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So that was Webstock 2009

So there we have it, Webstock 2009 is over. It’s coming up a month since the web community descended upon the elegant Wellington Town Hall and my mind is still buzzing from the attempt to digest the two days of Webstock conference goodness.

So there we have it, Webstock 2009 is over. It’s coming up a month since the web community descended upon the elegant Wellington Town Hall and my mind is still buzzing from the attempt to digest the two days of Webstock conference goodness.

For those of you that don’t know, Webstock is a web-related conference packed with a plethora of design and development ideas, innovation and inspiration.

Every year the bar is being raised, the calibre of speakers lifted, and this year was certainly no exception. The organisers have this event down to a fine art and well deserved the roar and rapturous applause from all the Webstockers when Tash eloquently wrapped up the conference at the end of day two.

So what were the standout experiences for Webstock 2009? Well, of course there are many. In my mind (and according to many others I spoke to), Ze Frank stole the show on the first day.

Never heard of him, you say? Well neither had most people until he started showing us examples of his work and then there was the inevitable ‘aha’ moment. Ze is an American online performance artist, composer, humorist and public speaker. He rose to fame in 2001 after he created a viral online birthday invitation and sent it to 17 of his closest friends. You will probably know the one... Other projects he entertained us with was Earth Sandwich, in which the goal was to place two pieces of bread on the ground at opposite points on the globe, creating a massive earth sandwich. This was completed by a group in New Zealand and Spain. I wonder if they used the same bread...? Other notable mentions are YoungMe/NowMe, where people recreated childhood photos of themselves, The Atheist Game, Flowers, 52to48 and Remixes for Ray. Ze managed to captivate and engage the whole audience with what he was saying. He exploits the possibilities of the web and inspires people to collaborate and participate in meaningful ways with some very rewarding results. This guy is very smart and just ‘gets it’.

This year the conference theme appeared to be (on the first day, at least) based around the notion of online communities – how to create them, nurture them and how to avoid some common pitfalls. Speaking of pitfalls, Nat Torkington of O’Reilly spoke of how failure is a good thing - “knowledge is increased when things go wrong”. If failure happens in small increments and before things get too big then we learn from it to get better. He talked about how big companies are fearful of failure and this is how smaller, more agile companies can beat them. He left us on this note: “Fail forward fast”. I like it.

Jane McGonigal, a game designer and future forecaster at The Institute for the Future, talked about ‘Gaming Reality’ and how we as web professionals can learn a lot from the gaming world. Her discussion focused on what makes people happy and how we are happier and more “awesome” in virtual realities such as World of Warcraft than in actual reality. She went on to explain how in the best designed games our experience is perfectly optimised - there is a lot of work to do and, among other things, zero unemployment...! She also mentioned the importance of community and the benefit of feedback – both positive and negative - in the virtual world and how that differs from reality. As web designers we need to start thinking about how to structure the experience to make people happier and to design systems to make people more “awesome.”

Jane also encouraged the crowd to participate in Signtific Lab, a game created as an experiment for Webstock, where people were invited to sign up and contribute their ideas.

Carrying on the underlying community theme, Derek Powazek’s topic was entitled “The Wisdom of Communities” and was based around the premise that, when aggregated properly, crowds can produce valuable and meaningful results. As an Intergen sponsored speaker, we had the pleasure of meeting and having a chat with Derek and his partner, Heather Champ back at the Intergen offices at one of our “Brown Bag Lunch Sessions” where they shared some anecdotes and lessons learnt when dealing with online communities. Being web celebs in their own right, having a one-on-one with these two was a bit of a privilege. They definitely gave us some food for thought and influential tips. Thanks guys!

In his Webstock session, Derek talked about the ways in which communities can be encouraged and the methods you can use to keep them going. He went on to speak about online trolls and how to get rid of them. I really liked the idea of the “cone of silence,” where a logged-in user who is identified as a troll sees their contributions within the community, but where they are the only person who sees them. Basically, when you don’t respond, they go away. Attention is currency for them.

Meg Pickard from the Guardian UK followed on nicely from Derek and continued with the social media and online community theme. Meg’s talk focused around participatory journalism. How to lower the barrier to entry to encourage people to participate and contribute - and using technology to accomplish this. She reinforced one of Derek’s points that social media does not necessarily need to be social. As a user you can be selfish as social media is about result aggregation and not necessarily about individuals. She went on to explain that gone are the days when content was king. Now context is king. It is the editorial aspect which is the most important - the tone of the debate, propositions and interaction. This is what fundamentally changes a sites offering.

David Recordon of Six Apart talked about the open, social web as a way to reduce as much friction as possible for users. I think most people in the audience could identify with the current need to remember several different passwords and password combinations to access their online services. David referred to this as “walled gardens” and that these needed to be pushed down with pre-existing tools such as Microformats and Open ID.

Adrian Holovaty of everyblock.com fame focused his presentation on the mash-up of data and how this can be used in meaningful ways. Adrian developed one of the first Google Maps mash-ups, chicagocrime.org which is the initial concept behind EveryBlock. EveryBlock basically filters data based on your selected location so you are able to keep track of what’s happening in your neighbourhood.

Next up was Heather Champ, who is the online community manager at Flickr and Intergen’s second sponsored speaker. Heather was quite upfront about the challenges and mistakes that Flickr has made in the past which resonated with Nat Torkington’s “Fail Forward Fast” mantra. Sometimes we suck,” Heather said and this is what makes them better at managing the community and learning from their mistakes. She continued with themes established by Derek Powazek and Meg Pickard and relayed some interesting stories, including some moronic laptop thieves who uploaded their photos to Flickr. A key message in her talk centred around the need for tools to be put in the hands of the users in an online community. Let the users determine what is fair with the ability for them to be able to report abuse and block the troublemakers. However, always make sure that there is someone responsible for keeping an eye on the community.

Russell Brown opened the conference on day two. A very wet day in Wellington (which incidentally made our decision not to have a giant outdoor volleyball game in Civic Square as part of the Surf Patrol experience a good one). Russell began by talking about S92a, aka “Internet service provider must have policy for terminating accounts of repeat infringers.” Certainly a topic on many people’s minds during the conference. He then went on to talk about the state of television and the state of distribution networks, citing hulu.com as an example of something that we cannot access in New Zealand, but should be able to. Incidentally, if you need a laugh, check out the Superbowl ad for Hulu starring Alec Baldwin....

Contrary to the write-up in the Webstock 2009 conference programme, Derek Featherstone did not “perform a showstopper from Puccini's Madame Butterfly” but rather talked about accessibility. He emphasised that as web designers and developers we should be striving to go beyond just meeting the guidelines. And that meeting accessibility guidelines does not necessarily guarantee that your site is going to be usable. He had some great examples of this where, for example, the Google Maps and YouTube API enables you to make custom controls for a better user experience. By injecting a Greasemonkey script you can create buttons that are outside of the movie clips so that a user can control the movie via the keyboard. Simple yet brilliant!

I wasn’t sure whether I would attend Joshua Porter’s presentation on designing sign-up forms, as this designer considers himself a bit of an expert in this area but I am glad I did. It did, of course have aspects of design 101 in there but it also had some great insights too. It was heartening to glance around the room and recognise Intergen customers at this session. I hope they managed to take something away from this, as I did. One of the first and key messages Joshua spoke of was the need to remove friction from sign-up forms and cited tumblr.com and gmail.com as best practice examples. He reinforced the need to remove anything that is not necessary so that people can begin using the application straight away.

Technology is playing its hand at helping address the prevalence of things such as password strength, user name availability and inline help. However the core issue is not the sign-up form in itself - it is motivation. If people are motivated to use your software then they will be likely to take the time to sign up. If not, they may see this barrier as too large and leave. The key is to change people’s minds about your software. Are people motivated enough to care? Joshua then went on to describe how we should be designing for the different types of visitors and suggest strategies for engaging with them, such as immediate engagement, reduced commitment and better copy. For a couple of best practice examples, take a look at Netflix and Freshbooks.

Russ Weakley from the Australian Museum opened his presentation by informing us that what he had talked about at Webstock 2006 - i.e. the redesign of the Australian Museum website - has still not been put into effect. Well, almost. He explained how this was due, in part, to the fact that the public service is very slow and that every decision needed to be analysed, dissected and evaluated. Something which turned out to be a good thing, as it made him think incredibly carefully about what he was proposing to his bosses and stakeholders. Russ’s messages resonated with the online community theme established on day one and walked us through the redesign of the museum site which has grown into an essentially static and unwieldy 43,000 web pages.

The new site is to be a major paradigm shift and embrace available technologies for an enhanced online user experience where the users are put in the driver’s seat and given the tools to contribute and participate. The new site will be divided into three levels: categories, sections and assets. There will no longer be the notion of a web page and assets will be able to appear in multiple locations with different navigation methods to access it. Both users and staff will have the ability to create and maintain content, providing new methods of navigation and search. The new site is also going to contain blogs where staff are encouraged to share their personal stories - such as Mr Blobby. Russ raised an interesting point about content mistakes made by community members. He said that it was a good thing for the community to have the ability to self moderate as countless people will learn from it - “Allow the community to self moderate”. He went on to explain that even misspellings in tags are a great thing. Why? This helps at “broadening the net” and allows more people to access content based on mistakes that others have and will also make. Just because something is not relevant to you, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant to someone else…

For better or worse, one of the other stand-outs for the conference had to be Bruce Sterling’s presentation, entitled: “The short but glorious life of Web 2.0 and what comes afterward.” Bruce presented one slide - quite a juxtaposition to Damian Conway’s 400+ slide deck following on from him… The slide was of Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Meme Map, which he preceded to tear apart. To be honest, Bruce kind of lost me half way through his talk but I gather this happened to many Webstockers and evident in the number of ‘tweets’ that were flying around the room. (For example, “I think Bruce Sterling has lost the room. It's one thing to challenge preconception but he's just trolling.”)

Whatever people thought, this guy was smart. Very smart and was not afraid to challenge the premise of the web as we know it. He was clear to point out that he was a fan of Web 2.0 and thought that it was a success. However he went on to poke fun at it by saying that we think it is about the world of drop shadows, gradients and names with a capital R at the end of it. He then went on to take a stab at Tim O’Reilly’s canonical definition of it, saying that you cannot build a platform on a cloud in reference to it being an oxymoron and a mixed metaphor. Bruce then went on to deconstruct some of the principles and practices of Web 2.0 including tagging and AJAX. Leading to one of my favorite quotes of his presentation and the one that caused the biggest snigger from the audience – “But what is AJAX, exactly? It's not an acronym... XTML itself is an acronym. You can't make an acronym out of an acronym!” Nice.
To many, Bruce appeared to be ranting and merely reading his speech word for word. But to others he offered a frank view of the current state of the web coupled with a stark reality check. If you want to read the full transcript of what Bruce said, and I highly recommend you do, check out: http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2009/03/what-bruce-ster.html

On a more humorous note, Damian Conway, the self-professed “bossy little schoolgirl of web design,” closed day two by giving a presentation on why the web still sucks for most mortal users. And how we can reduce the “suck-tion”… Damian likened web designers to doctors and offered a Hippocratic Oath for web designers to abide by:

  1. To study and share knowledge
  2. To always do your best work
  3. Don’t kill the client’s business
  4. Know your limitations
  5. Don’t screw your clients (metaphorically)
  6. Be professional and preserve your clients’ confidentiality

And how are we going to accomplish this? Damian recommends:

  1. Help customers find you
  2. Help customers quickly and easily find information on your site
  3. Help customers read the information
  4. Help customers understand the information
  5. Help your customers buy products from your site

Damian illustrated his points by showing off a vast range of live sites which seemed to be designed to go against the oath. His message was simple and yet again delivered with passion, enthusiasm, humour and of course - involved a slide with a picture of his wife.

So there you have it, just a few of the highlights and takeouts of an amazing two days at Webstock 2009. A wealth of brain food to mull over and apply in our work. All I can say is bring on the next one. I for one am looking forward to adding another amazing bag to my quiver of Webstock bags. Can’t wait!

Posted by: Mark Delaney | 11 March 2009

Tags: Webstock

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