ORD Camp 2014: A Fun Mind-Bender

Posted by Q McCallum on 2014-01-29

ORDCamp structure provided the perfect blend of deterministic and stochastic to inspire great conversations

This past weekend, Zach Kaplan (@zkaplan) and Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick (@therealfitz) welcomed me and a couple hundred other people to ORD Camp. This amazing 36 hours was organized as an unconference event, which means it was driven by attendees and had intentionally little structure.

(You can skim the Twitter #ORDCamp hashtag for a peek at what took place. Also, check out Sasha Laundy’s (@sashalaundy) recap for a deeper look at the unconference-ness of it all.)

I figured I’d assemble my own quick look for the benefit of future attendees.

Short version: If you get an invite, go. Don’t think it over, just accept.

Slightly longer version: It’s a mind-bender. And that’s the point. Your brain will thank you.

Even longer: It twists your mind in three special ways. Read on…

Twist 1: separating signal from noise

ORD Camp is based on the O’Reilly Foo Camp concept, in that it’s an overnight unconference and the attendee list is curated by the organizers. A number of us tried to discern the underlying theme that tied us all together. The conference’s vague description – “People from many different fields, many different walks of life, get together and share, teach, and learn about uniquely interesting topics” – wasn’t much of a clue. How had Fitz and Zach chosen this group of people to attend their extended party?

My brain enjoys this sort of puzzle. Watching a play? At the same time, I marvel at the efficient use of on-stage space. Planning travel? I also hypothesize about the airline’s pricing models. You get the picture. It’s not that I’m distracted, just that there’s always something running in the background, decomposing the seemingly random signal of the world around me to uncover the true source. I like to know what makes things tick, and this background process was working overtime at ORD Camp.

Partway through the weekend, I started to figure it out. Where else had I heard that phrase, “People from many different fields, many different walks of life”?


ORD Camp models the social interactions of a dense, urban environment. Big cities have a reputation for being hotbeds of innovation. The idea is that you mix large numbers of people, with different perspectives and intents, and cool things develop as they interact. That is precisely what ORD Camp makes possible. I can only imagine the collaborations that will grow out of everyone’s late-night chats.

That means the common thread that binds the attendees is, there is no common thread, and that’s the point.

Twist 2: optimizing, or how to win at ORD Camp

That thought led to my second ORD Camp discovery: it’s random, but it’s a high-quality random.

Going back to the city analogy, most social interactions in life are fleeting. Sure, you’ll occasionally bump into someone at random, strike up a conversation, and something will develop; but that’s more the exception than the rule. 1 We often try to optimize away that inefficiency by boosting our chances for meaningful interaction: we look for signals that someone is interesting and wants to talk with us. Then again, we sometimes misread others’ signals, so we’re not always successful. More efficient than being completely random, yet still not nearly as efficient as possible.

ORD Camp’s hand-picked invite list blows away this idea. Everyone there is interesting and everyone wants to talk. Not only is it impossible to optimize when every opportunity is a sure bet, there’s no need to even try. You can’t lose. So you just wander.

If there is a catch-22 here, it’s that you can’t possibly meet everyone, not even if you stay till the wee hours of the morning (which many people do). So you win, but you don’t win. Yet, you still win.

Twist 3: paradox, or, why non-unconferences are difficult

Your typical, industry-specific conference is all about making connections. If you’re deep enough into that industry, though, you already know plenty of your fellow attendees. You probably (mis)use the conference as your group catching-up time, which means clusters of old friends quickly develop, and you limit your interactions with new people.

ORD Camp is different. The very nature of the (un)conference makes it easy to strike up a conversation with a total stranger, even break in to a group of strangers, because there are no predefined “clumps” to make you feel like an intruder. As Fitz so eloquently explained to us on the first night: if two people you don’t know are talking, join in, because they don’t know each other, either.

All of this makes for another ORD Camp paradox: it’s the ultimate social gathering for shy, introverted people. Talking with everyone kept me up well past my bedtime. 2 That is quite a feat, and a reminder that engaging conversation is a stronger stimulant than caffeine.

thank you

In short, I’d like to express my thanks to Zach and Fitz for the wonderful experience. In the same way a gripping story or moving performance twists your views, ORD Camp crashed my “let’s figure out the world” background thread and broke my brain apart. I have a new perspective now that I’ve put it back together.

I also thank everyone I met, for taking the time to talk. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Last, but certainly not least, I welcome anyone I didn’t meet to reach out. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of interesting things to talk about.

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  1. Hence, why so much “reality” TV is semi-scripted. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction; but not predictably and reliably so. ↩︎

  2. A sign that I was captivated by the experience: I hardly touched my phone. It’s rare that I leave a conference with 90% battery remaining. ↩︎