Webstock 2012: Sex, death, tech and how to make $100m

By Mark Webster

Microsoft's Dana Boyd speaking at Webstock today. Photo / Mark Webster
Microsoft's Dana Boyd speaking at Webstock today. Photo / Mark Webster

Mike Brown started off with a strangely disturbing eulogy to himself, the co-organisers and Webstock, and the love of doing a good job and how important that was. I almost expected him to break into My Way.

'Love' is always a big theme at Webstock; I guess there's some kind of hippy connection (ie, Woodstock). But it always makes me smile, as nearly a thousand web developers/IT professionals/entrepreneurs/etc in a room and talks of 'love' from the main stages strikes me as incongruous.

Actually, apart from all the intellectual goodness at Webstock every year, incongruity is always present. Last year it was from watching the 1930's German erotica-styled Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls) talk about sex, technology and all the while swearing, struck me as challenging geek comprehension. Although that wasn't half so strange as Palmer trying to make them dance during a musical performance to end the event.

A year before that, I (and most others, I suspect) was astounded when Kevin Rose (founder of Digg) announced he was going to tell everyone how to raise US$100 million in venture capital. Basically, this meant working through one street of venture capitalists in California.

But a hundred thousand would have been much more apt, in a recession, in Wellington.

However, this incongruity is part of Webstock's charm - a part of that heady mix of presenters and their information designed to challenge these bright people, perhaps (and hopefully) thus inspiring them on to greater things.

There always seems to be an unspoken theme at Webstock. A couple of years ago it was mobile devices; before that, accessibility.

This year it seems to be history - a time of reflection. Speakers include type expert Jessica Hische, and iPad app designer Jennifer Brook after living in a treehouse for years and hand-creating books - and leather shoes.

Kathy Sierra was the first speaker - she has presented at Webstock before. Sierra carried on Mike Brown's tone of reflection. She even showed a picture of herself as a pro skateboarder in the 1970s, and glossed through a history of her game coding to where she is now.

Sierra said that social media has changed everything. True - changed everything for westerners rich enough to have computers, and powerful technology in their pockets, anyway. Social networks have sure had an impact on attention spans. A friend of mine sat through a Webstock seminar yesterday and afterwards was shocked to discover the presenter had been tweeting throughout the whole thing. Yes, the presenter! Some tweets were relevant, to the presentation, but others were inane, and this from an expert on "usable security and research methods for social media usability".

In the main hall, Sierra got people representing different skill sets to stand up - of course, soon the whole town hall was standing. This was a confidence building exercise, I guess. In this way, Webstock functions as a kind of team building exercise.

She made some excellent points, like "Don't make a killer app - make a killer user". She showed the star of Dexter as the killer user - I spotted him at an Auckland gig just a couple of months ago.

I liked her point that companies make glossy manuals to entice buyers, then fob them off with boring manuals once they buy. As a former game developer, Sierra talks about the 'gameification' of apps, technology and the way we interact with them.

She was very well received, the crowd lapped it up.

I used to do a count of how many Apple devices there were in the room. First it was 20 per cent, then it was 50, then 80... now I only see two or three PCs and glowing Apple logos everywhere. Apple won this fight, people. Almost all these experts are now are using Macs.

The following speaker was Jeremy Keith, an Irish-born web developer who works for the web consultancy firm Clearleft. Keith wrote the books DOM Scripting, Bulletproof Ajax, and most recently, HTML5 For Web Designers.

Keith talked abut the evolution of human ideas about time, communication networks and the invention of computing. I liked his talk - I got the impression (probably wrong) that many of the attendees had never heard of Babbage, Whitworth, Lovelace or Turing.

Now, Keith said, people are 'working for 'algorithms': if people build server farms to bounce more and faster market transactions, that is in effect what they are doing. For computers are handling our markets, making changes and adjustments at lightning speeds.

This sounded a little dark (SkyNet, anyone?) so Keith bought it back to the human transactions in the social networks. This is extremely important, for "The internet will forget our hopes and dreams."

Dana Boyd is from The Establishment (well, that's what Microsoft and the MacArthur foundation represent to me). That said, she looked young and funky. Boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard University's Berkman Center for internet and Society. She is currently co-directing the Youth and Media Policy Working Group, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Boyd "examines everyday practices involving social media, with specific attention to youth engagement", and recently co-authored Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.

Even that title reminds me of the Microsoft TV ad in which the kids capture dad dancing like a robot and woa, before you know it, the video is on the internet. Woah, crazy or what ...

Anyway, Boyd's talk was interesting. I liked her point that terrorists use fear to spread their ideology, while Western governments spread fear in order to justify harsher laws and more surveillance, and more control of, for example, file sharing and the internet. The media was mentioned, too: fear used as a marketing tool to increase emotional pull.

This was contrasted with the concept of Radical Transparency - the more honest information there is out in public, the better everything will be.

Oh yeah, and she ran her presentation from a Mac. Anyway, Boyd's bringing of fear into the debate has not been heard enough, and it was appreciated.

Egypt's part in the Arab Spring was also mentioned: Egypt is a vast country. Only a tiny proportion was online and part of the much-publicised spread of information through social networks.

Her final point was that power is now inside networks, whereas formerly it was hierarchical. "The technologies that we are building are shaping public life."

You can build tools but you can't control how people use them.

And that was the first part of Day One at Webstock.

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