Last night, Betabeat checked ourselves in with a nebbishy man holding an iPad, rode the elevator up to “PH” with another nebbishy man (a copy of The Leaderless Revolution tucked under his arm) and arrived upstairs at the Internet Defense League‘s New York launch party, just as the OpenPlans roofdeck was beginning to fill up.
It was one of those rooftops that aren’t quite at the top of the world–in fact, we could see the tealights of another party happening several stories up, right next door–but rather one of those that leave you hovering smack in the middle of the skyline, feeling pleasantly loomed-over.
“It really looks like Gotham,” observed one attendee–though a cleaned-up version, surely. We can’t imagine Batman existing in a city with such a carefully landscaped roofdeck. The edges were covered in those wildflowerish grasses that grace the High Line, giving the whole place the feel of a rendering displayed in the lobby of a particularly hip school of architecture. Not entirely surprising, given OpenPlans‘ mission is to “help cities work better.”
It quickly became clear that about half the crowd was there not to fight for Internet freedom, but rather for OpenPlans’ happy hour. We struck up a conversation with a soft-spoken gentleman holding a large bowl of popcorn, who explained that he worked with a nonprofit that deals with “public spaces,” and that he’d come from another party on a neighboring deck. (We hope he rappelled, Batman-style.)
But the occasional snatch of conversation made it clear we were among the techies: “I was programming in BASIC when I was 10,” we overheard at one point, followed shortly thereafter by, “I’m pretty sure Facebook is culture.” We heard at least one enthusiastic young man (college-aged, we figured) describing himself as “crazy” for the New York startup scene.
We started talking to a Laptop Magazine writer named Daniel Berg, there on behalf of his own personal blog (and hoping for a chance to meet Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian). He admitted that the name and the concept were “a little cheesy,” but, given the difficulty of staying on top of every new political development, it provides a valuable rallying point.
“I can focus on my day-to-day job, and I can focus on everything else, and know that I am tuned in that if there is something important going on, I’ll immediately be aware, my website will immediately be a part of the movement, and I can just leave it in the hands of people that I trust,” he said.
We wouldn’t have time for following the SOPA opera if we had Mr. Berg’s schedule, either: He recently competed in the AngelHack competition, building a kind of Rotten Tomatoes for hotel reviews, called the Stayover. (They made it to the finals in San Francisco, but didn’t quite nab the pot of funding at the end of the rainbow.)
At this point, the party was well and truly warmed up, with the roof deck getting crowded and the drinks growing scarce. Another man wandered up and told us that he’d looked up and recognized someone at the snack table, only to realize–after starting to speak–that it was in fact Jeff Jarvis, with whom he was not personally acquainted. We looked up to see Mr. Ohanian making his way through the crowd, with general manager Erik Marin barreling after him. Circulating once more, we fell into conversation with a developer (slight and fair-haired) and community manager (impressively bearded) from Turntable.fm.
If only this reporter were able to follow the finer points of the programming language Ruby, she might’ve learned something.
About that time came the event we’d all been waiting for (well, those of us who were there for the Internet Defense League, rather than the OpenPlans’ get-together): The unveiling of the cat signal. Several sites have already adopted the digital version, a few lines of code that’ll switch on if the IDL detects anything it deems a new SOPA-style threat to the open web. But it’s hard to match a giant, crazy-eyed cat projected onto the side of a Manhattan building for sheer spectacle.
After leaning over the edge for a good look, we practically bumped into Mr. Martin–who does, as another attendee pointed out, look the the tiniest bit like Tintin’s sidekick, Haddock.
“This is fun, and, like, the cat signal thing is fun. But people are out here because they want to be a part of something,” he told us. “It’s cool to see people actually, like, get out and support this.” Betabeat remarked on how nice IRL events are, to which Mr. Martin replied, “Yeah, which is weird, cause we’re about defending the Internet.”
He returned to floating about the party, while groups continued to form and reform around Mr. Ohanian. Finally giving up on catching him alone, Betabeat crept up to eavesdrop. Here’s what we learned: Mr. Ohanian is, for lack of a better term, a complete cat lady. An earnest young woman had gotten him onto the subject of Karma (get it?), his beloved black cat. “She’s a diva,” he informed us, adding that “she’s waiting for me at home.” Whipping out his phone to show everyone a picture, he confessed she used to be the background, but “it got weird.”
Someone pulled him back to the topic of the IDL, which he explained simply as designed to deal with “anything that threatens to fuck up the Internet.” That’s a pretty broad mandate.
Then the aforementioned startup-crazed young man asked Mr. Ohanian for tips about how to “make it.” Mr. Ohanian immediately began preaching the gospel of programming. Developers, he explained, are like Jay-Z. Everyone wants a minute of his time, or his advice, or his presence, and Jay-Z can’t do it all. Learn enough Ruby to get a quick and dirty prototype up and running, and, “No offense, but if I’m a developer, I’ll have more respect for you.”
All the while, a tall, pony-tailed acolyte nodded his agreement. “Listen to this man,” he chimed in.
Making one last round of the room, we bumped into Nick Grossman, the event’s organizer, who told us he’s affiliated with Union Square Ventures and the MIT Media Lab, but working on a new advocacy organization, “focused on innovation and the open web.” Even he admitted the event’s sweep was wide: “The purpose of all of these events, as far as I understand it, is to get people excited about the web and standing up for the web,” he said.
He had a positive spin on the mixed crowd: “Everybody for both events I think shares a certain ethos about openness and creativity and the potential of things like the web and open systems and collaboration, et cetera, et cetera,” he said.
By this time, the party had long since peaked and was winding down to a few stragglers. Mr. Ohanian, however, was still surrounded.
We hope they didn’t keep him from Karma too late.