Tim Hwang is the founder of the Awesome Foundation, “an ever-growing, worldwide network of people devoted to forwarding the interest of awesomeness in the universe”.
So basically, I’d love if you’d start by telling some of the story behind the Awesome Foundation.
The way we got started was, we sort of started as a joke basically. We were like, wouldn’t it be interesting to get ten people together and they contribute $100 a month and we give a $1,000 grant to anyone with a sufficiently awesome idea. We called ourselves the Awesome Foundation for the Arts & Sciences. We got a big, oversized check to give out. There was a lot of fanfare involved. The first thing we funded was a professor out of RISD who was a textiles person. She wanted to make a hammock that was 25’ x 50’. The response to that ended up to be pretty huge. People wanted to get grants, which suddenly meant we were semi-legitimate.
That’s so cool.
And people got in touch and wanted to know how to start an Awesome Foundation. We said, get ten people together and you can start one. So, that’s how it ended up happening. We spread naturally from there. What happened was you would fund good projects which would mean more people could get money and more people would want to start chapters and fund projects. Now three years later, we just did a count, and we are up to about 30 plus chapters in cities around the world. My mind is blown that it works at all. But it seems to work pretty well.
Is what you do sort of like Kickstarter, but smaller, or quicker?
Awesome Foundation has become a kickstarter for Kickstarter in some ways. A lot of chapters are saying they will put in the first few thousand dollars to your projects and then the chapter will play a role in promoting the idea on Kickstarter so you can reach the rest of your goal. It has worked out. It’s this nice ecosystem. We have our own page on Kickstarter. Basically it just takes projects that we are curating from various chapters. It has a really nice ecosystem that turns out to be pretty symbiotic.
I see, that’s interesting.
There are other things that distinguish the experience of the Awesome Foundation a little. I think it tends to be local and personalized. Unlike Kickstarter, one of the interesting things you get is that people get to meet directly with the people who are funding them. Most of the chapters are funding people in their own cities. The scale is much smaller than Kickstarter, no doubt. But the effect is a more local impact. That’s one big thing. The other is the types of projects we fund. Over time basically what you get is that the chapters reflect the local biases or preferences of the trustees. Like a DC Chapter funds more traditional non-profit stuff. They helped to fund a farmers market and whatnot. While Boston has funded more tech projects. And our system is open: anyone can start an Awesome Foundation. When you get 10 people together, you can start funding whatever you want.
I’m reminded of a story I read about the Mud Truck a few years ago. Instead of taking on investors to branch out into other markets, they basically took an approach they called ‘friendchising’, where they found people in other cities they knew or liked and helped them set up a business based on the original. And that was the extent of their involvement, I think.
That’s similar to our approach in that we want things to be as simple and as direct as possible. Would you rather have $10,000 that’s difficult to get, or would you like to have $1,000 right now? $1,000 right now could be a lot more effective, depending on the project of course. In fact in the early days we used to just give out cash. You show up at this party and these ten people would hand you a paper bag filled with money and you just go and do your thing.
Okay, let me ask you about ROFLCon. What is it?
Sure, ROFLCon is basically a conference where the idea is to get the internet all in one place. Everybody who is momentarily famous on the internet, and scholars and commentators on that, basically come together and talk about the past, present, and future of internet culture. Everything from funny cats to KONY 2012
So it started in 2008 and it’s sort of a biannual thing. We had it in 2008, 2010, and 2012, as the trilogy of conferences. It attracts a weird crew, but it’s great. The double rainbow guy is there. The bed intruder guy is there, David after dentist, if you remember that video. So we had a great panel this year, I was really excited how that turned out. It was parents and their kids who have become internet famous. It was fascinating. David after dentist is just six years old but he has been seen by 100 million people.
It started in 2008 because this one web comic, XKCD, had moved to Summerville, Massachusetts. They did like a little meet up. And it was crazy. It was framed in a casual way, but when we went there were hundreds of people who showed up. I remember thinking, it’s so funny, this guy would walk in the street but no one would know him, but he was famous in this particular focused way. The thing that really struck me was we met a family that flew in from Russia just to meet him. Russia is a long way off. Afterward we thought wouldn’t it be interesting if we just started inviting people, and build a conference around that. So ROFLCon was born.
That’s interesting, because in a way the beauty of the web is there’s all this weird, fascinating, wonderful content that appeals to different kinds of people and everybody finds their niche. But it’s cool to think about breaking down those silos and having all of those different communites converge in one place.
We like to think of it as the internet of internets.
You might have to have it more often. Nowadays something will happen online and be huge and then be gone, in a matter of months.
Right, or really a matter of weeks, easy. I think that’s why we decided to do it biannually. Time allows the riff-raff to get filtered out. If you can remember someone on the internet after two years, that must have meant they were pretty awesome.
So - shifting gears - I understand you’re in California at law school.
I was trying to keep that secret for the longest time!
Some of the things you have been involved with academically have involved issues of internet freedom, networks, and stuff like that. Do you know yet where your studies are going to take you? How you will apply the degree you are going to get?
It’s actually kind of funny. I got into a habit of not talking about it much. But my main interest in going to law school was not to become a lawyer. But instead to find things that lawyers do that can be automated and replace them with machines. Needless to say, that does not make me a target of much fun if you mention that to law students. The job market is already crappy right now for law students. My interest basically is doing experiments at the intersection of legal code and computer code. To put a finer point on that: one of the things I am working on this summer is an open source tool kit. The idea is to allow you to launch automated corporations, or automated legal entities. You use software and code to have these legal entities behave programmatically, so you can say, “if x happens then create a subsidiary or sell an asset or buy something, or close down or open up.”
That’s interesting and also kind of scary.
It’s got a nice death-ray type element to it. yes. But the idea is to launch that up and see what people do with it. There are really intriguing things that large scale corporations do with legal structures. Ikea being a non-profit is a good example. I think complicated legal advantages should be available to everyone. And I’m doing all this work as a fictitious law firm called Robot Robot LLC.
To wrap up, are there any Awesome Foundation projects you want to be sure get mentioned?
Well, there’s a project that Boston funded that’s basically working with re purposed kites and digital cameras to do low hanging aerial photography. What they were doing was going to communities in the Gulf of Mexico and working with them to chart the ecological damage from the oil spill. It was a big thing, because none of that was being tracked. So Awesome funded it to create a bunch of kits to go down and do this project. It ended up being a great pilot project, because they ended up getting a grant of about $500,000 from the Knight Foundation to do a larger rollout of this citizen aerial photography project. Materially it’s not complex, but the impact is huge.
And on the other end of the spectrum there was a project San Francisco funded called Balloonacy. These people just wanted to purchase enough ballons to fill a big space and have a dance party. So we support a weird, diverse array of projects. The only link between the all is that they’re all pretty awesome, I guess.