As noted previously, I went to a “BrainJam” on Saturday. It was excellent, everything I had hoped it would be. I met a bunch of interesting people, had some thought-provoking conversations, and was left wanting more, even at the end of a long day (9am-7pm) of talking.

In the morning, they started off with essentially speed-dating, where we talked one-on-one to somebody for five minutes, and then rotated. We did this for a couple hours, so I talked to around 15 people, from very different backgrounds ranging from a Google employee who was just getting started with blogs, to a VC who was looking for interesting ideas, to a former CTO of Visa looking for new opportunities, to people from nonprofits looking for tech assistance. I’ll probably post my full notes when I get a chance to type them up.

I was a bit concerned that the 5-minute format would be boring because we’d each be repeating the same introduction over and over again, but I found myself changing my pitch depending on what the other person said. And I was able to get my pitch down better and better, so that was an unexpected side benefit. So that was fun. The frustrating bit was that each time the bell rang it was like “D’oh, we just started to get into a meaty conversation and now we have to stop”. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have met as many people if they hadn’t enforced the five minute thing. So it’s a balance.

At lunch I sat down at a table with people I hadn’t met yet, and had an conversation with one guy about the medical records system he’s working on and mentioned a reference from Dourish on how people use medical records, which he thought was interesting and relevant.

And there were two women at the table who were talking about trying to set up a website that would let people find out where to get a good cappucino. They were talking about doing data mining, using address references in blogs and the like to extract information, and I suggested that perhaps they should consider leveraging their users with a rating system. And I also suggested that SMS was the way to go, because everybody has a phone with them all the time. So if I SMS’s an address to their number, and it returned five coffee shops nearby with ratings, that would be fantastic. There would be another SMS number to handle ratings (input coffee shop ID or something and a rating). Not quite sure what happens with the UI from there, but it was fun kicking around ideas.

After lunch there were larger group discussions. I ended up accidentally co-leading one on “meta-brainjamming”. The group discussions were meant to be open, so there was a place to sign up to lead sessions, and while I was talking to Brian during one break, we got interrupted once again by Chris Heuer over the PA telling us it was time to stop talking and move on, and Brian and I looked at each other and said “There has to be a better way to do this”, so we signed up to do a session on “Building a Better BrainJam”. The discussion was interesting – we talked about how to improve the conference experience, how to balance the insider/outsider dynamic, how to keep the community alive, how to encourage conversations with people we don’t know, while leaving time to follow up with those we do. I may write up a whole post about it when I get a chance because it ties into thoughts I have about building community.

And I stuck around til the end of the day, even going out to the bar afterwards for a couple hours, where I talked to some of the organizers, so I may get involved with planning the next one in February, especially since they’d like to hold it up in Berkeley/Oakland someplace. I’m supposed to track down a location if I can. Not quite sure how to do that, but maybe I’ll ask Berkeley what their conference hosting facilities are like.

All in all, it was a great day, interesting people, interesting ideas, good times all around. I’m really glad I went, even though my voice ended up being trashed from talking all day, and it left me a little exhausted, neither of which is good entering a concert week. I definitely plan to write up my notes, and maybe more about the meta-BrainJamming session, when I get the chance.

P.S. Oh, I should mention that I won a drawing for “mind-mapping software” from MindJet, one of the sponsors. Since I already view this blog as my external brain, it might be interesting to map it out using that tool. Something to do with my free time. Maybe over Christmas.

P.P.S. For a quick look at what happened, Brian Shields, a reporter from KRON4, did a piece on it for KRON news.

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getting started with blogs:This guy was new to the blogosphere, and was a bit intimidated because he saw all these people updating eight times a day, and couldn’t figure out how he could even keep up reading, let alone writing, if he only had a couple hours a week. This got us into an interesting discussion about whether it was possible to make the blogosphere meaningful at different levels of participation. At the one end, you have the A-list bloggers like Kos and Scoble and the rest of the Technorati 100. How do we take that world and distill it down to something people can absorb in only a few minutes a day?

The analogy I came up with was to the sports world. You have the folks who are hardcore sports addicts, spending hours each day surfing the web for sports opinions, going to all the home games of their team, etc. Then you have the guys who flip on the game on the weekend, and watch a couple hours. And it’s meaningful at all levels of participation. Can we make the blogosphere like that?

I recommended finding some blogs that were lower traffic that did a good job of pointing to interesting conversations that were happening. That’s essentially what my blogroll is now; it’s a personalized information service, pointing me to things I find interesting. I don’t read any newspapers, but interesting articles still find their way to my attention. I also recommended writing what he felt like – not everybody has to write all the time and link to everything.

I wonder if there needs to be a blogosphere starter kit. On the writing blogs side, there’s places like Blogger, LiveJournal, etc. But on the reading side, I don’t really know of a good feed that would introduce folks to the blogosphere gradually, a guided tour, if you will. Granted, most of us who read blogs do so because we came across a blog that we liked, and that linked to another, and that linked to another, etc. But it’s interesting to ponder whether there’s an opportunity for somebody to provide a well-written, well-edited, weekly (daily?) digest of the blogosphere. Of course, this ignores the problem that everybody has their own personal blogosphere, but whatever.

Changing my pitch: The two answers I came up with by the end of the one-on-one sessions were:

  • In response to “Why are you here?”, I said that I was interested in how the barriers to making a difference have been lowered. It used to be that you had to be a major corporation to make a difference, because it required big technology, and big marketing efforts. Now a few people can make a huge difference; on the corporate side, 37 Signals is the standard-bearer of smaller is better.

    And the BrainJam itself is a great example. Web2.1 was something dreamed up by Chris Heuer the week before the Web2.0 conference, he sent out a couple emails, posted about it on his blog, and 60 people showed up. It was so successful, they decided to make this a series of events, and about 80 or 90 people showed up on a Saturday for this one. Pretty amazing.

  • In response to “What do you do?”, I went with something like “I’m a programmer developing mathematical models for a biotech consulting firm. Although I come from a technical background, the more I work with clients, the more I realize that a technical solution is often not enough. I’ve been in the situation where I delivered exactly what the customer asked for, only to have it rejected because it wasn’t what they wanted. So I’ve started thinking about the whole solution, incorporating not just the technology, but also the community, the environment, the culture, etc.”

9 thoughts on “BrainJamming

  1. On getting started w/ blogs – there are some topical “best of” feeds out there, like for Python programming. But I don’t know how you track those down.

    As far as I know, you can’t just google “marshmallow fluff blogs” and reliably find this sort of “Best Of” aggregation.

    Hey, do you have a favorite way to read and track feeds or blogs? I’m trying Zesty News right now (, but I can’t decide if I like it. It’s supposed to rank the entries according to your history of reading them, but it when it decides that an entry belongs at the top of your list, it doesn’t seem to clue in that you’re not interested no matter how many times you page down past it.

  2. Right now I use Bloglines to read blogs, mostly because it’s web-accessible so I can read it from home or when taking a break at work.

    There was a lot of discussion at the conference about how to create personalized feeds that take into account your reading habits, other feeds you read, etc. As far as I can tell, there’s no good solution yet. Rojo and Rollyo were suggested to me, but they’re not quite right. It’s one of those things I’d like to work on, but just don’t have time.

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