Reflections on the Students for Free Culture conference 2011 in NYC

Posted: 2011-03-05

I can't believe this was my first Students for Free Culture conference-- I've been missing out! Firstly, wow. Running a conference is a lot of work. The board deserves serious props for all the time and effort they put into making this event happen and be awesome! 
Learning about the long history of “Who let the dogs out?” was wildly entertaining, and listening to the fashion panel discuss how the industry is able to thrive thanks to a lack of copyright restrictions (as introduced by the TED Talk) was insightful. It was great being able to closely inspect a single work, revealing how every creative piece has a story, that everything is a remix, and also to be able to zoom way out and see how there are thriving industries that would not be possible with Intellectual Property restrictions. Seeing other industries unrestricted by IP that we take for granted would be useful in contrasting and comparing to those that are, and painting analogies that will help unfamiliar folks understand what we stand for. The ideals of the free culture movement are reflected through so many aspects of everyday life, and this was a great reminder of that. 
I saw lots of friends and made many more. Everyone, from all different backgrounds and political persuasions, clearly wanted to do everything in their power build a freer culture, a freer society. The people at this event filled me with hope, something I am always struggling to sustain. I'll be sure to carry this on to the Free Software Foundation's similarly-themed LibrePlanet conference, which is specific to free software. 
I was especially glad that web services were a major focus, as the Diaspora team gave a keynote presentation. Non-free, centralized, “walled-garden” web services like Facebook are an especially problematic and challenging issue, and it's great to see people interested in the up and coming alternatives. It was slightly frustrating, though, when the question and answer session became a ranting session for audience members who demanded that the Diaspora team use their New-York-Times-acquired fame to spread some loosely-defined ideals of “open source” to everything imaginable. As someone entirely committed to software freedom, I sympathize with anyone who wishes we had louder voices on our side. I am even lovingly critical of the Diaspora project, as I support them entirely, but also fear for their success and regret that other projects like GNU social don't receive anything near the same amount of attention. As they said in their attempt to respond, they use MacBooks, they don't use Gitorious, they are pragmatists before idealists and probably not the best people in the room to talk to about making everything free. Still, I would not use their Q&A time to tell them to be the megaphone for my ideals. I can only be thankful for the work they are doing. It was still a great keynote, and the conference would not have been complete without the remix panel and education panel, two essential parts of today's free culture movement. 
The unconference was a blast! It was almost an entire day run by the attendees! The breakout rooms talked about everything from gender issues in the free culture community to FreedomBox and the importance of free network services. It was great to learn about cool projects like which lists free software web services like BeWelcome, an alternative to CouchSurfing, and lots more. For almost everyone, it was their first time hearing about free web services like Diaspora and StatusNet/, so I hope that many SFC followers begin migrating from Facebook and Twitter and resolve to delete their accounts there. I also gave a quick lightning rant on how free culture supporters should pay closer attention to licenses and talk about free ones instead of Creative Commons ones, as there are not only licenses for free cultural works that are not Creative Commons like the GNU Free Documentation License and Free Art License, but also Creative Commons licenses that are not for free cultural works, like those with the NoDerivs or NonCommercial clauses. I don't think it went too bad for my first public speaking experience! 
The entire conference covered lots of reasons why free culture rocks, but next time, I would love to see more dedicated discussion on action and organizing. I've certainly strengthened my commitment to boycott Facebook, and been inspired and motivated to start my own project which will someday be ready at (or check the wiki in the meantime). A dedicated space for people to share their own or their favorite free software and free culture projects would also be great, whether it's a physical space at the conference or a space online. The lightning talks didn't seem to be enough to cover projects in addition to the other interesting opinions, facts, and stories people shared. Also for next time, the more the merrier. Let's make these conferences huge-- tell everyone about the next one when it rolls around! 
As a strong free software / free culture activist, I've long been concerned with bringing these movements into the public eye, and it was at this conference that I really saw it for the first time: we, as a society ever-adapting to our technology, are becoming aware of the implications of ownership and control on how we are able to express ourselves, speak freely, and communicate in a digital world. And what's more? We care profoundly. That's not something to be taken lightly.