Tags: fowa

4

sparkline

London to Boston

When I bump into someone I haven’t seen for a while, I am often greeted with a remark along the lines “Oh, I’m surprised you’re actually in the country.” Har-dee-har-har. That’s my cue to point out that because going to foreign climes is different and exciting, that’s when I’m more likely to write something here on adactio.com. But I spend most of my time in Brighton, going to the office and building websites; writing about that would be the equivalent of Dog Bites Man. Still, if you keep an eye on my Pownce page and my my Magnolia links, it would become clear that I’m publishing plenty …it just happens to be in short form.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. Working, eating, sleeping, punctuated with the occasional trip out of Brighton up to London.

Last Friday, myself and Andy spent the afternoon in the Big Smoke meeting up with the good people from Last.fm, School of Everything, Moo and Dopplr. It made a change to see my colleagues in their natural habitats rather than the usual meeting place of a conference.

That said, meeting people at a conference is pretty damn great. It’s by far the biggest reason for going to a conference in a first place. That’s why I had a good time on Thursday at The Future of Web Apps. I spent more time chatting to people than I did attending talks. I had lunch with SXSWers Hugh and Shawn, drank beer from YDN, loitered around the Headshift stand and played with a Microsoft Surface. Just occasionally, I popped my head into a presention.

The technical talks were a bit too technical for me—though Blaine and Matt did a great job of talking about some pretty hardcore server-side technology in such way that even a n00b like me could grasp some of it—while the business talks tended to walk a line uncomfortably close to product pitching. But that probably says more about my low tolerance for product pitches than it does about the quality of the speakers, who I’m sure were perfectly good if you’re into that businessy stuff. Still, there’s just no redeeming the guy from BT who, with a straight face, pitched a browser-based telephony service—whilst never once mentioning Asterisk—under the banner of it being all about communification. At first I thought it was simply a slip of the tongue but once he kept repeating it, it became clear that he honestly thought it was a perfectly cromulent word.

The day finished with a thoroughly entertaining Dragon’s Den style panel accepting the desperate pitches of hopeful startups. Most of the startups were pretty awful but the winner, Erepublik, looks genuinely brilliant. They had me at “massively multiplayer online text-based social strategy game.”

It was fun watching the interaction of the panelists as they dissected each startup. Ryan was playing Columbo—So let me get this straight…Mike played the part of the likeable cheeky chappy that he is (honestly, why such a nice guy associates himself with the seedy Techc*nt brand is beyond me), and Jason Calacanis was a consummate dickhead. If the guy from BT was channelling George Bush with his communification shtick, then Jason Calacanis was channelling Sarah Palin with his never-ending series of irrelevant, pre-prepared anecdotes that he trotted out at every available opportunity. Watching him rip the brave entrepreneurs to shreds was a thoroughly entertaining slice of schadenfreude.

A Media Temple afterparty and a curry in Brick Lane finished off the day nicely but I decided against going back for a second day of FOWA. Instead, I’ve been preparing for my next trip.

I’m off to Boston for the User Interface 13 Conference which starts on Monday. This time, I won’t be able to spend all my time shooting the breeze with my fellow geeks because I’m speaking. I’ll be giving a talk on Ajax design challenges as well as a full-day Ajax workshop. I’m pretty nervous about the workshop. I’ve given Ajax workshops before and they’ve always gone well but the audience was generally developers whereas I think the audience in Boston will be somewhat different. I’ll need to adopt, adapt and improve my workshop mojo. Perhaps paper, sharpies and post-it notes will help.

Before that, I intend to spend at least a day being a tourist in the capital of Massachusetts, maybe taking in one of the legendary sessions. If you’re going to be in Boston this weekend, get in touch.

The diversity division

After the Future of Web Apps 2006 conference in San Francisco, a post by Chris Messina lamenting the lack of women in the line-up prompted heated debate and high emotions.

The Future of Web Apps 2007 conference just wrapped up in London and Jason Kottke has reignited the debate. What’s changed since the last time? Not much.

Tempers are still getting frayed and the discourse is generally pretty unhelpful.

Let me say from the start that I do think there is a problem with having so many conferences with such unbalanced line-ups and I firmly believe that a lot of the responsibility lies with the organisers to change things. That said, I also understand just how hard it is to put on any kind of conference at all.

To the people accusing conference organisers of being some kind of cabalistic old boy’s network: you’re really not helping. You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

To the people organising conferences who throw up their hands and say “it’s not our job, we’re just reflecting the sad reality”: you’re being equally unhelpful.

So, all of you: try walking a mile in the other person’s shoes. That way, if you still don’t agree, you’ll be a mile away from the other person and you’ve made off with their shoes.

Eric came out with a provacative post that’s just aching to be quoted out of context:

So, here it is: as a conference organizer, I don’t care about diversity.

I admire and respect Eric but I think in this instance that he is wrong. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

Eric makes the very persuasive argument that to put on a successful conference, the line-up needs to be filled with well-known, established speakers. (This prompted the obvious question from a few people in the comments; just how does one become well-known or established? As Jen says, Eric, it is becoming a circle jerk.)

Success doesn’t just mean financial success, though I readily admit that the economics of organising a conference are fiendish. A successful conference is about more than just getting bums on seats.

Yes, if you fill a line-up with “A-listers” then you’ll sell all your tickets and the attendees will learn from the best and everyone will be happy… in the short term. In the long term, it’s unsustainable. It leads to a closed loop, a neverending cycle of the same names talking about the same subjects. Diversity isn’t just a means to an end (that end being a better conference), it is in and of itself, A Good Thing.

Conferences, especially well-established conferences (and I would put An Event Apart into that category) can and should take some chances. Yes, it’s risky. No, you can’t guarantee ticket sales. But it will be a better conference if the line-up has some wild cards.

I firmly believe that conferences shouldn’t simply be mirrors for the Web business, reflecting whatever is current and accepted. A good conference can act as a force on the industry. Conference organisers have a great opportunity here and I think it’s a shame to see it wasted.

Alright… enough talking about conference organisers as if they were some kind of separate caste of people. It’s time to point the finger at myself.

My company, Clearleft, organises the dConstruct conference in Brighton every year. It’s really Andy’s baby but he very kindly asks for my opinions in putting the conference together. I personally feel very strongly that this year’s dConstruct needs to change from last year’s homogenous line-up (I’m pretty sure Andy agrees).

Even if we sell every ticket, even if everybody blogs about having a great time, if the line-up consists of a bunch of white male speakers (“A-list” or otherwise), I will consider the conference a failure.

But what to do? The perceived wisdom is that there are simply far more kick-ass men speakers than women. I don’t believe that’s true. I think there are far more visible men in our industry, but with just a bit effort it’s entirely possible to find a wealth of women speakers who can truthfully be described as well and truly kick-ass.

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to blog about this, but for months now, we at Clearleft have had a BaseCamp project set up with the specific intention of finding new blood for dConstruct. We’ve invited people from outside our circle of expertise and interests and asked them to suggest speakers. The idea is to deliberately introduce diversity, to stir things up a bit and ultimately, to put together the most kick-ass line-up of speakers we can.

Is this tokenism? Absolutely not. I fully concur with Eric when he says:

What’s important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability.

But I don’t believe that this attitude conflicts in any way with the desire to increase diversity. It’s entirely possible to put together a superb line-up of diverse speakers.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at Web Directions North (or South for that matter), one of the best, most stimulating conferences I’ve ever attended. They didn’t make a big deal about the mixture of topics and presenters, they just put together the best line-up they could.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I know for a fact that it’s a lot of hard work. But it’s achievable; Web Directions is a testament to that.

I’m also going to have to agree to disagree with Tantek, another person I admire and respect greatly. He is of the opinion the kind of thing I’m suggesting would indeed fall under the category of tokenism:

Why is it that gender (and less often race, nay, skin-color, see below) are the only physical characteristics that lots of otherwise smart people appear to chime in support for diversity of?

Where are all the green-eyed folks? Where are all the folks with facial tattoos? Where are all the redheads? Where are the speakers with non-ear facial piercings?

Actually, I would agree with Tantek if I were talking about diversity of sexes, but I’m not. I’m talking about diversity of gender. There’s a difference. Sex means male or female. Gender means masculine or feminine.

I fully agree that a speaker’s sex makes about as much difference as their eye-colour or hairstyle but a speaker’s gender can and does affect their outlook and experience. As someone who has a (primarily) masculine gender, I know that I can learn a lot more from being in a mixed masculine/feminine environment. That’s one of the reasons why I’m glad my band isn’t an all-male affair.

I’m not just arguing semantics here. I’m trying to point out why I think Tantek’s argument is reducto ad absurdum. Gender isn’t like eye-colour. Introducing more gender diversity into a conference is productive in the same way as introducing someone with a background in product design or some other non-Web field that can offer a new perspective on our industry (this isn’t just an off-hand comparison).

I hope I’ve made my point clear. Let me reiterate that I can see both sides of this debate but I do come down firmly on the side of increasing diversity. I just hope that I can work towards this goal in a constructive way.

Frankly, I find Jason Kottke’s reductionist statistical approach to be counter-productive. It’s not just about numbers, Jason. I’m also not so sure that Anil’s abrasive style is particularly constructive but his clever riposte to the Future of Web Apps line-up is illuminating.

I do feel bad for Ryan. He always seems to bear the brunt of the blame even though plenty of other conferences are equally lacking in diversity.

However… I do take issue with Ryan’s attempt to wash his hands by pointing out just how many of the speaker slots were bought by sponsors. I’m sorry, but selling time slots to the highest bidder is no way to put a conference together. I’m well aware of the economic realities of putting on a conference and I know that selling slots to sponsors is established practice in certain circles but it won’t cut it with the geek crowd.

Again, Web Directions North managed to get this just right by allowing companies to sponsor speakers. So the speakers were all chosen for their expertise, knowledge and perhaps even diversity, and then Adobe or Microsoft were given the opportunity to introduce the speakers. It sure beats product pitches.

I want to finish with an observation on this whole issue of gender diversity at Web conferences.

This debate isn’t going to go away. It looks like it’s going to flare up every few months. Clearly, plenty of bloggers—who are also probably the target audience for a lot of these conferences—really care about this issue and want to see some changes. Yet every time the issue is raised, conference organisers fall back on the argument that they need to fill the auditorium and that the best way of doing that is to give people the same “A-list” speakers that have always worked in the past. In other words, give the people what they want.

Well, we want diversity.

It’s kind of like the whole brouhaha with Adobe and their crappy new icons. The majority of Adobe’s potential customers disliked the icons and wrote good, well-reasoned blog posts explaining why. As Aral so excellently noted, Adobe deliberately chose to ignore this wealth of valuable feedback. I see conferences falling into the same trap. The very fact that this debate is taking place (and continues to take place ever more frequently) should be sending a message that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

It reminds me of the old joke. A guy walks into a shop and asks for some product or other. The shopkeeper says, “We don’t stock that. There’s no demand for it.” The shopkeeper then adds, “It’s funny: you’re the tenth person to ask for that today.”

The Future of Web Apps, day two

I’m feeling quite refreshed and ready for another day of geekery. There weren’t too many drinking shenanigans going on last night.

The official watering hole for the FOWA drinkipoos turned out to be a yuppie nightmare. The entrance hallway was filled with gaudy images that were probably intended to recall 1950s pin-ups but actually just looked like page 3 pages torn from a tatty copy of The Sun. The drinks were ludicrously overpriced and getting out of the toilets required a significant toll charge. All of this would have been mitigated if there were some ancillary benefits such as watching young nubile bodies gyrating on a dancefloor but a sign at the entrance made it very clear that dancing was forbidden. This being England, the sign added, “we apologise for the inconvenience.”

Before long, a rebellion was organised and a gaggle of geeks made a mass exodus to a lovely cosy pub across the street. Happiness and chattiness emerged. After that, there was time for one civilised nightcap in the hotel bar with the dynamic duo of Tara and Chris, Google’s Jonathan Rochelle (a scholar and a gentleman) and Natalie—free from Simon’s clutches while he worked frantically on his slides.

It’s day two of FOWA now and there’s still no sign of free WiFi. Khoi has kindly given me a BT Openzone scratch’n’sniff WiFi card he got yesterday so I’ll use that to dip in and out of the river of connectivity and expand on this running commentary throughout the day.

Mark Anders

Adobe kicked off the day with a Flex demo. Having attended Flash on the Beach, there wasn’t anything new for me here but it was interesting to watch other people’s reactions to the speed of Actionscript 3 and the ease of downloading an Apollo app.

Chris Wilson

Microsoft’s Chris Wilson is on stage giving a state of the Web address. He talked about the origins of Ajax, gave a nice shout out to microformats and he mentioned the power of tagging (Hi, Chris!). There’s plenty of talk about security which isn’t that enthralling to me personally but its probably the most important aspect of IE7 for most people on the planet. Alpha transparency in PNGs; now that’s more like it.

Khoi Vinh

Khoi is talking about The Future (capitalisation intentional) which will, as he says, be awesome. But first, let’s hear about some of the design challenges at The New York Times. He’s showing some nice examples of what art direction is. You’ll see art direction in the print version of the paper all the time, but the online counterparts are just templated. There are exceptions like the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks and the infographics for the November elections, but of course these are events that are predictable and can be planned for. For breaking news, real-time design just isn’t possible… yet.

Khoi makes an interesting point about the schizophrenia in new technology. At the same time that we’re getting into hi-def television and DVDs, we’re also flocking to YouTube even though the video quality is really lo-fi. And while SLR cameras are getting more and more powerful, we’re using crappy little camera phones more and more. This schizophrenia throws up some design challenges for a media outlet like The New York Times.

There’s no such thing as a free feature, says Khoi. And remember, the more expressive a designer gets, the more the user has to pay for it (download times and such). So for any new feature, there must be a really valid reason for it to exist. Oh, and options are obstructions. Too many prefs are a sign of unresolved design issues that couldn’t be squeezed into the main interface.

Thank you, Khoi. And now it’s Simon’s turn. Hmmmm… I wonder what he’ll be talking about: OpenID, perhaps?

Simon Willison

Oh man, Simon’s on a roll. Talking a mile a minute, getting jibes in at Microsoft, cracking jokes about Ben and Mena Trott… he’s got the audience in the palm of his twirling, whizzing hand.

Long story, short: OpenID rocks. If you’re creating any kind of membership-based site, you need to check this out. If you’re member of a lot of different sites, you need to check this out. Oh, and in case you missed it, both AOL and Digg announced support for OpenID over the past few days. The momentum looks unstoppable at this stage.

I love the fact that the evangelism for OpenID is coming from passionate developers like Simon, not from some corporate representative. Like the microformats movement, it’s bottom-up rather than top-down. Other companies are buying slots at this conference to pitch their products but Simon gets to talk about OpenID because it’s so freakin’ cool and can’t simply be ignored.

Ah, OpenID and microformats: now there’s a cool combo. Simon has won my heart and the hearts of everyone else in the audience, I suspect. He’s talking about portable social networks and everything. Bravo, Mr. Willison!

Jonathan Rochelle

After a pleasant lunch with some of the Last.fm posse, I’m back in the auditorium to hear what Jonathan from Google has to say about Google Docs and Spreadsheets (killer name, indeed). These aren’t the kind of Web apps I’m likely to use myself but I’m interesting in the technology behind them. I’m assuming that, given the complexity of the applications, the Ajax used will be of the non-Hijax variety.

Open Mic

Time to break out into something a little unusual. This, as Ryan puts it, is the user-generated part of the conference. Over the past few weeks, delegates have been able to log on to the FOWA site and vote for some short presentations they’d like to see at this point. The three highest-scoring subjects will now present.

  1. The virtual office. Okay, that works.

  2. A documentation technique called Jedi — Just Enough Documentation for Interactions. Great backronym!

  3. The topic with the most votes is… which apps will succeed and which will fail in 2007? Who knows?

Daniel Appelquist

And now it’s time for a talk on mobile. Let’s hear from Daniel Appelquist from Vodaphone. I’m not entirely sure that a provider is necessarily going to be the most subjective voice on this but we’ll see.

Actually, there’s something interesting stuff here, especially around the intersection of mobile and Ajax. There’s plenty of talk about standards, so that’s all good. I’ll have to corner him later for a chat.

Rasmus Lerdorf

Now let’s hear from the creator of PHP, Rasmus Lerdorf. He’s taking us on a trip down memory lane, looking at Mosaic and early versions of HTML and PHP. Rasmus basically wrote PHP to scratch his own itch—it’s the typical open source story.

Here’s a reassuring confession from someone who has written a programming language:

I hate programming. It’s tedious. It’s no fun. It’s like flying: sitting in a smelly metal tube with other people. But I love problem-solving.

Looking at PHP today, it’s a lot more verbose. The Computer Science geeks like it now but it sure has moved far away from being a quick and dirty tool for getting something done. Ironically, there are students today that only have a background in object-oriented programming and have to be taught what procedural programming is.

Here’s an interesting idea on why people join an open-source community: oxytocin, a neuropeptide otherwise known as nature’s trust hormone. That’s in addition to the usual incentives like self-interest and self-expression. It’s the same motivation that drives people to play World of Warcraft in a big way. Open source projects like PHP are like Web 2.0 community sites: Flickr, Digg and Wikipedia would be nothing without the user-contributed content. The same goes for any open-source project.

In addressing the issue of performance, Rasmus has lost me but that’s due to my own mental deficiency rather than any fault with his presentation style.

Security is even tougher. As he says, “basically, you can never click on a link.” He has two browsers: one for browsing and one for sites that have personal data. It’s kind of paranoid, it’s kind of sad but, when you understand the consequences of cross-site scripting, it’s entirely justified.

PHP5 makes it trivially easy to take XML from Web services and do stuff with it. I can vouch for that.

Time for a quick announcement.

Tariq Krim

Tariq is from Netvibes. I haven’t played with it myself but Mike Stenhouse was raving about it yesterday.

There’s a big announcement coming right now. Here it is… a Universal Widget API or UWA if you prefer a TLA.

If you care, you heard it here first folks.

Wait, here’s another announcement: support for OpenID. Yay! All the cool kids are doing it.

Right. Make way for the guys from Moo.

Richard Moross and Stefan Magdalinski

Print is dead? Bollocks says Richard. And of course he’s right. Derek Powazek would agree, I’m sure.

Moo cards are cool. I’ve got some: little cards with my Flickr food pictures and the URL of Principia Gastronomica. A significant proportion of this audience also have Moo cards. Best of all, anybody here can get free Moo cards if they give these guys a business card in return.

Business cards don’t have to be boring. They can tell a story.

With Moo cards, the difference makes all the difference. Y’know, Qoop launched much the same product—business cards made with the Flickr API—a week before Moo cards launched. But Moo could compete on the differences: unusual size and high-quality recycled card. Everybody talked about Moo cards; nobody talked about Qoop’s cards.

Partnership is everything for Moo. Without Flickr, they’d be nothing.

Marketing is a four letter word: free. Giving away free cards is great marketing. I concur: the free cards I got from Moo clinched the decision to buy cards from them.

The attention to detail in Moo’s physical package really seals the deal. There are little Easter eggs in there and the luggage-tag card that comes with every pack gets everyone talking. There’s an incredible amount that has to be done by hand but that’s what guarantees the right level of quality.

Now Stefan is giving a peak behind the curtain at the technical side of Moo. If you want to know what he’s saying, well, you should have come to the conference then, shouldn’t you? You can’t expect me to do everything now, can you?

The Future of Web Apps, day one

I’m spending more time in London than in Brighton this week. After BarCamp London 2 at the weekend I had one day to recover and now I’m back up for the Future of Web Apps conference.

Like last year, the event is being held in the salubrious surroundings of Kensington; normally the home turf of Sloane Rangers, now overrun by geeks. But the geeks here are generally of a different variety to those at BarCamp (although I’m seeing a lot of familiar faces from the weekend).

The emphasis of the conference this time is more on the business, rather than the techy side of things. It makes sense to focus the event this way, especially now that there’s a separate Future of Web Design conference in a few months. The thing is… I don’t have much of a head for business (to put it mildy) so a lot of the material isn’t really the kind of thing I’m interested in. That’s not to say that it isn’t objectively interesting but from my subjective viewpoint, words like “venture”, “investment” and “business model” tend to put me to sleep.

That said, the presentations today have been less soporific than I feared. There was some good geeky stuff from Werner Vogels of Amazon and Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo, as well as some plain-talkin’ community advice from Tara Hunt.

The big disappointment of the day has been WiFi. Despite the fact that Ryan paid £6,000—remember, he’s not afraid of announcing figures in public—nothin’s doin’. For all the kudos that BT deserve for hosting the second London BarCamp, they lose some karma points for this snafu.

The day ended with Kevin Rose giving the Digg annual report. He left time for some questions so I put this to him:

I see Digg as a technological success and a business success but I think it’s a social failure. That’s because when I read the comments attached to a story, people are behaving like assholes.

At this point, people started applauding. I was mortified! I wasn’t trying get in a cheap shot at Digg; I had a point to make. So after informing the crowd that there was nothing to applaud, I continued:

This is probably because of the sheer size of the community on Digg. Contrast this to something like Flickr where there are lots and lots of separate groups. My question is; should you be trying to deliberately fragment Digg?

The answer was a resounding “Yes!” and it’s something that he touched on his talk. Afterwards, I was talking to Daniel Burka and he reckoned that Digg could take a leaf out of Last.fm’s book. The guys from Last.fm had previously talked about all the great features they were able to roll out by mining the wealth of attention data that users are submitting every day. Digg has an equally rich vein of data; they just need to mine it.

Anyway, it was a good day all in all but I feel kind of bad for putting a sour note on the Digg presentation. Plenty of people told me “great question!” but I felt a bit ashamed for putting Kevin on the spot that way.

Still, it’s far preferable to make these points in meatspace. If I had just blogged my concerns, it would have been open to even more misinterpretation. That’s the great thing about conferences: regardless of whether the subject matter is my cup of tea or not, the opportunity to meet and chat with fellow geeks is worth the price of entry.