The Language of the Web

The Breaking Development conference is wrapping up here on spacecraft Opryland One. It’s been a wonderful experience. The conference itself was superbly curated—a single track of top-notch speakers in a line-up that switched back and forth between high-level concepts and deep-dives into case studies. I hope that other conferences will take note of those key phrases: “single track”, “curated”, “top-notch speakers” (see also: An Event Apart, dConstruct, Mobilism).

I opened the show with a talk that sounds controversial: There Is No Mobile Web. Actually, it wasn’t as contentious as it sounds (I originally proposed a talk called Fuck The Mobile Web: Fuck It In The Assthen it would’ve been controversial). You can download a PDF of my slides if you want but, as usual, they won’t make much if any sense outside the context of the presentation.

Jeremy Keith @adactio

My talk was concerned with language; political language in particular. When I say “there is no mobile web,” I mean it quite literally: there isn’t a separate world wide web for mobile devices. But by using the phrase “mobile web” we may be unintentionally framing the discussion in terms of separate silos for different kinds of devices (desktop and mobile) in a similar way that a term like, say, “tax relief” automatically frames the discussion of taxation as something negative. By subtly changing the framing from “the mobile web” to a more accurate phrase such as “the web on mobile” we could potentially open new avenues of thinking.

By the same token the phrase “one web”—which is the drum that I bang—is really a tautology. Of course there’s only one web! But the phrase has political and philosophical overtones.

So I asked the assembled audience if we could come to an agreement: I’ll stop saying “one web” if you stop staying “mobile web.” How about …”the web”?

I also talked about the power of naming things, invoking the foreword I wrote for Ethan’s book:

When Ethan Marcotte coined the term “responsive web design” he conjured up something special. The technologies existed already: fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries. But Ethan united these techniques under a single banner, and in so doing changed the way we think about web design.

I’m not invoking here, I just wanted to point out how our language can—intentionally or unintentionally—have an effect on our thinking.

One of the other phrases I discussed was “web app.” The timing couldn’t have been better. Fellow Breaking Development speaker James Pearce has just written a blog post all about defining what makes something a web app. It’s very detailed and well thought-out but I’m afraid at the end of it, we’re still no closer to having a shared agreed-upon definition. It’s like the infamous Supreme Court definition of obscenity: “.”

My concern is that the phrase “web app” is wielded as a talisman to avoid best practices. “Oh, I totally agree that we should care about accessibility …but this isn’t a web site, it’s a web app.” “I think that progressive enhancement is great …for websites; but this is a web app.” The term is used as a get-out-of-jail free card and yet we can’t even agree what it means. I call shenanigans. I don’t think it is useful or productive to create an artificial boundary between documents and applications when the truth is that almost everything on the web exists on a continuum between the two poles.

Luke has published his excellent notes from my talk. You should read ‘em. While you’re at it, you should read all of the notes that he took at the conference.

Make sure you check out the notes from Stephanie’s mind-blowing case study of browser.nokia.com. The slides are on Slideshare too.

As I said, the Breaking Development conference did an excellent job of balancing the practical with the inspirational. Stephanie’s intensely useful case study was perfectly balanced by an absolutely incredible call to arms from Scott Jenson called Why Mobile Apps Must Die (and you thought my talk title was contentious), in which he expanded on his brilliant writings over on the Beyond Mobile blog.

The next Breaking Development event will be next April in Orlando. Single track. Curated. Top-notch speakers.

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Well that was a blast.

After months of planning, the second ever Breaking Development conference came to an end the other week. To say that it was fun and inspiring would be selling it short. To some extent, I am still recuperating but I thought I should post my thoughts while things are still fresh in my mind.

The Speakers

The speakers did an absolutely incredible job! There was plenty of pragmatic information to take back and apply right away, but there was also a lot of talk about the future: where we need to be and what we can do to get there. We’ll get video posted of all the talks at some point in the future, but for now, be sure to check out all the decks at Lanyrd. Scott Jenson recorded his presentation off his laptop, so his deck includes accompanying audio. I can’t recommend his presentation enough. It was a call to arms: a forward-thinking and inspiring talk to conclude the first day of the conference.

Every once in awhile I hear a question or two about the timing of the release of the conference schedule (not just in regards to our own event, but in regards to web conferences in general). There are two general routes to take for choosing topics for a conference. One is to do it early. That way attendees know what to expect early on and it helps to sell more tickets throughout the registration period. The other is to give the speakers a bit more time and wait until closer to the event to finalize all the topics. It means you have to hope the attendees will have enough trust in the speakers and the conference to spring for registration without knowing all of the topics. It also means, however, that the talks will be timely and something that the speaker is passionate about now—not something they were passionate about 4 months ago. We opted for the latter, and I believe we were a stronger conference for doing so.

The Attendees

As great as the speakers were, what really makes these events fun are the attendees. I wonder if people realize just how great a difference an exceptional group of attendees can make in the quality of the experience at a conference. It simply cannot be underestimated. There was no shortage of excellent discussions taking place in the evenings and during lunch. The quality of the beer conversations were incredible.

In fact, I consider those side conversations one of the most important ingredients in a conference experience. The speakers set the stage with inspiring and informative presentations, but the real fun is seeing everyone start to talk about how this information can be applied to create better mobile experiences: both for today and for the future.

The feedback was incredibly kind. As tiring as it can be to organize an event, the adrenaline rush you see from people enjoying it is mind-blowing. There is nothing that gets you more ramped up than seeing people talk about how inspired they are to go back to their companies and create something amazing. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

I’ve never felt so much energy and geekery under one roof in all my nerdy life.—Elizeo Benavidez

This was simply the best conference I have attended. Every session had real-world, immediately applicable techniques and ideas.—Jen

The Breaking Development conference is wrapping up here on spacecraft Opryland One. It’s been a wonderful experience. The conference itself was superbly curated—a single track of top-notch speakers in a line-up that switched back and forth between high-level concepts and deep-dives into case studies.—Jeremy Keith

“If you’re the most talented person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room” #bdconf is the RIGHT room people.—Luke Wroblewski on Twitter

I’m hitting that point in the conference where I just want to lock myself in room and finish hacking on related projects. INSPIRED #bdconf—Lyza Danger Gardner on Twitter

And perhaps my personal favorite:

One thing blowing me away about #bdconf the talks with attendees, let alone speakers! Tough questions being addressed with incredible zeal—Kevin Griffin on Twitter

Kevin’s might just be my favorite because I think he pin-pointed what I felt made the event so special: the absolutely ridiculous amount of smart, passionate and inspired people all coming together to try and make sense out of this rapidly changing and increasingly complex ecosystem of devices we find ourselves working with.

A huge thank you is in order to everyone who made the event so awesome. The speakers for all their hard work, the sponsors for all their help supporting and promoting the event, all the awesome people I get to work with on the Breaking Development team (Jeff Bruss, Erik Wiedeman, Paul Thompson, Derek Pennycuff, Michael Lehman and Matt VanSkyhawk) and in particular, the attendees.

I can’t wait to get to do this again in April!