Campus Party: It’s not a “Spanish Thing”

A look at a generational cohort that the world must engage.

I saw a piece of the future a week ago in Berlin. It looked a lot like Vikas Narula.


Developer Vikas Narula. (Photo by Daniel Ben-Horin)

In this shot (right), Vikas is beating his cell phone on a table to get it to function properly. “Piece of s***,” he is saying. Bang.

I personally don’t fix my cell phone like that. I’d be scared of breaking it even more. But Vikas isn’t scared because anything that breaks, he can fix, rebuild, or easily replace. He’s a 32-year-old Afghani who moved to Germany when he was 8. He codes in an open-source programming language called Ruby. He can get well-paid work anywhere in the world.

Now, I don't want to go all happy-talk on you, about how idealistic young hackers are going to save us all. I haven't seen an app yet that can refreeze the polar icecap, dissolve corporate greed, solve the madness that is Syria, or [fill in your own nightmare here].

But I am a big believer in the power of generational cohorts. Developed by the historians Michael Strauss and Neal Howe, this is the idea that people born at the same time share similar social influences from birth and, over time, express this historical consanguinity in powerful cultural, economic, and political ways.

There are various cohorts within any generation. In Berlin, at Campus Party's powerful debut in the non-Spanish-speaking world, a particular cohort was in action, and it was flat-out amazing to observe.

I've written about Campus Party before; it has swept the Ibero-world for a dozen years, assembling 10,000 young geeks at a time at events that are something like Burning Man, South by Southwest, Hackathons, and Spring Break combined. Its genius is an understanding of the young geek zeitgeist. The organization has forged a community of “Campuseros” that now numbers 224,000.

Campus Party Europe was the organization’s attempt to show that it wasn't just a Spanish thing. Seven thousand young geeks came together at Berlin Templehof Airport, most of them camping there for the week. Telefonica and Neelie Kroes, vice chair of the European Commission and leader of its Digital Agenda program, were the main sponsors.

When the dust cleared, it worked. No one can call it a Spanish thing anymore. It's a world thing.

It’s also a tribal thing. Within this generational cohort, there is a large tribe of Vikases. They are attached to being with each other and to applying their skills together. They don’t spend a lot of time on the “big picture” stuff. When I spoke with Vikas, I kept trying (in my old-fashioned way) to get him to tell me about the particular hack he was working on—something called “SocialQuest.” What would it do?

He kept answering me by talking about the process. “Twenty people working … sitting concentrating, working, coding together … everyone won each other's hearts … they want to work with each other … they don't have any boundaries.”

And then he said something that I think is truly important: “Sharing is everything. We share because we need to share."

There is a smaller but significant tribe that looks like Ivo Betke, Richard Bretzger, and Marc Schmieder (see below).

Developers_Ivo_Betke_Richard Bretzger_Marc Schmieder

Left to Right: Ivo Betke, Richard Bretzger, and Marc Schmieder. (Photo courtesy of same)

These are young Berlin guys, grad students, and entrepreneurs who designed the concept of SocialQuest over two years and who convened the Vikas tribe at Campus Party to hack a minimum viable product (MVP) for the idea: "We imagine a city as an organism of creative and networked individuals who engage together to create a better place for all of them,” said Ivo. “Therefore we have developed a web platform and mobile app that enables you to take action in the real world by revealing problems and goals.”

Basically, SocialQuest provides a way for young hackers (both tech hackers and life hackers) to drop into projects anywhere in the world, virtually and/or in person, add their skills, make friends, have fun, and feel part of their generational cohort.

At Campus Party in Berlin, Richie, Marc, and Ivo hooked up with hackers from eight countries and hacked pretty much nonstop for three days. As Richy put it, “People from over nine different countries spoke one language: the language of working on a common goal to build something better! We built a software prototype without caring much about traditional threads of development such as money, stakeholders, organization, decision-making structures, infrastructure, and so on. We just did it! "

There’s another tribe—it’s smaller, so maybe a “tribelet.” This group includes people like Lucky Gunasekara (see below).


Lucky Gunasekara descends upon Berlin’s Prater Biergarten with TechSoup Global’s, Hiten Vaghela (foreground), another Campusero convert. (Photo by Daniel Ben-Horin)

Born in Sri Lanka, schooled at Cornell and Stanford, Fullbright scholar in Japan, Lucky is an alpha geek, a data specialist who is now working with Jeffrey Sachs at Earth Institute after a stint with virologist Nathan Wolfe. Before that, he was a co-founder of Frontline SMS Medic. His aspiration is to build a web-based “development bank,” where funders and fund recipients can transact on a fully transparent platform at the investment levels of both Kiva and the World Bank.

I think of Lucky as straddling the “big picture” concerns of the World Bank (and UN) on the one hand, and Vikas’ joy in sharing on the other. In between are the SocialQuest guys, who Lucky describes this way: “…visionary and socially savvy individuals who can provide the tribes with a common goal. They're like a binding substance—like eggs and milk that can pull flour together into a dough.”

Lucky described Campuseros (and himself) as “coming from many homelands, speaking several languages, technologically literate from an early age, looking and living more like the denizens of a William Gibson or PK Dick version of Macau or Singapore melting pot. All of these things mean we like flexible and adaptive networks—transglobal social communes (physical or digital) where we can interact with one another in a common language: tech. We believe in the transformative power of technology.”

He continued: “I think the really distinct generational dynamic is that we don't like brittle institutional bureaucracies, your lumbering dinosaurs (to quote Charles Armstrong), or your usual top-down structures, where you're told to do something because ‘I told you so, and this how things are done.’ Approaches need to not trigger a ‘that's stupid’ response.”

So how does the world not trigger a “that’s stupid” response from this tribe? A lot depends on getting that answer right.

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  • BY Beth Kanter

    ON September 21, 2012 12:35 PM

    Daniel:  Inspiring post, thanks for sharing your Berlin experience.  I was supposed to be in Tunisia this week doing a training, but given recent events I’m not.  It’s made reflect on this question - “How do we build resilient networks that scale good behavior and understanding versus hate?”  I know, I must sound like a hippie.

    Another question: “What is the role of nonprofits/NGOs in contributing to more resilient networks that can scale to build a stronger civil society?”  One step is connecting and working with the networks and people like SocialQuest guys.

    You point out the role of “bridge networkers” who straddle different networks - I think that idea is important.

  • Terrific post, Daniel and I couldn’t agree more that young (and old) hackers + open data = obal transformational opportunity.

    Witness the impact of the Code for America folks. Just this weekend the Development Data Challenge crowd has another hackathon underway in Helsinki and that’s just one of the dozens of initiatives popping up all over. I wrote a little about this on Impact IQ at

  • Clara Miller's avatar

    BY Clara Miller

    ON September 23, 2012 06:51 AM

    Inspiring, and the young people are terrific…a terrific elite!  I love that they’re idealistic, and have a communal experience to strengthen that idealism in a group.  Not sure, however, they’re all that different from talented (and mostly privileged) elites going to music gatherings, eco-tourism work experience, “working on organic farms,” (or woof-ing), working a grassroots political campaign, Habitat for Humanity house-building gatherings, etc.  Or are they?  P.S.—think they’re on safe ground in rejecting bureaucracy…but so far info tech has simply outsourced bureaucracy to us chumps, no?  Would be great if they could work on that

  • BY Doug Jacquier

    ON September 23, 2012 12:20 PM

    Great reportage, Daniel. Just picking up on Beth’s point about nonprofits/NGO’s bridging to campuseros/RHOK etc. I think part of the answer is for nonprofits to employ from that cohort whenever possible and give them the freedom to explore and experiment. I think it’s also about generating scholarships and other support to encourage the attendance of nonprofit-friendly geeks at these gatherings.
    Just as importantly, the ahckathon enthusiasts need to learn from the real, on-the-ground lived experience of nonprofits. Our team was recently asked to pose a problem for resolution at a RHOK event and got the “that’s stupid” response and an alternative outcome that now relies on someone with real dollars to develop. As the saying goes, clever is as clever does.
    Finally, speaking of bridges, it would be great to hear about ways that the various strands of the ‘hack revolution’ (e,g, Campus party, RHOK etc) are linking up to deal with the wicked problems that confront us all.

  • Ian Clifford's avatar

    BY Ian Clifford

    ON September 23, 2012 01:41 PM

    As usual I’m left inspired and buzzing by the people in this world who break things down and don’t see the barriers most of us do. I’m worried though that there isn’t a framework which can channel this energy. They probably aren’t worried by by that lack of framework, but its strikes me that there might needs to be something that binds this energy without restricting it. Or maybe it doesn’t need anything more than an airport to make that happen?

    Having said that I do wonder what will happen to the all software prototypes that got hatched? Do they sit on a hard-drive somewhere, or do they actually go further, beyond prototype? What would be the proportion that make it to peoples phones and laptops from this environment? My limited vision(and its why I feel so lucky to be able to learn about this from your blog) makes me think its probably only a very few that will end up as ‘mainstream’ apps (and maybe that’s another misunderstanding of mine that they aren’t meant to be ‘mainstream’)?

    I will never be frustrated to be delayed at the airport again. I will just think what I could build or break.

  • BY Jeff Hamaoui

    ON October 9, 2012 04:07 PM

    Love this.  How do you get these campuseros and all the other emergent tribelets i into a marketplace?

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