about new people and their projects this week at GEL was a wonderful luxury. It had been a long, long time since I had been at a conference purely as an attendee (and not as a speaker, organizer, etc.), so having the opportunity to relax and go with the flow of the programming was fantastic.

Not that all of the content was relaxing. Day one of GEL seems designed to get people out of their comfort zones and connect with other attendees in ways that don’t involve coffee and muffins. During the morning they offered an improv workshop, where a group of us were invited to improvise “the story of our lives” in 60 seconds. At the end of my 60 seconds, the improv team running the session extended my little vignette (“Yes, and…”) with material that made me profoundly uncomfortable and I honestly lost myself for a minute. That doesn’t happen every day.


One of the other participants in the improv class was Abner Ramirez, who is half of the singing duo Johnnyswim. I didn’t know who he was on Thursday, but when he stepped on to stage on Friday to perform with his wife, his killer improv skills suddenly made sense. The guy was born to be on stage. As Matt tweeted right after they performed, “Holy shitballs this group Johnnyswim is great.”


Two other musical bits: Vi Hart’s presentation about how she uses math to compose music blew me away, especially her toss off comment about how a melody she had developed was basically the Fibonacci sequence. And Jace Clayton, aka DJ/rupture told the story of how at the end of a set where he’s been getting a crowd to dance, he’ll bring them down deliberately with samples of Tracy Chapman’s song “Behind the Wall,” which is about listening (“Being a DJ is all about listening”), and having to make a decision about whether you should act on what you hear.

And other quick notes, just to jot them down… Tom Lee gave an incredible overview of One Medical Group, demonstrating the problem with today’s health care system by playing back audio clips of patients trying to make a doctor’s appointment. … Perry Chen deftly used video clips from Kickstarter submissions to describe what they do, including this one for I Am I. Highly recommended. … Old friend (we are getting old) Anil Dash didn’t disappoint: he brought the Malcolm and the purple in his talk about combining tools and networks to do good. … Kirby Ferguson revealed that the next chapter in his Everything is a Remix video series is going to be about Apple. (Whoa.) … And Nicola Twilley’s talk on creating a scratch-n-sniff map of New York was great, and she used the phrase “ocular centrism” at the drop of a hat, so double plus for that.

nicola twilley's smell map

There’s a lot of talk lately about curation. Lousy curators deliver shit you don’t care about, shit you’re already seen, or worse, shit you don’t care about that you’ve already seen. Good curators deliver quality material you do care about, quality material you haven’t seen, or even better, a combination of both.

Mark Hurst is a great curator. His skill comes from a deep love and respect for his audience, which shows in the passion he has for the program and experience he assembles. It’s definitely not “safe”: the Thursday experiences pushed me out of my comfort zone, and not all of the Friday speakers were perfectly polished. But all of the content was there for a reason, all of it connected to the main theme, and it was all things that Mark cares about. It takes guts to put an eclectic program like GEL together–even with a great set of smart people doing interesting talks, there’s always a chance the program slips off the high wire. But Mark pulls it off, and when he’s up on stage walking that wire you can see the joy he takes in sharing the things he loves.

Well done.