Does FOO Camp matter?

It started as an inside joke among friends, but FOO Camp has turned into an “event” that seems to draw equal parts admiration and criticism, depending on whether you get invited to it or not. For those who don’t know, FOO is short for “friends of O’Reilly” — as in Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, publisher of technology books and organizer of conferences. According to the Wikipedia entry on FOO Camp, the event got started after an O’Reilly staffer joked about having a “FOO bar” at a conference — a reference to the time-honoured term “fubar,” mean “f***ed up beyond all recognition.”

Over the years, FOO Camp has grown to become one of the hot, invite-only happenings in the Valley — yes, even bigger than Mike Arrington’s TechCrunch parties. And along the way, there has been an undercurrent of frustration from those who feel left out by the invitation-only status of the event, including some people who have never been invited (but think they should be) and some who were invited once but then weren’t asked to come back. The latest brouhaha — not surprisingly — involves Web guru Dave Winer, who clearly falls into the former category.

This definitely has a high-school, “who’s in and who’s not” kind of feel to it, but it also raises the same kinds of issues that the old “A-list gatekeeper” debate over influence in the blogosphere does. Is O’Reilly being elitist by having an exclusive, invite-only party — and if so, does it matter? For those who see the Internet as leveling the playing field, lowering the barriers to entry, and so on, FOO Camp seems like a kick in the communal goolies. But Tim appears to see it partly as good business and partly as an attempt to bring smart people together in a controlled setting, without having to worry about troublemakers, windbags and other assorted riff-raff (he explained to Roger Cadenhead why Dave isn’t invited, and there’s more details here).

For my part, I think Tim should be able to hold whatever kind of event he wants (and so does my friend Stowe Boyd — who gets a comment from the Scobelizer). Would I like to be invited? Sure. But I’m not going to bitch and moan because I haven’t been. Call it elitism or exclusionary or arrogant if you like — the fact is that not everyone can be invited to everything, and sometimes being exclusive (or discriminating, in the positive sense of the word) makes for a better event. My friend Kent Newsome has some thoughts from the other side of the argument, and Tom Coates of plasticbag has his own thoughts (he attended this year).

7 thoughts on “Does FOO Camp matter?

  1. I don’t really get his point – these credibility of these camps etc. are entirely founded on relevance. If Tim O’Reilly wants to have a closed conference that’s his choice. The risk he runs if they’re only getting people who share their views is potential death by echo chamber.

    This is why events like BarCamp (and the various *Camp offspring) came about. I don’t see the risk for Web 2.0 because last I checked the community was alive, talking and interacting quite actively (Look at BarCampEarth last weekend – 10+ cities having simulatneous camps). I’m sure Dave would be more then welcome to come to his local Camp and do a session on “Why O’Reilly is doomed to Fail” or whatever else he is concerned about at the time.

    Sounds more like a case of someone’s invite getting “lost” in the mail.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. I agree. Seems like a typical “sour grapes” response – although I think you are right that O’Reilly’s exclusivity runs the risk of turning FOO Camp into an echo chamber.

  3. I am a long-time O’Reilly author and FOO Camp attendee (wasn’t invited this year, no sour grapes either).

    FOO Camp started out as an extended company party for staff, editors, authors and interesting people who’d been involved in or written about by the company. Tim’s company has been publishing books about and promoting open source technology for a _long_ time, so he’s picked up some influential friends along the way (most of whom were nobodies 10 years ago by the way).

    The first two years I went, it wasn’t an “a list” party, mostly it was a mix of authors, editors and people from the open source community hanging out, sharing ideas, and drinking. Last year, some people got their panties in a bunch over the invite list, and the event took on an importance that was never intended. I understand that people felt left out, but the event wouldn’t work with 1000 people, and I give credit to Tim for not trying to turn it into TED, where people can pay several grand to have a drink with Larry Page. Instead he invited an interesting mix of nameless people doing interesting work, and big name people who had done interesting work.

    Either way, it’s his party and I am glad he decided to do it. Whether you agree with everything he does, O’Reilly is a pioneer, and was out promoting open source, and publishing books about topics nobody cared about (Python for example) long before they became important technologies.

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