Alexander McNabb
Last updated: 2 March, 2013

Don’t hassle with the Geeks

A random meeting in early 2009 between myself and Saadia Zahid, the director of Dubai’s funky art/workspace The Shelter, led to The Shelter being the venue for the first GeekFest, an event intended as an experiment – an offline social for online socialisers.

A date was set and then everyone just forgot about it. This happened again before a commitment was made and GeekFest finally took place.

It was the subject of huge speculation. Would these ‘geek’ people stand around and simply fail to communicate? Would they sit buried in their smartphones and refuse to talk to each other? The reality couldn’t have been more different – over a hundred excited people gathered, chatting animatedly, meeting up physically for the first time with people they’d met online. The atmosphere was electric and the consensus within what would become a community of sorts was undoubtedly ‘let’s do it again’.

The original GeekFest concept was built solidly around the anarchy of the Internet, without a formal start or end. When GeekFest 2.0 came along, short talks were added to give the event some sort of focal point. Four fifteen minute ‘GeekTalks’ were the result, with each speaker being responsible for timekeeping. Over time, this and other ‘anarchic pillars’ of the GeekFest concept were to fall. Idealism is all very well, but expecting human beings to have enough respect for each other to limit their own time in the limelight was a step too far. The talks overran horribly, but to the audience packed in The Shelter’s small private screening room, it didn’t matter.

The talkers weren’t corporate bots trotting out tried and tested platitudes but end users talking about their enthusiasms and achievements, their plans and aspirations. From Mosque 2.0 (a design for the future of Islamic worship) to the future of publishing and HDR Photography through to Islamic Pampers, fashion blogging and online radio, the talks seemed somehow more like something you’d find in Prague or Berlin rather than Dubai. The idea expanded with technology showcases, allowing companies to attend GeekFest for a fee but limiting their behaviour to respectfully joining a conversation rather than blatantly promoting and disrupting attendees – the ethos was still strongly anti-brand, anti-corporate and anti-organisation, so much in fact that companies had to sign a contract promising not to ‘hassle the geeks’.

This whole approach to GeekFest came to be dubbed UN-organising – the idea being that an event where nobody is told what to do or where to go isn’t so much organised or disorganised but wilfully un-organised.

Taking place every two months at a time when the Middle East was first starting to leap into social media, GeekFest grew.  Soon there was a GeekFest Beirut, which changed the rules to suit that city’s unique environment. While GeekFest Dubai was so scrupulously inclusive as to be a ‘dry’ event, GeekFest Beirut had a bar – but the idea was the same, a meeting of digitally-minded people with talks put together by ‘the community’. With a clear demand for the idea to be exported, a GeekFest Manifesto was put together – the  ‘GeekiFesto‘ and other GeekFests joined in. GeekFest Amman, GeekFest Cairo, GeekFest Abu Dhabi, GeekFest Sharjah, GeekFest Damascus and GeekFest Jeddah were to follow. Some of these became regular events (Beirut has settled down to an annual cycle, the last one including fashion shows and rock gigs), others (Damascus, obviously) were destined to be one-offs.

Probably GeekFest Dubai’s finest moment came when Sara Refai gave a GeekTalk about working as a teacher in Ramallah over Skype. Sara brought us the story of Ola Abu Jarmous, a little Palestinian girl with a life threatening tumor and the GeekFest community reacted with remarkable compassion and decisiveness, collaborating to raise the $18,000 that saved Ola’s life. The Tedx talk by the director of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, Steve Sosebee, says it all. It showed that communities brought together by digital technologies could truly come together and drive remarkable social activism.

Saadia moved to New York in 2011 and The Shelter moved to a new venue in 2012 – GeekFest never really recovered from the loss and faltered. There hasn’t been a GeekFest Dubai in over six months. Now the team behind popular online magazine T-Break have joined together with Dubai’s hot-desking café/workspace Make Business Hub to bring GeekFest alive again – the 28th March will see GeekFest – The YouTube Edition taking place from 7pm in the Al Fattan Tower at Jumeirah Beach Residences. With a new team behind it and a mandate to boldly go where no GeekFest has gone before, it looks as if it’s set to become a regular event on the Dubai digital community’s calendar yet again.

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