Webstock: Wellington gets down to serious interweb business

By Mark Webster

Belgian artist Regine Debatty says she has become disenchanted with interactivity. Photo / Supplied
Belgian artist Regine Debatty says she has become disenchanted with interactivity. Photo / Supplied

Webstock – the annual pilgrimage for serious web and mobile developers all over New Zealand, and held in the rather sumptuous and central Wellington Town Hall, kicked off the conference section yesterday after three days of intensive workshops.

Webstock organiser Mike Brown did a keynote that started somewhat fuzzily about love but which finished with a great tie-in _– pictures of all the babies born to attendees nine months after the last event. This raised a laugh, and then the first speaker was introduced.

Scott Thomas designed the Obama print and media campaigns. This incredibly successful campaign tied together print, websites and social media to energise the campaign. It also raised millions of US dollars in campaign funds, so he received a keen and worthy listening.

Web designers are notoriously platform independent and (I thought) advocates for PCs, but of 50 laptops I could see (and one netbook), almost half (24) were MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

Of the presenters, only one (that I saw) did not use a Mac (Jeff Atwood).

What really shocked me, though, was how many people were broadcasting. In my OS X Shared sidebar, I counted 42 computers, both Macs and PCs.

Brian Fling, who I interviewed a couple of weeks ago for nzherald.co.nz, actually flashed the aforesaid article up on screen and said words to the effect that since he had 'said everything he wanted to say' in that, he wasn't really sure what to talk about now that he was here.

But his message, after a rather scattershot run-through of all sorts of messages and mediums, ended clearly – NZ innovators are creative and in a unique position to take their coding to the world.

Mobile will be huge, it's growing all the time and while acknowledging that developers seem to have trouble looking even one year ahead, we should be looking ten years ahead and doing it now. So get busy.

The third speaker was Lisa Herrod, about designing for diversity. She's an Australian who started her working life as a sign language interpreter, then became involved with web design, specialising in making every website accessible to every potential user.

After lunch Esther Derby (from the US) discussed management, and the room seemed to be about 75 per cent managers going by the hands raised when she asked.

I hope they were listening, as my experience of management in New Zealand is overwhelmingly negative – shoddy or non-existant reporting structures, no or inconsistent analysis of data, decisions made on emotion rather than logic .. I could go on.

Derby pitched that management was about designing workflows, tailored to the 'design' context of Webstock. She stressed the need for monitoring and reporting and noted it's incredible how long companies proceed off track without knowing.

Also, managers should know precisely when the work is 'done' – in other words, having an agreed on definition of what 'done' means, and the work as differentiated from the term 'tasks'.

She also mentioned strategies for managers to deal with people bringing bad news. Basically, it was all common sense, and should have been obvious - except my own experience hadn't taught me otherwise.

Shelley Bernstein from the Brooklyn Museum gave a wonderful, absorbing talk about making museums accessible, both in reality and online.

One particularly refreshing feature of her talk was 'transparent' museum twitter feeds that let you know who is writing, and that mention bad news (facing spending cuts) as well as good news (upcoming exhibitions, things revealed by studies etc).

This adds an immediacy often missing from the traditional museum context (for example, a mummy that went through a CAT scan to reveal it was male, when for decades it had been assumed to be female).

Another cool venture was setting up two MacBooks with YouTube Kiosk so people could add their own video feedback, which was then broadcast to the world, a particularly poignant exercise alongside an exhibition of well known black Americans.

Jeff Atwood gave an interesting and amusing talk about his Stack Overflow ('Social Software for the anti-social') site which seeks to collate and answer programmers' questions.

Programmers post queries and other programmers answer them. He said all programmers were the same to him, whether on Windows or Mac, by the way, and they really shouldn't waste energy on platform wars.

His site was successful quickly, but Atwood continued to improve it.

He added voting so programmers' peers could boost better or the most complete answers to the top, making answers much easier to find. Editing was then added to trusted (voted) posters.

Then flagging was added, so users could flag different articles, and tagging to assist searches and to group similar queries together.

All in all his system reminded me of the way ranks and tribes form in World of Warcraft – it engages the developer in a community of peer supporters where good code results in increased status for the coder.

He also stressed the importance of no registration and very fast entry, so busy people could comment as quickly as possible, calling this low-barrier to entry 'frictionless' blogging.

Stack Overflow is also revolutionary in that the trusted (by dint of peer boosting) users really are trusted – they can, at the topmost level, even edit and delete any other posts.

Regine Debatty (Belgium) said she normally speaks to those engaged in art and sociology, and is part of documentary making group examining the differences between the world's haves and have-nots.

She immediately captured the attention of the developers and managers assembled, of course, as did her Walloons accent.

Her site is called We Make Money Not Art, and she's a 3D artist with a long track record of involvement with interactive art.

But now she says she has become disenchanted with interactivity, largely because the interaction is actually so powerless despite its promise of power – in one example, exhibition attendees waved a hair dryer at an animation of a dandelion, and it interacted by having its petals (virtually) blow away. But what were attendees actually doing? Nothing, she says, just affecting a stream of data for no purpose.

She contrasted this with actual physical interactions – the example of Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal was utterly fascinating.

After his brother was killed at a checkpoint in Iraq, then seeing a woman soldier flying drones in his home country and launching lethal missiles but remotely, from the US, he set up an art installation in Chicago in which people could control a camera atop a paintball gun and actually shoot him with paint.

The site had over 80 million hits and suffered hack-attacks both designed to protect him and to further victimise him.

The other was a Yoko Ono exhibition in 1965 where onlookers were invited to cut off her clothes. New Yorkers were reticent while Londoners were so eager, security had to intervene!

Her point remained – interactivity online for the sake of it doesn't cut it.

Spoken word guy 'Rives' continued the theme of taking to 'not the usual audience'. The Southern Californian calls his website ShopliftWindChimes; and recounted his adolescent story of he and his friends stealing neighbours' wind-chimes and selling them at a flea-market, using the misbegotten profits to buy Rubik's Cubes (this being the 1980s).

He was a great last choice of the day as he referenced many of the speaker's contributions over the day, helping people to consider and reconsider the days' knowledge transfer.

Rives is interesting because he's a poet, and whereas I am normally critical of poetry (no matter how good some of it may be) because it's archaic and irrelevant to most people now, Rives is a poet and performance artist who harnesses the web and tech to propagate his art. For example, he performs spoken-word poetry in front of video he's shot (which he demonstrated for the bemused Webstockers).

He went on to talk about communication – interactivity with people who arrive at his own website. His perspective on the web from an end-user self promotion angle was well received.

He talked about the intensive one-times-removed, then-multiplied that the web facilitates – his example was showing us, in Wellington NZ, a screen grab of a YouTube video he posted years ago from a converted convent in France.

This was a film he made from a high window of a Swiss dancer and a Serbian dancer being filmed from ground level in turn by a Romanian film maker. Even more bizarrely, this was seen by a French cellular carrier and inspired an ad Rives starred in shot in Spain and Portugal for the French carrier's Romanian market.

What? Exactly.

Today, more on design, making lean and successful companies, the coup of having Kevin Rose who founded Digg here and then the Onya web awards.

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