On Nerd Nite and the power of culture building

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed December 28, 2013
Summary:
Nerd Nite is a cool phenomenon that makes learning fun. But are the lessons for the enterprise?

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I like to think that I am immune to advertising, but maybe I am just another sucker. When I saw a flyer for my local Nerd Nite, the phrase 'Like a TEDx with beer' was all I needed to see. A week later I was at my first Nerd Nite, manning a camera for Northampton Community Television amidst a standing-room-only crowd of unapologetic nerds. After the fact, I found myself pondering what Nerd Nite means for geek culture and if there are any lessons enterprisey-types can take away.

Nerd Nite is an international network of 60+ local chapters where fun and learning freely co-mingle (you can see their chapter listing on the home page, or even volunteer to start one). Northampton Nerd Nite organizer Mo Lotman shared a map of the current locations worldwide:

nerdnitemap

The official Nerd Nite tagline is 'be there and be square.' If my first Nerd Nite was any indication, you should definitely consider it. Their web site lays out the vibe:

Nerd Nite is a monthly event held in more than 60 cities across the globe during which several folks give 18-21-minute fun-yet-informative presentations across all disciplines – while the audience drinks along.  And there are often bands, acrobats, trivia, and other shenanigans as well.  Imagine learning about everything from math feuds or the science of the Simpsons, to the genealogy of Godzilla or debunking beer myths.  Fun, right?

Well yeah! For the Nerd Nite I attended on November 25th, the presenters were Aaron Jensen, artist and middle school teacher, and Duncan Irschick and Al Crosby, professors at UMass Amherst. Jensen’s presentation, 'You’ve Been Hallucinating This Whole Time,'  riffed on the human perception of color.  He had some catchy visual effects including laser and black light.

To be honest this talk zoomed over my head a bit while I fussed with camera angles. Jensen did reveal why there are actually two sets of primary colors, and how the color magenta is just in your head. Then Irschick and Crosby took the mics to discuss their work with Geckskin, a powerful and reusable adhesive tape based on gecko feet that could be the replacement for duct tape.

These guys claim that Geckskin is the biggest advancement in adhesion in half a century, and who am I to argue? I was relieved to learn that they don't actually take the Geckskin from an actual Gecko - I wasn't sure how the assembled nerds would take news of Gecko skin removal. But as it turns out, the Gecko is simply the closely-studied inspiration for the creation of an easily removable adhesion device that can securely hold 700 pounds to a wall. Anyone who has ever stripped a wall of paint while mounting and ripping tape is going to appreciate this invention. Check out this video for more on this rather amazing stuff.

Has learning become cool?

As a freshman in high school, if you had told me I would someday film a bar full of unapologetic 'nerds', gathered in the interests of intellectual expansion but with drink in hand and plenty of social prospects, I would have been more than a little skeptical. Back then, the cool kids looked for every opportunity to knock my Trapper Keeper on the ground. Shoving me in a locker was a constant goal of theirs and a situation I pressed equally hard to avoid. Being smart or geeky was not a social asset. Van Halen was cool. Steve Jobs - well, he was not very well known in Tulsa, Oklahoma, though he did give a visionary speech that year that was recently uncovered in scratchy audio.

Clearly we have the dotcom revolution to thank as one factor in this change. Even 1984's 'Revenge of the Nerds' did not predict the extent to which code geeks would evolve into some of today's richest and most influential figures, much less the enterprise 'kingmakers' RedMonk has annointed.

Though I've only been to one Nerd Nite, it was far more like a hip club than a refuge of outcasts. The crowd was mixed gender (unlike some of the enterprise shows I've attended), and no one was getting ridiculed for being a geek. I guess when the awkward dude typing in the corner could be the next Zuckerberg, any eccentricities or perceived social awkwardness would be relegated to the charming side.

Culture building and enterprise lessons

From an enterprise angle, I take two things from Nerd Nite: one is the trend towards informal learning that has fueled the emergence of enterprise MOOCs (massive online courses). Many would say the best trade show experiences are along the same lines - informal workshops where industry experts speak with minimal slides and maximum interaction. And we've all learned that the priceless lessons from enterprise shows are dispensed not in the breakout sessions, but after hours at the hotel bar.

I'm not sure I would say that learning has become social, but informal learning can deliver where lectures and classroom training struggle - by being less canned and more directly geared towards the needs of the audience.

I used to pride myself in the local tech educational events I organized, but they felt immediately pale and 'last generation' compared with the buzz of Nerd Nite. Would you rather be cooped up after work in a dim conference room with no windows listening to a social media guru drone through a slide deck, or would you rather chill at the bar while smart peeps share their know-how with humor and showmanship?

With technology and business evolving much faster than our stale degrees, we need the chance to quickly update and bring something back we can use on the job - not next year, but today. TED and TEDx have also underscored a welcome blurring of the lines between addressing business issues and tackling the vexing global problems of our time. Check out Mark Finnern's TEDx talk,  5 Ideas That Bring Our Schools Into the 21st Century, for one of many solid examples of that.

But the bigger takeaway is how accessible learning supports culture that enterprises badly need to cultivate - which I would juxtapose against the training-as-profit-center mentality too many vendors still fall into. Savvy consumers are opting into the content they want and the cultural experiences they are drawn to. With time at a premium and attention divided, companies need to pass a relevance test with each piece of content they serve up.

If you can get folks out on the town to share ideas that matter - with great company and cold beverages all around - you have figured out something that many organizations haven't.  We do see this kind of culture emerging around hackathons and unconferences, and RedMonk is perfecting the mingling of beer and developer content at events like Monktoberfest.

But I think we can take this a lot further - if we can figure out how to talk about business issues in more informal settings, swapping a product-driven agenda for a cold drink, a better vibe, and a more expansive topic agenda. We've already endured enough overly-moderated panels of talking heads to last a lifetime. We're past due to switch it up. Nerd Nites are fun, but they also blaze a culture-building path more companies should explore.

Bonus video: The lead camera man on our Nerd Nite shoot, Brad Andrews, produced a seven minute video of our footage that night.

Image credit: Nerd Nite photo by Mo Lotman. Lotman also provided the Nerd Nite map graphic.