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Contact Summit 2011 - A Retrospective

These days, it can be difficult to be optimistic about new media and technologies. Sometimes, it can seem like that everyone is in sort of a somnabulistic state regarding the Internet, not truly aware of its technical or cultural potential. And if we don't have the Digital Millenium Copyright Act or the Stop Online Piracy Act breathing down our necks nationally, we have the worries and concerns of governments and organizations abroad seeking to censor or control the Internet. But there are pockets of people who are aware of these Internet concerns, and are busy working on ideas to help make it the best it can be. Enter ContactCon.

Douglas Rushkoff, longtime media and Internet culture evangelist, organized the Contact Summit, a day-long unconference completely devoted to "taking back the net." A number of Internet and technology intelletuals were in attendance, among them Steven Johnson, author of such books like Everything Bad is Good for You and Where Good Ideas Come From, Scott Heiferman, founder & CEO of Meetup.com, and James Vasile, the Executive Director of the Freedombox Foundation and counsel at the Software Freedom Law Center

Though Rushkoff was the main driver of the event and had been responsible for bringing in many of the participants, he was quick to cede control. "You are my heroes," he professed to the over 300 attendants gathered in the Angel Orensanz Foundation in SoHo. "Without you, there wouldn't be an Internet worth saving." (Note: This is highly paraphrased). After that, several of the more well-known attendees (including those mentioned above) gave short talks about the issues which brought them to ContactCon. Many of them can be seen on ContactCon's YouTube page. The one thing they all shared in common was that they highlighted the need for new thinking, and new conceptions about how to understand our Internet world.

After that, it was off to the races. Any attendee was encouraged to propose their own breakout session to talk about whatever open-Internet project they were interested in, with each meeting lasting 45 meeting. Originally, there were 15 slots allotted (A-O) but it quickly grew to 26 (A-Z). This process was done three times, so by the end of the day, dozens of ideas had been shared and contacts forged. Many of the sessions I saw were entertaining and informative, others less so. Attendees varied widely, coming from all over the country and political spectrum. Some wanted to cooperate with and seek funding from organizations, others wanted nothing to do with existing infrastructure; there were even talks of establishing micro-societies, doubtlessly inspired heavily by Occupy Wall Street, then in full-force not two miles away.

During lunch, attendees set up their personal projects for display in the bazaar. The name was very apt – the attendees and their material were tightly grouped in the center of the building, leaving just enough room for visitors to squeeze past each other and check out the projects. Like ContactCon itself, sharing was the theme de jour, ranging from collaborative online libraries to trade economies (see Rushkoff's book Life, Inc.) to independent ISPs. After the breakout sessions, the three best projects were voted on and each presented with a $10,000 grant from Pepsi by Reverend Billy, who played his part to a tee with comic antics of over-the-top relevations. He ended the session with a building chant of "We are the 99%," reminding everyone of what we came together to accomplish in just a day. The Free Network Foundation, the Freedombox Foundation, and the Fayetteville Free Library all have a lot of work to do to realize their goals, but they know they are not alone.

I had never been to an event like ContactCon before, and unless another one is put together, I'm not sure I will again. Much like the web itself, ContactCon was a unique cocktail of inventors, tinkerers, entrepreneurs, theorists, policy wonks, and students coming together to talk about what mattered to them. We were not constrained by topic or opinions, with groups banding and disbanding as the day moved forward. It gave both Rushkoff and myself hope that such an event was as successful as it was, and it reminds me that the Internet and the web still have great things that will happen to it. 

I was sure not to leave the Summit empty-handed – I recorded interviews with many of the attendees with whom I was fortunate to share conversation and opinions with throughout the day. A few are posted on the left, the rest are on my Youtube channel. If you're interested to know more about what the ContactCon attendees have been working on since the summit, check out the Contact Summit and Next Net Google Groups. And I hope that HASTAC and other communities can serve as jumping-off points for new ideas and initiatives. We're only just getting started. 

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