Tags: wdn07



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.”

Casting about

Paul Boag—of Boagworld, um… “fame”—has started up a podcast for dot net magazine (a magazine which has nothing to do with Microsoft’s .NET thingymajiggy). It’s like a less polished and more nerdy version of This Week in Tech: a bunch of geeks shooting the breeze and chewing the fat.

I joined in for episode two of the podcast, wherein I called Jakob Nielsen “a dick”. For some reason I was invited back for episode three and I proceeded to use the word “bollocks” to describe Web 2.0.

See what happens when remarks are quoted out of context?

I’m really not all that curmudgeonly, honest. Subscribe to the podcast if you don’t believe me.

If you want to hear me natter on even more, you can listen to a full half-hour’s worth of a chat I had with Scott Fegette of Adobe. It’s mostly about JavaScript and Ajax. It was recorded at Web Directions North and if my voice sounds a little deep and husky, I blame that entirely on the Media Temple party fiends who abducted me the night before.

Here’s the audio file and here’s the podcast feed.


I’ve posted a few videos from Web Directions North up on YouTube. You can watch Cindy Li and Dan Rubin showing far more gumption on the snowboard than I was capable of mustering.

My favourite is a portrait of my fellow bunny slopers. They all thought I was taking a picture. I started filming and counted the seconds until they realised. It’s a shame that the video quality on YouTube is so crap: you can’t really spot the subtle changes as their smiles transition from genuine to faltering to strained. I’d like to make a whole series of videos like this; what a wonderful way to break the social contract.

Update: David Swallow points me to Long Awkward Pose, a site dedicated to this technique. Wonderful!

My timid little foray into posting videos on YouTube pales in comparison to my fellow Clearleftist, “nice” Paul Annett. Paul is a magician, you see. I don’t just mean that he’s a really good designer; I mean he does honest-to-goodness magic. It always makes for fun Friday evening drinks.

Anyway, Paul posted one of his card tricks on YouTube. It appears to have a struck a chord. The video has over 2,000,000 views and 5,000 comments, making it one of the most popular videos on YouTube ever. It’s weird to think that Paul’s homemade video has been viewed more often than many television programs.

Oh, and if you’re curious about how the trick was done, read all about it. Now if only Jared Spool would reveal how he did that levitating trick he was showing in Vancouver last week.

I’d twit that

Khoi writes about Twitter and its younger sibling, Twitterific. He makes some great points about the differences that the two interfaces confer on the experience of Twittering.

He’s not the only one with something to say about Twitter. At Web Directions North, the subject came up at least once every evening and usually resulted in an hour-long conversation/discussion/argument about its merits and failings. I can’t remember the last time that a service prompted such strong feelings.

Personally, I found my emotional connection to Twitter deepening while I was in Vancouver. I didn’t have much opportunity to Twitter myself because my phone didn’t want to play nice with Canadian networks but Jessica was twittering. Being able to catch up with the minutiae of her activity during the day was just wonderful. Of course there’s always emails, chats, phone calls, blog posts and Flickr pics but they all require a certain level of effort.

I must admit, not having a working phone did feel a little bit like going cold turkey. I’m sure that, like Dan, I would have been Twittering from on top of Whistler.

If you want to see some real Twitter addiction, Patrick Haney has it bad, man. He paid the price for his addiction when a Twitter drinking game was decreed at the Media Temple closing party. The rules are simple:

  • If you receive a Twitter, you must take a drink.
  • If you send a Twitter, you must take a drink.
  • If you say the word Twitter, you must take a drink.

I hadn’t seen Tantek in an inebriated state until that night.

Après Web Directions North

All I can say is, “Wow!” Web Directions North was one superb conference. The speakers were great, the organisation was slick and the social events were out of this world.

Every conference has its own vibe and this was one of excitement and fun. I was reminded of the atmosphere at a rock concert; when there’s energy coming from the stage, the audience responds in kind.

I’ve already described the presentations I was fortunate enough to attend, but I haven’t yet mentioned how well-put together the whole thing was. Maxine and John have plenty of experience under their respective belts while Dave and Derek have the benefit of being seasoned presenters themselves. Together they put a lot of thought into planning and executing a kick-ass conference.

Oh, and if you happen to be in the conference-organising business and you want some of that same success, here’s a tip: hire Cindy Li. She made sure that everything went like clockwork, mananging both the speakers and the attendees like they were play-doh in her hands.

At Web Directions North, I felt like I had the chance to connect with a lot of people; old friends and new. The end of any conference is often a bittersweet and frustrating time. All the people who have gathered together to share inspiration and knowledge scatter back to their respective homes. The size of this event combined with social events such as the infamous Media Temple closing party ensured that missed opportunities were kept to a minimum. Most of all though, I’ve enjoyed the best post-conference wind-down ever.

What better way to follow two days of wonderfully geeky talks than with two days of outdoor activity at Whistler? I rented a snowboard and all the associated paraphernalia. Even if I couldn’t actually do anything much, at least I could look the part. I had fun in the snow with my fellow bunny slopers but snowboarding is clearly not the sport for me. Racing down the mountainside in a rubber tube, on the other hand, is clearly my forté. The appeal of rubber tubing lies in the almost complete lack of skill required—apart from keeping your bum in the air for the bumpy bits.

And what better way to follow a day of outdoor activity than an après-ski extravaganza courtesy of Microsoft? The Redmond giant thinks that we’re so shallow that our affections can be bought with an endless supply of free food and booze for two days straight. Well, they’re right. I have a new-found soft spot in my heart for Microsoft.

Seriously though, It was really great that Adobe and Microsoft weren’t just faceless sponsors; they also had plenty of delegates in attendance. It felt really good to be able to put faces and names to the software that plays such an important part in the life of a Web developer. I enjoyed some very productive conversations with the Adobe gang and I was humbled to meet some of the developers working on IE7. I’m less likely to pour a vitriolic rant into an anonymous textarea now that I know some of the faces and names at the receiving end of the blogosphere’s ire.

Now I’m on my way back to England. While I am of course sad to be leaving Vancouver, I don’t have the usual post-conference ennui. I feel satisfied. I’m looking forward to getting home where I hope I’ll have some time to reflect on some of the things I discussed with the intelligent and passionate people at Web Directions North.

Web Directions North, day two

Day two of Web Directions North went just as smoothly and wonderfully as day one. Kelly kick-started the day in typically inspiring style. After that, delegates were faced with the geek equivalent of Sophie’s choice: to attend a double bill of Adrian Holovaty and Craig Saila or a double bill of George Oates and Paul Hammond?

In the end I opted for Paul and Oates over journalism. No doubt the Adrian/Craig set-up was just as impressive but the Flickr talk blew me away. Then again, I can’t be objective about this stuff: the subject matter interests me so much that I could listen to it for days.

After lunch, I had the great pleasure of introducing Steffen Meschkat and Ducky Sherwood. Their presentations made me realise just how much of a map geek I really am.

The conference was wrapped up by Jared Spool and really, it doesn’t get much better than that. What an outstanding speaker!

And just like that… it’s over.

I’ve been to a fair few conferences by now and this one ranks amongst the best. The organisation was superb, the speakers were great and most of all, the people were smart and fun. May this be the first of many WDNs.

Web Directions North, day one

The first day of Web Directions North just wrapped up and what a day it was.

Everything went super-smoothly right from the get-go with some opening remarks from the ever-sauve Dave Shea followed by some very entertaining audience participation led by Molly. Her Crimes Against Web Standards presentation was punctuated with hilarious video cliplets from Eric Meyer and others.

After that, I did my talk which went pretty well. As I said at the outset, I was covering the basic Ajax stuff to set the scene for Derek. I was John The Baptist to his Jesus Christ.

Once that was done, I had a long lunch in the rotating restaurant on the nineteenth floor of the hotel… if only the damn fog would lift a little bit more.

The afternoon was spent luxuriating in the microfromats presentation from John, Dan and Tantek followed by Joe Clark in scintillating form. He conducted a fireside chat and had the audience in the palm of his supple hand. He gave us a scoop by unveiling his call to Tim Berners-Lee to scrap WCAG 2. Quelle surprise.

Now I’m kicking back with a beer courtesy of Adobe and meeting some great people. All in all, a great day. May tomorrow go equally smoothly.

Web Directions North, day zero

I’m in Vancouver… at least, I think I’m in Vancouver. It’s so foggy that none of the distinctive landmarks are visible. I’ve been told that there are glorious mountains around here but I haven’t seen them yet.

The flight was fine. It was long but punctuated with a decent selection of movies. I’m always in a quandary when it comes to movies on airplanes. I don’t want to watch anything too good because it’s not exactly the best viewing environment. At the same time, I don’t want to watch any old crap. So on this flight, I watched Flags of Our Fathers, which was too good for airplane viewing, Marie Antoinette which was just crap, and The Illusionist which was just right for in-flight entertainment.

Once I landed and got to the hotel, I met up with Cindy and Dan who graciously kept me company while I went out for a bite to eat.

I went to bed at a reasonable hour but of course I was up ludicrously early this morning. I’ll probably need to take a nap later today. In the meantime, I’ll be imbibing some of the local coffee.

There are workshops going on today. I was thinking of flitting in and out of them all day but I fear that a jetlag-induced nap might be misconstrued as boredom.

If the fog clears, I’ll head out and take pictures. I’d probably be tempted to spend the day re-agonising over my slides but that isn’t an option. Andy is using my iBook for his presentation because his Macbook is on the fritz (I’ve borrowed Cindy’s laptop to write this). Combined with the fact that my mobile phone doesn’t seem to work here, I’m feeling distinctly disconnected.

Vancouver mover

My bags are packed with winter clothing in preparation for some post-conference skiing or possibly snowboarding in Whistler. The conference is of course Web Directons North, the Canadian counterpart to the superb Australian event.

The line-up looks amazing. I feel very honoured to be speaking at the conference. I’ll be talking about Ajax once again, but this time I won’t be alone. Derek and I will be teaming up to give a double-whammy of Ajax and accessibility in a two-hour long session.

Originally we were planning to do lots of rapid-fire segments, switching between speakers regularly. That turned out to be a little tricky to organize so we decided to do two separate but interconnected talks instead. I’ll be laying the groundwork, explaining Ajax and flogging my Hijax hobbyhorse. Derek will take over from there and do the real hard work: making Ajax applications work with assistive technology.

As usual, I’ve been fretting about the presentation and agonising over my slides but I think I’ve got things in a more-or-less finished state now. I’m just glad I’m on early on the first day—I’ll be able to relax afterwards and enjoy the rest of the conference. The only difficulty will be deciding which sessions to attend when there are two tracks of talks.

I’ll get the bus to Heathrow tomorrow and then I’ll spend nine and a half hours on the flight to Vancouver. I won’t be alone. Veerle will be on the same flight. She was supposed to fly out today—Andy and Molly were able to make the flight—but a fog-bound London prevented her making her connection. At least now we can keep each other company on the flight out and agonise about our respective slides together.

If you’re going to be at Web Directions North, I’ll see you there. If you can’t make it, expect plenty of Twittering and Flickring from Vancouver over the next few days.

Time and motion

One year ends. Another begins. This is the traditional time to cast one’s gaze downwards towards one’s navel as Mark, Jonathan and Tom have already done.

There appears to be a meme circulating wherein the past year is tallied by places visited. This dovetails neatly with one of my busiest travel years yet so I’m going to run with it:

The highlight was visiting Australia. That really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was also a New Year’s resolution I was very happy to have fulfilled.

I’ll be reliving some of that Web Directions magic this year, but in Canada this time. I’ve never been to Vancouver and I’m really looking forward to it. By the way, if you’re still wavering about whether to go to this fine conference, take note that you have been granted a reprieve: the discount pricing has been extended to January 14th, so waver no more.

With Web Directions North looming, and South by Southwest still to come, 2007 is already shaping up to be another fun and busy year. It looks like this will be the year that I finally make it San Francisco.

In between the travelling, I anticipate that I’ll be doing more a lot more work with Clearleft. I spent most of 2006 slacking off real work by writing another book (more on that soon). This year, I want to sink my teeth back into some design work. I can feel my skills atrophying from too much writing and talking and not enough doing.

This year’s resolutions are:

  • to get back to some “real” work,
  • to keep travelling and speaking (I do love it so!),
  • to not write a book,
  • to play more bouzouki.

That last one is probably as unrealistic as “to get in shape” but I’m including it to induce the feelings of guilt required to motivate me.

Northwest passage

Web Directions North in Vancouver is shaping up to be the conference highlight of next year. I’m extremely happy that I’ll be speaking. If it’s just half as good as its Australian predecessor it will be awesome in its rockitude.

‘Scuse my usage of words like “awesome” and “rockitude” but I’m trying to get in the mood for the aprés-conference weekend of snowboarding. Sound good? Why don’t you join me.

You’ve got a couple of options for securing a ticket (aside from the obvious option of actually buying one). If you’re quick off the mark, you can just about make the closing deadline for the competition from Digital Web magazine:

To win, submit your very own snowboard design! In the grand tradition of pro snowboarders and classic boardsmiths like Burton, Lib Tech, and Sims, we invite you to put your design skills into the most radical snowboard ever! Make it geeky, make it awesome, make it classic—whatever you want, it’s your design.

There are already some great entries. Even if you don’t win a ticket, there are tons of runner-up prizes.

The other way of earning a ticket is very cool indeed. You can participate in the Web Directions affiliate program:

Join our affiliate program and get 4 people to sign up for the conference and we’ll give you a free ticket for youself.

All you need to do is get your unique affiliate URL from us, and then you can spread the word in whatever way you think is right for you.

This is an excellent idea and something I’d like to see more conferences offer. It’s a great way to ensure that enthusiastic, passionate bloggers get to attend, regardless of their financial situation. Seeing this kind of innovation three months before the event bodes well for the conference itself.