Not so long ago, people who spent hours and hours online were thought of as geeks, outsiders – socially inept. They were people who wore giant, thick-rimmed glasses and shuffled awkwardly rather than talk. Those days are gone. Now we’re all at it, Facebooking and Twittering our way through each and every day, as though being online all the time were the most normal thing in the world. Well, nowadays it is. So why is Dubai’s ‘offline social for online socialisers’ called GeekFest?
‘GeekFest was the one we all thought was quite funny,’ says Alexander McNabb, remembering the moment he and his fellow co-founders named the event. ‘It’s not really geeky. The people [in the online community] are communicators, media people, designers, photographers. But what are we going to call it, Social Media Fest? That would just be boring.’ McNabb, Simone Sebastian and Saadia Zahid, director of community creative space The Shelter in Al Quoz (where GeekFest is held), founded the event after noting the amount of people who were communicating online but had never met offline. The increasingly widespread use of online tools like Twitter means that more and more dialogues are opening up between strangers, who find friendship without meeting face to face. GeekFest aims to bring those people together in the ‘real world’ (see inset picture, above).
The first GeekFest, held at the end of July, was a resounding success – much to McNabb’s surprise. ‘We didn’t do anything,’ he says. ‘We didn’t organise anything. Saadia and Simone were very taken with the idea that it’d just be people who couldn’t talk to each other standing in a room, maybe with some awkward dancing.’ But one should never underestimate the power of online communities – within a week of being set up, the GeekFest Twitter account had around 170 followers. A good 100 people actually turned up. ‘We ended up with 100-odd people in one place, just talking,’ says McNabb. ‘Which is actually quite a nice sound.’
The first GeekFest was, intentionally, a non-event.
The organisers didn’t organise anything; they just let people figure out what to do with themselves. McNabb admits that, while it worked, people wanted more structure for next time. ‘I was excited by the idea that you had this complete non-event,’ he says. ’But people were like, Yeah that’s lovely, can we have an event now?’ What the geeks want, the geeks get, so the second GeekFest, which is this Thursday at The Shelter, has some event-like stuff happening. There are a couple of corporate sponsors, who will be there with technology showcases, but McNabb says it’s up to GeekFest-goers if they want to take a look. ‘Both sponsors have signed up to a strict “Don’t hassle the geeks” charter,’ he explains. (And the sponsor money means that everyone can eat and drink at the event for free).
There will be a few short talks too, with subjects ranging from photography to the future of publishing. Still, McNabb and friends have been careful to keep this organisation as disorganised as possible. ‘We’re not going to herd people in and make them go to the chats,’ he says. ‘People can wander in and wander out as they see fit. The whole idea is to keep the anarchy of an online environment.’
Perhaps the most interesting part of GeekFest is that dynamic whereby people who know so much about each other, who have enjoyed a friendship, in some cases, for years, finally meet in person. Back in the day, many bloggers were anonymous. Now that everyone’s online, that’s less common, and GeekFest is putting faces to aliases. ‘You meet people who are, if not heroic, people that you admire or that you’ve met online and thought, “What you’ve done is really cool,”’ explains McNabb. ‘That was just amazing. People were like, “Oh, so you’re X”, and, “So you’re Y.” You’re immediately in a very warm and friendly atmosphere.’
Considering the extent to which online communities are taking off around the world, maybe events like GeekFest are inevitable? This is how the world is now. And it’s likely the millions of people who are meeting online are going to want events like this to meet offline. GeekFest could be the start of something huge. ‘It’d be terribly sad if someone wanted to make a commercial event out of it,’ McNabb responds, aghast. ‘It might be that we’d have to sell tickets to keep people away. But then we’d have to figure out what to do with the damn money.’
GeekFest is on October 22 at The Shelter in Al Quoz. Free. Starts 7pm. See www.shelter.ae for location map.