Webstock: Content, code, ninjas and typefaces

By Mark Webster

John Gruber presents a potted history of the Mac GUI at Webstock. Photo / Mark Webster
John Gruber presents a potted history of the Mac GUI at Webstock. Photo / Mark Webster

Webstock; the main conference, launched with an introduction by organiser Mike Brown, with his talk being translated into deaf language.

While this follows the accessibility credo that's always been a vital cornerstone of the Webstock philosophy, and while deaf language is an official New Zealand language (deservedly so) - so is Maori.

First speaker Frank Chimero talked about 'digital campfires'; his basic shtick is that 'content' is a pretty dry web phenomenon unless it deals with stories.

I did my first count of digital devices - 38. Of these, only six were not Macs - but I will do another count later.

The second speaker was Michael Koziarski, a Kiwi. He joked that the speakers were introduced as coming from all around the world, while he got here on the Number 1 bus.

He's a Ruby On Rails developer - I thought this was funny because a few years ago at Webstock a guy from Austria did such an outrageously disingenuous pitch on RoR that there was open laughter - obviously, there were some takers, though.

Mark Pilgrim (I unfortunately missed Christine Perfetti as I was interviewing Josh Clark in a side room) was dry and quiet yet surprisingly entertaining in his talk about HTML and accessibility, although I was the only one in the room who laughed when he said that 99.9 per cent of web browsers were Firefox and Explorer users on Windows. In your CSS3-formatted dreams, Mr Pilgrim.

But hey, considering he was talking to developers about code, he did a good, informative and entertaining job.

Jason Webley the accordionist did a rousing number after lunch that was very well received, although I missed his talk before that. I wondered if he was here due to his surname (which is something I get accused of) and then the Webstockers split into a breakout room while some stayed back for Jason Santa Maria on web typography. I stayed for this - I used to work for Australasia's largest typographic house and I've retained an interest. It was good, I thought, that the audience seemed to be taking what he said on board.

Santa Maria is here for the third time, from Brooklyn. He's creative director at Typekit, a founder of Mighty, he lectures and a lot more.

Santa Maria's message was well received and I'm glad. Like he said, "There's a lot of shit out there."

The breakout session was with Nicole Sullivan (CSS Tools for Massive Websites).

After lunch, I counted 38 laptops and devices - three iPads, eight were PCs (including the guy from Idealog). This is a massive turnaround. At my first Webstock four years ago, only 20 per cent of the devices on view were Macs. Last year, it was more like 50 per cent. Now it's ... much higher.

I always figured these coder types liked machines they could run as HTML writers, CSS scripters etc, and that price and performance were the drivers.

Now it seems either that these web people just have way more money than they used to, or that they are just more fashionable these days, or that Macs can really do everything they expect. Or a combination. (But I'm curious.)

Kristina Halvorson from Minneapolis was extremely entertaining, talking about content and communication. Like Frank Chimero, she used Wal E as an example, but concentrated on the amount of junk he had to deal with in Pixar's animated film, likening that to what people who browse the web have to deal with.

She went on to the type of disconnect that happens in web companies - large project team but with the web content writer out on a limb, presented with all the material at the last minute to wrangle into publishable content.

Her message was that web projects need a content strategy, including dealing with what happens to content once it's up. "The phenomenon of post-and-forget has to end!"

Halvorson finished with a picture of her book 'Content Strategy': "This is for you. I give you this weapon. Use it!" (It was on sale in the lobby and people were queuing up.)

Her spiel was good, adroitly delivered with the timing of a stand-up comedian. I hope people were listening (it did seem they were).

John Gruber took the stage and attempted a history of the Apple Graphical User Interface. He immediately made a good point - "If you couldn't see it on screen, you couldn't do it." Before the GUI (which Apple did not invent but which did bring to a commercial platform, I tediously repeat) you typed code and the computer could execute whatever it could execute. ('Execute' being an apt word.)

Gruber pointed out that the cornerstone of Apple's interface was consistency. This made it easier to learn new software, as it fitted with the Human Interface Guidelines Apple published.

It's interesting to think that this talk may have fallen flat last year, and would certainly have fallen flat at Webstock three years ago, but this time around, with so many Mac users palpably in the room, it found a large and receptive audience.

OS X by the Unix guys Jobs bought with him when he came back to Apple broke this code - every OS X version had a different style, whereas OS1-6 pretty much stayed the same.

But Gruber also pointed out the fundamental changes - with iOS, for example, people are skinning their apps any way they want, and it's fine.

Doug Bowman came on to talk about Delivering Delight - Mike Brown introduced him as one of the original inspirations for Webstock. Basically, web developers deliver many things but shouldn't forget the positive experience, big or small, because delightful experiences are memorable.

Amanda Palmer started out singing outside with a ukelele - it was video-fed onto the big screen, but timed out and stopped after just a couple of bars.

But she coped admirably. You could hear her approaching, singing - talk about a big voice! - and then she was on stage.

Palmer talked about her band the Dresden Dolls and how they had the usual label palaver - managers, agents, blah blah blah - and how now she runs everything herself via social media. She even gets her fans to bring food to her at her gigs sometimes!

She also organises 'NinjaGigs' - she tweets where she's going to busk and people show up depending on how many twitter fans she has in the area.

I guess the overall message was the immediacy social networking gives her, plus a strangely intimate, albeit en masse, engagement with her fans. But it takes a lot of work, and even Palmer employs people to lesson the load. I guess the difference is, she's employing them and they're doing what she wants, not what a label wants.

Brave new worlds.

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