Monday, June 01, 2009

Nonprofit Tech Conference Keynotes: Social Media, Failure and Intellectual Property

[This happened over a month ago but the videos were just put online]

The two keynotes at this year's Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Francisco were great but very different. They were total different styles and tackled totally different topics. (Judge for yourself, the videos are at ( hard to find--here is the direct link: )

Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, was a typical keynote speaker--well known, the author of a new and popular book, and very energetic. He also was the kind of speaker that works great for an opening keynote--he established some broad themes for the conference.
  • The first half of his presentation was all about social media. (It was vaguely familiar from various videos of Shirky on the Web.) The basic premise was (paraphrased) "the world of organizing without organizations" and "don't worry about loosing control of your brand--you've already lost control." This overall topic was well covered in the conference.
  • The second half of his talk was on failing inteligently. This is one of my favorate topics--that you can learn alot from trying something and failing at it if you are honest about the analysis. This wasn't discussed much at the conference. That is a shame since many foundations (the funding source of a lot of nonprofits) don't want to hear about failures--they want the final reports to be glowing--they want to pretend everything that they fund is a success. Very few foundations like receiving final reports that say: "The project didn't work; this is why it didn't work; this is what we learned." (The McKnight Foundation here in Minneapolis is one of the few that are interested in this type of report from grantees).
The Tuesday Keynote was by Eben Moglen. He is a Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and the founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center. He hasn't written a new and popular book, he isn't well known (even in the nonprofit technology community) and his speaking style was what you'd expect from a boring law professor. But he ended up forcing everyone to ask themselves really hard questions.

When he started talking i felt a general sigh in the room that seemed to say "this is going to put me to sleep." People kept talking, people were checking their email on their laptops, people were thumbing through the conference programs trying to figure out what breakout session to go to. As Moglen droned on, people started picking up on what he was saying:
  • Proprietary software stifles innovation and the economy,
  • The whole concept of "intellectual property rights" is wrong,
  • We need new systems to compensate creativity.
About half way through his talk, the room was silent--everyone was paying attention. He attacked some sacred cows. He came into a conference that was sponsored primarily by large software companies and challenged their right to existence. The response to his ideas was mixed--some conference attendees loved them, some hated them--but everyone seemed to agree that he was forcing people to think about really hard questions.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

super review of the conference. thanks for such insightful reviews. i'll spend the time to actually watch now.