San Francisco. A cathedral to geekdom. The aisle of Market Street divides the city in two. The spire of the Transamerica Pyramid soars through the fog. The city rests on the San Andreas fault, a bedrock as safe and secure as the new economy. Erstwhile home to the gold rush of ‘48, San Francisco is now the epicentre of a whole different land grab.
I showed up on the weekend and spent a few days with Cindy checking out the street art in San Rafael, sampling some excellent sushi and making a fool of myself on the Wii. By Monday morning I had transferred over to Port Zero and together with Tantek, I headed out to the opening of Supernova 2008.
This was a very different conference to my usual diet of design and development. There was a definite whiff of “thought leaders” in the air, tinged with the odor of entrepreneurs and consultants. The day got off to a good start with the inimitable Clay Shirky followed by Esther Dyson. Things took a bit more of a corporate twist when Rob Iannucci from Nokia began boasting of the company’s market share. My usual reaction to hearing these kinds of statistics is the same as seeing the latest music or movie charts — to me, it all just reinforces Sturgeon’s Law.
The downward spiral continued with a panel devoted to television and advertising, two crappy flavours that taste crappy together. I don’t hate these subjects because they are outdated and doomed;I hate them because they are boring. Once again, Buzzword Bingo saved the day. At least three people in the front row (myself, Tantek and Kevin) were shooting buzzword fish in a buzzword barrel to save us from having to gnaw our own legs off.
Then, just when I thought that things couldn’t sink any lower, Arrington The Hutt waddled on stage, sucking the last remaining vestiges of cool from the room, leaving only a slime trail for attendant VCs to eagerly lap up. But at the last moment, the day was saved with the utterance of those two magical words: “free booze.”
Day two was very different. It started off with one of the best panels I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend. BJ Fogg expertly moderated the clumsily-titled People: What We Know, and What it Means? featuring Charlene Li, Eszter Hargittai and Elizabeth Churchill. Not only were all three excellent speakers, but they also brought a wealth of research with them to support their findings on user behaviour. The panel was entertaining and stimulating; the perfect antidote to the previous day’s channelling of Adam Smith by Rob Iannucci, who was convinced that all motivations were transactional in nature …a creepy, misguided viewpoint that completely fails to account for the rich tapestry of emotions that drives our activities.
The afternoon was taken up with a themed track of talks called Open Flow which had been put together by Tantek. In a nod to the spirit of openness, he projected a backchannel onto the wall: any Twitter postings containing the words “supernova2008 open flow.” Ariel and I rickrolled it just once or twice.
Tantek took the moderation reins for a panel entitled Whose Social Graph?, a title that prompted an absent Zeldman to propose
a breakout session on advanced webcockery, my favourite comment of the day. The panel featured Kevin from Google and Dave Morin from Facebook, very deliberately separated by Joseph from Plaxo. Tantek pulled up David’s blog post entitled It Seems that Google and Facebook Still Can’t Get Connected and watched the sparks fly. Arguments around privacy and terms of service were tossed back and forth between Dave and Kevin until Dave finally played the lawyer card and refused to discuss the situation any further.
I was due to moderate the final panel and, much as I like to stir the shit when I’m the gamesmaster, I knew I could never follow the perfect shitstorm that Tantek had so cleverly whipped up. I could, however, have some fun.
A few times during his panel, Tantek confused Google’s Friend Connect with Facebook’s Friend Finder …or maybe it was Frend Feed? Anyway, it’s an easy mistake to make. It seems that most of the hippest new technologies are named by simply combining positive-sounding words like “connect”, “friend” or “open”. So while the other panels were still going on, I hacked together The Social Buzzword Generator (it seems to have tickled the funny bone of at least one journalist at the Wall Street Journal).
When it was time for my panel, I debuted the buzzword generator and also pulled up buzzword bingo, encouraging the audience to play along with both toys. The panel was called Bottom-Up Distributed Openness and I had Tantek, David, Chris and Leah lined up. The order of the line-up reflected the age of each technology I had them speak about:
- Tantek described microformats—three years old this week.
- David talked about OpenID—less than two years old.
- Chris gave the skinny on OAuth—a specification since November.
- Leah described oEmbed—just a few weeks old.
I was interested in finding the commonalities and differences between all these communities. As we delved into the inner workings of each one, it became clear that they were all “open” but to a deliberately limited degree. But that’s no different than, say, the open source movement. It’s clear that Linus Torvald’s contribution to Linux is going to count more than a complete stranger’s. I posited the idea that it was no different for each of the panelists in their respective communities. The term “benevolent dictatorship” was tossed around. A comment on Twitter summmed it up nicely:
Open is as open does.
All in all, it was a good panel and a good day. Best of all, there was a visual journalist on hand throughout the afternoon, doodling all the ideas and connections that were flowing.
So Supernova was a bit of a mixed bag overall but when it opened up to real people who genuinely had something worthwhile to say, rather than company shills pitching their products, it really shone. Kevin put a lot of work into organizing this conference and it was a pleasure to be a part of it. In some ways, Supernova is the perfect reflection of San Francisco …warts and all.