July 01, 2006

Gnomeplex, Part 1

I'm on the top of the world lookin' down on creation
and the only explanation that I can find
Is the love that I've found ever since you've been around
Your love's put me at the top of the world

It's midnight and the window in my Edgewater hotel is open to the Puget Sound view, and the sounds downstairs of a wedding party, with the hired band's female vocalist trying to make it through the Carpenters' Top of the World, her singing sounding like she's trying to follow how the Carpenters recorded the song, while unfortunately the band is trying to play it like a polka.

When I checked in to the hotel the other day, the lady at the registration desk told me they were giving me a free upgrade. Not just a water view room, but a premium water view room. At no charge. Why, what an honor. Next time I hear "free upgrade" and "premium water view", I'll know what the phrases actually mean: "congratulations, we have chosen YOU to have the room right above the hotel's restaurant, where we have wedding parties playing bad polka-style Carpenters cover music for entertainment until midnight!"

I don't understand Gnomedex. It seems like I'm supposed to know what the name means, since this is the second year of attending the conference and therefore I am cooler and more knowledgeable than the newbie attendees. But I don't. They ask me, I think because they're probably really asking, why do you come to this conference, it seems kind of lame. I don't have an answer for them . And I don't know what "Lockergnome" means either, which is apparently related to the "Gnome" in "Gnomedex."

Former Senator John Edwards speaking at Gnomedex

As for Chris Pirillo, the guy who runs the conference, I don't know who he is either, though he seems like a nice enough person and seems to fit the pattern of tech conference impresario. What is the pattern of a tech conference impresario? Well, there are two requirements at the very least. Number 1. Start a conference. Number 2. Bring your relatives to it.

PC Forum is this way (mom, pop, brother, sister(s)). O'Reilly's ETech and FooCamp are this way (wife, daughter). I noticed earlier this month that Supernova, a conference I'd never attended before, is this way (mom, pop). And now at Gnomedex I discover Gnomedex is this way too. Gnomedex even has the active participation of the Mom Pirillo and Dad Pirillo, as microphone holders and strict session-segment timekeepers.

Last year, I tried to speak with Chris during the schmooze fest at the spectacular Seattle Library building, with its dizzying angular architecture. But he kept blowing me off and I never had a chance to have a conversation. This year, I noticed he's a lot more accessible, going from table to table, attendee to attendee thanking them, simply thanking each one, with a "thank you" and moving on. Not quite sure what the "thank you" is for, but he seems sincere about it.

On the wall behind the podium on the conference stage is a huge poster showing a caricature of Chris Pirillo. There are for me two notable things about the caricature, other than the fact that it is a caricature and always reminds me at least a little bit of Woody Allen. The first is that if you were to study Chris Pirillo during the conference, at the beginning of sessions and at the end of sessions, as he approaches the podium, as he departs the podium, as he paces the aisle along a far wall, is that he has a particular pained grimace, a Woody Allen-style "eeek" as if his whole world is about to collapse in some embarrassing moment, and to think Mom and Pop are here to witness it. A true caricature would have caught that look rather than the slightly bug-eyed smirk the picture depicts.

The other notable thing about the caricature is what accompanies the caricature. A big encircled "R" at the bottom right of the illustration. If it weren't for that, it'd be ordinary, just some weird caricature you might find at some comedy show or something. But the "R" means it's a registered trademark, which means this mark is used in trade, which means this is about business, which means this is about making money.

I looked it up. It really is registered. You have to know what to look for. I mean, an artistic rendering, be it a logo or a caricature, has to have some word or phrase associated with it so you can do a search. I guessed Gnomedex. Nope. Nothing. Then I thought, maybe lockergnome.


The design search codes are interesting. "02.01.01 - Busts of men; Heads of men; Men, heads, portraiture, busts". Then there's "02.01.31 - Men, stylized, including men depicted in caricature form." Well, that helps. I'm not sure section "16.03.07" does though: "Contact lenses; Eyeglasses; Frames, eyeglass; Glasses, eye; Glasses, safety; Goggles; Lenses, optical, and spectacle; Monocles; Safety goggles; Spectacles; Sunglasses."

First used in commerce nearly ten years ago, the trademark application says. That's interesting. I guess he's been blogging a long time.

I still don't know what "Lockergnome" means. I'm imagining it being a nickname Pirillo earned in high school. Perhaps the football team achieved momentary mirth by stuffing the diminuitive Pirillo in his locker and closing the door, I don't really know. I suspect by blogging this I will find out soon enough.

* * *

Today was the first full day of Gnomedex 6.0, held in Seattle at the Bell Harbor Conference Center, right along the spectacular Seattle waterfront. Seattle really is a special place in summer. Little to no rain, warm cozy days, peopled with happy souls who you can tell just by glancing at them are delighting in every moment of life, appreciating the brief respite from the gray chilly drizzle and darkening gloom of the rest of the year.

The conference got off to a bumpy, uncertain start. Dave Winer, who lives up to his name, was asking anyone within earshot for the words to the Lord's Prayer. Why, I couldn't figure out. "How does the Lord's Prayer start?" he asked, desperately. He went up on stage with Pirillo when the festivities began, beginning to recite the Lord's Prayer for no explainable reason. As if the Lord swooped down and planted a big "don't go there" in Winer's brain, he suddenly stopped, and moved on to his next antic, which was to read a proclamation by the governor of the state of Washington, or somesuch, about Gnomedex.

Then Pirillo ran a video the quality of which was about what one might find on YouTube: of him seated in a commercial airline, listening to the safety instructions while offering a Chaplinesaque mime that occasionally generated a chuckle here or there in the audience. Pirillo then offered some introductory remarks (describing the audience as having enough energy to power a small town) and then pretty quickly he ran out of things to say a half hour before the first session was supposed to begin. Nobody in the audience seemed to want to engage him in a discussion, and so Pirillo declared a break until the first session began.

The first session eventually began, and it was weird. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch was the first speaker. Oh that's right, no speakers at Gnomedex 6.0. He was the first "discussion leader". So he went up on stage (after Pirillo praised him with, "I eat my TechCrunches every morning!") and began with "what I wanted to talk about" which sounded to me like awfully like what one would hear when a speaker gets up on a stage at a conference and starts giving a talk and I'm thinking, yep, speaker. But then before I could get into a decent daydream about conferences versus unconferences he was asking the audience to participate, and so they did, asking questions and having some sort of dialogue that probably could have gone better if the coffee'd been stronger. "The head of M&A of Fox Interactive is here," he announced at one point. I know something you don't, seemed to be the message. Quips like that make it really hard for me to not think that for these guys, this is all about build-to-flip.

I don't get Arrington. He reminds me of Schindler, from Schindler's List. Remember the opening fifteen minutes? Schindler comes into town, throws a big party, and wins the attention, affection, and most importantly, business, of all the movers and shakers in the town. I don't know him from Adam, I know nothing about his background (other than a bit about his stint at creepy Pool.com) but I keep imagining Arrington having done the same in Silicon Valley. Breezing into town, setting up shop in posh Atherton, holding parties, attracting all the startup wannabees, and then blogging about them (hopefully favorably). And within a year, creating so much fuss as to, so I hear, make $80k a month (that's what I read somewhere, but I might be off by some huge number and I'm too tired to go track it down) from advertising and sponsorships at what has become the "must-read" blog on the tech biz. I don't read TechCrunch every day, just occasionally. And I'm not sure I trust Arrington. I don't yet know what his angle is. He's not a journalist, and doesn't seem to approach the publication as a journalist might. It seems to be an opinion column on new web projects. He wants you to want him, for sure. He wants you to create some cool technology that he becomes impressed with. And it seems Silicon Valley startups have become enthralled with making it in TechCrunch, as if a positive review there is worth its weight in 1999-era VC gold.

When I meet Arrington at conferences, he's cool and detached, at least with me. I don't know what's act and what's real. He was there at Supernova recently. He came up to me and simply said, "We gotta talk," in an urgent tone, as if, it seemed to me, to convey a sense of guilt that as the editor of a widely-read technology blog that purports to be "dedicated to obsessively profiling and reviewing new web 2.0 products and companies" (and, as if that weren't good enough, "In addition to new companies, we will profile existing companies that are making an impact (commercial and/or cultural) on the web 2.0 space") but has inexplicably neglected, in its first full year of publication, to cover a notable player in the "web 2.0 space."

If there were ever a "web 2.0" company or product that ought to be covered by TechCrunch, it's my company and product, EVDB and Eventful.com. But for some weird reason, Arrington has yet to budge. He's covered the competition, and rendered positive judgment on them (as if to say, this is the horse he's betting on). He always seems right at the verge of budging, of writing a big story on Eventful. But he never does. I used to think I'd write a big blog post with made-up lyrics mimicking "On The Cover of the Rolling Stone," rewritten as "On the Cover of Tech Crunch Dot Com." I actually wrote them and was amused for about fourteen minutes and then stored the document away. Lo these many months later, I actually revel in the lack of TechCrunch coverage, as if, going this far without coverage is actually cooler than some little 100-word blurb would ever be.

"We gotta talk." About what, I wonder?

At Supernova I asked him if he knew about Eventful Demand. He gave me a blank look and said "no." I think I then said, "we gotta talk."

But we never did.

A day or so before Gnomedex I emailed the Arrington. "At Supernova, you told me 'we gotta talk'. How about we do that at Gnomedex," I'd asked. He'd written back saying absolutely.

Day One of Gnomedex was almost over, and I'd not spoken to him all day. I saw him finally tonight at the Museum of Flight conference reception. He was chatting with Sam Rubel, a PR flack for Fortune 500 companies. Rubel had been another "discussion leader" on stage today. At one point, Rubel had said something to the effect that advertising is broken. I grabbed a microphone and told him PR is broken. From the stage, he said he agreed.

Rubel: "I read TechCrunch first thing in the morning every day."

Arrington: "I read five blogs per day, and yours is one of them."

I motioned to Arrington. Um, you said you wanted to talk. "I want to write about Eventful before it goes out of business," he said.

I looked at him and wondered if he was being serious, or was just being an asshole. "What? Huh?" is all I could utter.

"Before it IPOs," he offered, as consolation.

Arrington reminds me of that joke about BMWs. What's the difference between a BMW and a porcupine? With BMWs, the pricks are on the inside.

* * *

Last year the WiFi at the conference was notoriously bad. This year, given last year, I expected it to be fabulously plentiful. It was not. I had a lot of trouble connecting. At one point one of the Bell Harbor A/V guys came over to me and said that maybe I had been "blacklisted."

"Blacklisted? What do you mean?"

"For using too much bandwidth, or for some sort of unacceptable activity."

"But I haven't even gotten online yet today, why would you blacklist me?"

Anyway, the connectivity slowly improved over the rest of the day, but for the morning there was little to no signal to be had, which meant I had to pay attention to the speakers, er, discussion leaders, instead of find something to noodle online with while feigning interest in the goings-on onstage.

* * *

It is now 1:36am and Day Two of the conference starts in less than eight hours. That's enough for tonight. I'll try to post more tomorrow.

Posted by brian at July 1, 2006 01:36 AM


Chris P. is a bit gnome-like, no? That's where Gnomedex and Lockergnome come from, I suspect.

Posted by: JD Lasica at July 1, 2006 11:41 PM

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