Alongside the Nile in Sawy Culture Wheel’s River Hall, some 200 artists, musicians, web-designers and other techies gathered on Saturday to “talk geek” in a conversation loosely organized around a series of presentations on online media and its varied applications.
Described as “an offline social for online people,” GeekFest Cairo 1.0 aimed to facilitate networking and creative exchange among internet-savvy Cairenes and their peers around the world.
If it is difficult to put a label on this gathering, it is because it is conscientiously unorganized. The event was designed to be carried out in an ad-hoc fashion, in accordance with open source culture’s ideal of creative borrowing and repackaging content to assemble a product greater than the sum of its parts. GeekFest is to social networking what Flexihours are to software companies: a purposefully loose organization of time, space and collaboration aimed at engineering conditions conducive to creativity and innovation.
The event’s subject matter is correspondingly broad: presenters discuss the use of social media for social change, explain Creative Commons and open source culture, examine trends in new media, recall lessons learned from failed internet startups, and strategize on the use of technology to create and disseminate art.
The mood is lively and the crowd buzzes with feedback, engaging presenters face-to-face and also weighing in via a live twitter feed which is projected in view of the audience. Many presentations are shorter than the question and answer sessions which follow. Music spliced together by “Geeky DJ” DIJIT thunders through the hall during breaks.
According to organizer Naeema Zarif, the event is without precedent in Egypt. It is the first event to be held in Egypt licensed by Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization which provides free licenses and other legal tools to entertainers, journalists, organizations and even governments, enabling free distribution of online content in a way that is consistent with the rules of copyright.
Zarif also emphasized that the event is unique insofar as it receives no corporate or organizational funding and is made possible entirely by in-kind and individual donations coupled with the work of volunteers. “Things don’t usually happen like this in Egypt, events are not held without sponsorship,” she said.
Conceptualized by blogger Alexander Mcnabb (http://fakeplasticsouks.blogspot.com/), the first GeekFest was held in Dubai, followed by events in Beirut and Amman. Subsequent events have been held in these locations, and future events are being organized in Alexandria and Damascus.
Since its inception, the event series has expanded from its original focus on internet-based entrepreneurs to incorporate a wider group of artists, musicians, journalists, and others who are linked by their use of the internet to “create, educate, entertain, inform, or just play around.”
This broadening is reflected in three key building blocks now incorporated into all events: GeekTalks, TechnoCases and ArtStuff.
GeekTalks are presentations on areas or issues of interest to attendees. The event’s ethic of informality and flexibility is in evidence even within this element of structure — in theory, presenters are not limited in their choice of a topic. (In practice, topics at GeekFest held in Cairo focused on the various applications of online media.)
Instead of a schedule there is an unordered list of presenters, each of whom gauge their presentation according to audience participation and reaction, and tailor timing and content accordingly.
TechnoCases (technology showcases) provide companies with a platform to exhibit IT products to GeekFest attendees. McNabb stresses that showcasing a product does not confer rights of sponsorship. “They’re not an invitation to scream slogans or brand the event,” he says, but rather a chance to “engage with an audience of highly influential online thought-leaders in a dialogue.”
ArtStuff was included spontaneously at early at GeekFest events, but now represents an essential element of each event. Wherever possible, the art — be it graffiti, visual art, photography, music, or something else — is rendered in digital form for display.
Notwithstanding these broad criteria, says Mcnabb, GeekFest is “just a big room full of smart people who have stuff that is interesting, engaging and even possibly visionary to discuss.”