Enabling a geek network

Marketing Published: September 9, 2010

I just tweeted about this, and then realised I have a question/need that goes much further than 140 characters, so I should explain myself! I NEED YOUR GEEK HELP!

'me, the geek' by Lauren BrownThe Geek in Residence program is well underway with now all our teams working busily to solve problems in general operations, artistic programming and audience development. The bigger picture goal is to help people who work in arts organisations to be better equipped (dare I say, better geeked-up) in their day to day arts working lives.

I’m thrilled to say we’re discussing a second round of this program – it’s not all confirmed yet so please don’t start sending me applications or melting my phone/inbox with requests, <update - Geek in Residence is now OPEN!> – but the conversations themselves are fascinating. Sure, we’re starting with ‘what worked, what didn’t, where can we improve on x/y/z… what have we learned’. But we’re also wondering what else might be worth a try and what legacies we can enable even outside of this potential second funding round.



Lessons Learned

One of the biggest things that I found from last time was the incredible enthusiasm with which the geeks launched at this challenge. I have heaps of gorgeous quotes that I can pull at random from the 120-odd geeks who applied in the first place, here’s just a few tasters:

I think this is a terrific idea, and whether or not you are able to match me with a host who can make use of my skills, I just wanted to say > top stuff. I hope you get plenty of interest and look forward to hearing more

Do you know how exciting it will be to officially be known as a geek?

I love to make things happen and I can work with you, your ideas and your staff to create something wonderful… I’m really excited at the prospect of doing something completely new and would love to make a difference somewhere

Everyone always calls me a geek, so I may as well get paid for it

What broke my heart last time was that there were only 9 places where these guys could eventually, possibly, work. In the end we found that multiple geeks suited one host, so we now have 9 hosts and 13 geeks. This is a learning curve for us, so we’re prepared to be flexible in our own deliveries.

So, now, what I’d like to do in the run up to presenting the second version model for internal approval is to ALSO have a really solid space to help people to help themselves. Now, this can be done through existing models, so I’ll explain a couple of those, then outline what I’m looking do achieve, and then if you know of any equivalents/have any suggestions you can let me know.

  • Synapse, run by Australian Network for Art & Technology. Synapse supports artists working with science institutions through residency programs. Rather than ANAT being responsible to connect those two partners, the artist/org have to find each other and then develop a proposal as a team. Vicki Sowry therefore manages the database, approving or rejecting those artists who want to become a member of the list, to be sure that it isn’t ‘just another artist list’ and the people represented there will have a particular resonance for scientists.
  • The Loop - one of many independently run freelance directories. Anyone can sign up and pitch their skills under a number of creative industry tags. Much more of a free-for-all, but a lovely example of the diversity of creative communities and online self-support infrastructures. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if those freelancers go searching for other freelancers in the same network to outsource elements of their contracts.

So… what am I trying to do and why is this network any different to any other?

1. Often people who don’t know technology think what they need is an X (at huge cost, time demand and complexity) but what they actually need is a Y (which is, invariably, free with a bit of initial well articulated setup time).

I can’t tell you how many times we get requests for grants to build a bespoke social media platform, when what they really need is a facebook page, wordpress blog or something simple so they can build a community and see where else that might take them. The problem here is invariably that some commercial company* has targeted them, sold this grand expensive story and the poor arts org has no one else to tell them any different.

But we know different, don’t we geeks?!

(*NB I’m not saying all commercial companies are evil, btw)

2. I am also asked ‘but where do we go to find these people?’.

The answer is ‘you want to hang out with geeks? well then go where geeks hang out’ - DorkbotHackerspace, lan groups, media arts events/festivals… the INTERNET! Anything that you see around which looks bonkers, interactive and generally very geeky… go to it, hang out and talk to the people there.

No one minds if you ask silly questions; geeks love to share how geeky they are. Everyone LOVES it if you offer them a bit of cash to go talk geek at them for a couple of hours. The best place to go for geek arts advice really shouldn’t be the government’s arts funding agency. It should be right at the heart of the geek activity. Go find them, sign up to forums, get chatting. No, it’s not the solution in a box that some commercial company might try to flog you, and yes it takes some time immersing yourself in a new and uncertain space… but it’ll empower you, rather than result in an off-the-shelf product that then becomes obsolete and leaves you in exactly the same place you were at the start (only, much poorer).

Want lists of media arts orgs? Well, this isn’t really the place (although if you ask me to make one, I will). But you should certainly read Realtime Arts, sign up to Australian Network for Art & Technology, visit a few festivals likeElectrofringe, or pop by an Experimenta show. At the very least, try googling ‘media arts’, ‘electronic arts’, ‘digital arts’, ‘geek arts’ …. I did and got a page from the Culture Portal which is pretty old and not being updated any more, but hey it’s a place to start. Oh and you can follow our facebook page and our twitter feed for more regular bites.

3. Why doesn’t the Australia Council just publish everyone’s details and let them find each other?

Two answers:

1 = data protection. We asked for these guys to send us their info for a particular purpose, we can’t just go sharing that publicly, it’s not fair on the geeks and it breaks the law.

2 = responsibility. We are hand-holding an experimental relationship between geeks and arts orgs through this program. We have a responsibility (both legal and human) to take care of both – and ourselves.

By offering a big list and letting people just rock on and find each other, we are putting ourselves in the dubious position of recommendation. Ask any consultant about the legal ramifications of advising people to work with someone you don’t know and haven’t fully researched yourself – they will (at the very least) wince. We can’t do full due diligence on every possible geek who pops up, nor can we have worked out in detail exactly what that arts org needs. There are sharks everywhere and some very naive (but lovely) folk out there for them to hunt; I’m not going to enable that.

4. Why aren’t we recommending that the geeks go target all the arts orgs directly?

Well, frankly because this is still a really nervous zone for many of these arts orgs. It’s a brave new world we live in and some have only just noticed that it exists. We, as geeks, need to accept that it still requires baby steps to make a beautiful geeky marriage.

5. Why don’t you just manage a network, forever?

The digital program is a strategic initiative, not an ongoing permanent program. I might not be employed here in the future and as Australia Council’s own Geek in Residence it wouldn’t really be fair or responsible to drop something like this on them when I might not be here to keep it going.


I’ve considered:

  • Setting up a social network where I personally authorise every member (as Vicki Sowry does with Synapse), then let everyone post what they want/can offer. Problem is, if/when the digital program ends, that leaves Australia Council in a tricky position of supporting something they might not be able to maintain. It also leaves open the responsibility/recommendation angle.
  • Adding on a function to the geek network online (which currently helps the geeks talk to each other and their hosts and will eventually have a public section where they can share their outcomes more broadly). But that brings me back to just publishing a ‘come find each other’ list with a disclaimer and still leaves me worried about what happens after I’m gone.
  • Partnering up with something like The Loop. But that could lose people due to all the extra creative industry noise going on in those spaces.
  • Building a referral network interface through something like Zoho Creator. But that leaves another web interface to be managed by someone else if/when this program ends.
  • Spending a fortune on a purpose-built dating/matchmaking interface that sits outside of the normal Australia Council functions and includes conditional signups to remove our responsibility from any engagement that takes place, then letting the referral network deal with itself. Maybe even start up a whole new company just to address this one issue! But I just can’t bring myself to spend money on interfaces/startups instead of on new art/enabling. (And, no, AusCo does not provide startup grants for new businesses, even if they do support arts).

Actual outcomes & plans

The Geek in Residence program has shown the uninitiated how cool geeks really are. It’s shown the Australia Council how many awesome people are out there who want to help the arts. It’s shown arts organisations that a small amount of effort and attention ‘here’ can cause intense excitement and output ‘there’. It’s shown that the arts need help and that there are people out there who are falling over themselves to try to provide it. There’s even a new scheme with the same title in Edinburgh - how cool is that?!

The very least I can (and will) do is to run some networking events around the country that include the speed-dating exercise I always wanted to deliver for the Geek prog. I’ll be running around the country in October – dates to be announced – where this will happen. You can tell me if and how you might want to be involved.

So… this has turned in to one heck of an essay, but what I know about my awesome geek community is that you just LOVE to solve problems. And this problem is one that eventually helps you.Please share this issue, come back and talk to me about it, offer models you know about that work, give me your opinions about directions we could take. This is an open slate… bring it on!

Image: pinched from Lauren Brown‘s first blog post about her new role with WestSpace. Lauren, of course, pinched it from the very many places it’s appeared online.

I’m in an interesting

Submitted by Tiara the Merch Girl (not verified) on 11 September 2010 – 7:00pm.

I’m in an interesting situation: I’m both a geek and an artist. I’m known as the “resident geek” amongst the artist circles I hang in and have (officially or unofficially) assisted with various Web projects for different arts orgs.

In my case the matches are already made – there are orgs that want me, and they’re the orgs I’d love to work with. What we don’t have is enough money to afford me working as their Geek, since they’re often underresourced as it is. Is there a way that partnerships like ours can receive support and funding?

Hi Tiara, There are many

Submitted by fee on 13 September 2010 – 10:37am.

Hi Tiara,
There are many people in exactly your situation, in fact. We’re playing with the format a bit this time around, so once we’re able to announce the process I’d just recommend you pass that on to your potential Hosts and see how they get on.
Thanks, f.

due to a flurry of requests,

Submitted by fee on 9 September 2010 – 4:41pm.

due to a flurry of requests, I’ve just set up a form so you can add yourself for updates on future developments re the Geek in Residence Program. click here!

So ultimately in terms of a

Submitted by Kate (not verified) on 9 September 2010 – 3:11pm.

So ultimately in terms of a network, what you’re trying to do is set up a place where:

- geeks can go to be employed by the creative industries
- the creative industries can go to find geeks to employ
- arty geeks can hook up with other arty geeks

I think you’re also tying in a separate issue, which is educating arts orgs as to WHY hooking up with a geek is in their best interests. Obviously you’ve gone a huge way towards planting the seed in loads of arty minds, but maybe some kind of ongoing education plan would help to normalize having technicians in arts offices. A network is only going to achieve this “normalizing” outcome if the geeks are integrated into existing arts networks.

And so having weighed that up, I think partnership with someone like The Loop is definitely the way to go. Slick interface that geeks and arts orgs can both cope with, a operational team dedicated to cross-industry collaboration, and really all it would take would be a “geek” tag to identify your geeks.

All of that creative “noise” is exactly the kind of thing the geeks will have to cope with in the job, so if they’re getting turned off at the network, that’s perhaps a sign that this isn’t the right sector for them at this stage of their career.

hey kate, as ever you’ve hit

Submitted by fee on 9 September 2010 – 4:26pm.

hey kate, as ever you’ve hit the nail on the head (d’ya want my job? you’d be very good at it :)
ultimately what i want from the network is to make myself redundant. i’d like for exactly those three areas you mention, and i’d like for everyone to know what to ask for, from whom, knowing they’ll get good outcomes AND have a whole load of fun while they’re at it.
your observation on our need to educate some of the arts orgs on why they should go here in the first place is also perfect analysis. it’s not across the board, but there are a whole range of orgs in various arts sectors who just don’t get it and see digital as a threat, a timewaster, or a mere fad (you can imagine how much this just makes me want to cry on their behalf). fortunately, the results we’re mapping from this first round (both internally, and with external evaluation consultants), plus the discussion the program has generated more broadly, means there’s more weight to our persuasion now than ever before.
the reason for a GiR prog over a series of workshops was to instill that constant drip-feed of positive reinforcement, a series of moments of revelation, and a constant overhaul of what could be done if you thought even just slightly outside the box. a workshop can open some doors in one person; a geek in residence can open the mind of an entire company. having said that, i’d love to know what kind of ongoing education plan you think would work here – not all education plans are built around workshops and you probably have some clever plan I haven’t thought of!
in many ways i hope that the teams themselves go on to become that source of reference and inspiration, but we of course can’t expect 9 companies to adopt a techsupport role for the entire arts sector!
maybe a ‘geek drop in network’ who work across many different organisations at the same time is the solution…?!
i agree that the geeks can handle the creative noise inherent in a space like The Loop… but my gut tells me that the majority of the arts orgs won’t have that filter mechanism. maybe a geek tag is what The Loop needs regardless… I’d certainly champion any geek tag addition anywhere :) I’m just not sure it’s the right next step for the scheme…
thanks kate, please do keep posting thoughts. it’s so great to live in a world where publicly asking questions results in all the more brilliant conversations, instead of making you feel like you’re giving too much away, or looking foolish!

love this from my twitter

Submitted by fee on 9 September 2010 – 2:50pm.

love this from my twitter colleague, @iBleeter:
@artsdigitalera heh that diagram reminds me of my mate’s discovery at librarything http://www.wired.com/geekdad/tag/geeks-and-nerds/

Just LOVE the concept of Geek

Submitted by Jen (not verified) on 9 September 2010 – 2:40pm.

Just LOVE the concept of Geek in Residence. It is so smart and sexy and just a brilliant idea. Not surprised to see that WA was sadly lacking for v1 but hopefully I can help to alert some orgs here to get involved in the next round…

As to your specific question – a tough one. I like the idea of speed dating. I think many orgs (especially in my field – museums) aren’t online and won’t and/or can’t join a online solution. Perhaps it is worth thinking about it from their point of view? A meet up/unconference/lab specifically geared towards those orgs who aren’t online or are but don’t know why would help them to understand why they need geeks in the first place. I think this would work here, especially as there seems to be a wait-and-see approach to digital stuff.

This kind of leads into a discussion at the recent Museums Australia (WA) conference about how to get small museums on the net (let alone all the other stuff). NBN is critical (hooray!) but also we need geeks as volunteers and members of organisations as well – or at least some kind of connection between these groups. I think many geeks don’t even think of volunteering/joining groups like these but it could be a really rewarding partnership.

Now I’ve written an essay in response! Hope its useful :) I’m emailing you too!

Thanks Jen :) There were apps

Submitted by fee on 9 September 2010 – 2:46pm.

Thanks Jen :)
There were apps from WA but they didn’t get through this time. WA did have a successful DCF project, Transumer, by PVI Collective (which went on to win ‘Best Game Writing‘ at the Freeplay Festival). I spent an awesome and exhausting couple of days over there last year – 18 meetings in the one day! Wow! There’s certainly no shortage of activity in this area over there.
Those are some great ideas. I think this outburst of mine (well, it’s been coming a long time!) might help to gather the ideas that we can trial on this tour in October.
Thanks for getting involved… keep ‘em coming!

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