Friday, 19 February 2016

Webstock 2016

Wellington's Webstock conference - which last week celebrated its 10th birthday - has been incredibly important to me. In a very real way, Webstock + Foo Camp (an annual invitation-only unconference held in Warkworth and headed by Nat Torkington) have been my second university education: places of deep learning, points of entry to communities of people who continue to enrich me, and insights that have shaped how I see and act in the world.

Mike Brown and Tash Lampard continue to craft Webstock with loving attention to every detail - an approach that years ago inspired me when I was working on the National Digital Forum conference: to host visiting speakers in such a way that they became our biggest international advocates; to build programmes that were consciously inclusive of gender, culture, and level of speaking experience; to encourage talks that dive deep into the technical details and talks that lift our eyes to our values and our aspirations; to care about icecream and coffee, because that means caring about manaakitanga.

I have grown up with Webstock. It's been slightly nostalgic and rather heartwarming to read blog posts (blog posts! like the olden days!) from first-time attendees, which describe how out of the ordinary this event is:

Taking stock: A first-timer's take on Webstock 2016
Webstock 2016: Wild, wonderful and 100% worth it
Webstock 2016 - Celebrating the web's values

I went back to Webstock this year for the first time since 2013. I went on my own dime, not The Dowse's, because I know that being in the museum sector for more than  three years now has narrowed my lens on the world, and I wanted to open that aperture back up with a flood of new perspectives delivered by the smartest people it's possible to gather in a room. 

Past Webstocks have dramatically widened my lens. Here's what I wrote about Webstock in 2008 (I think this would have been the first I attended). Here are the notes from just one workshop in 2009. In 2012 I was still banging away, writing about design and craft and finding your joy and strategic creativity

I have looked to Webstock for many things. There have been presentations by extremely smart people about how they do the work they do: my stand-out talk will always be Cal Henderson, then at Flickr, in 2008 on 'Building big on the web'. There are people like Heather Champ and Kathy Sierra, who showed me how to take a principled, imaginative and empathetic approach to your work. There have been presenters who showed me a vision of the socio-technical future - Matt Jones on 'The demon-haunted world' in 2009, Adam Greenfield on the networked environment in 2010. Webstock has historically been the place I go to find out what might be going to happen to our culture next.

As the conference, the organisers, and the industry has matured, there has been an increasing amount of reflection. Speakers like Bruce Sterling have been folded in to give us a bracing critique of the world digital technology is building; artists and activists have been invited as well to show us, perhaps, the signal that can still shine through the internet noise.

And there has been a trend towards speakers sharing their own personal reflections and learning. As speakers have been invited to return for repeat presentations, they have often moved from practitioner-based talks to more personal philosophical explorations: I think of Michael Lopp, Amy Hoy. At times, I have found these talks illuminating and moving. Matt Haughey in 2012, for example, gave a talk titled 'Lessons from a 40 year old' where he spoke about the personal cost of pursuing the start-up dream. But Derek Handley spoke that same year about 'Doing well and doing good', and that was when I began to tip. Handley is a successful entrepreneur, but I found his talk that year sophomoric - in the sense that I felt I had sat in the corridors of my university hostel and fiercely debated the same points with a bunch of 18 year-olds who had just encountered the principles of philosophical thinking.

This year at Webstock there were a number of presenters who spoke eloquently and passionately of the personal experiences that have shaped them. Their professional achievements formed the platform from which they spoke, but it was their own life stories that they primarily shared. And I found myself longing for the old days of the practitioner-led conference, when I would be lit up by people talking about what they had built, the how and the why, the challenge and the opportunity, and the principles - technical, aesthetic, social - that they followed.

Mulling on this, I wondered if the conference reflects the same evolution that is happening in museums, from education to engagement. Over the past ten years, I feel like I have seen a change in the way speakers approach their task: from the audience's expectation to be informed, to an expectation to not only be informed but moved. And certainly in the past Webstock has done that to me: I have been enlightened, enraged, moved to tears.

It's also worth noting that a single-stream format (rather than the multi-streams staged when the conference was at the Town Hall) mean less opportunity to split off niche topics into smaller rooms. I certainly noticed this year that the Webstock audience has diversified: it seems younger (though maybe I'm just older), more equal in its gender split, and less programmer-heavy (she says, judging primarily by clothing cues, but also conversations I had with people). A diverse audience is terrific, but it also possibly means that presenters feel the need to make their talks less technical in order to appeal to the most people possible. This certainly happened with CSS expert Harry Roberts who, instead of delivering a technical talk, felt he needed to give a more accessible talk, and wound up with a grab-bag of travel tips, cocktail lessons, and British pop-music. This was a case where even though I wouldn't have fully comprehended a deep dive into CSS, I think I still would have learned more than I did from his generic presentation. 

It's safe to say that I have changed more than Webstock has. For one thing: when I worked in government, I badly needed that annual lifting of spirits and ambitions that Webstock provided me with - that sense, communicated by all those posts listed above, of being part of a community that aspired to being a better force in the world than simply adding more apps and websites to the internet. Today, my life is pretty much exclusively devoted to questions about how to support artists, how to create meaningful encounters between people and art and history, how to build a team culture based on excellence and generosity, how to make a difference locally, regionally and nationally. It is demanding and enriching and so very worthwhile, and I know not everyone gets to say that about their source of income.

Secondly, events in my own life mean that currently, I'm not a good audience for talks about overcoming challenges and living a better life. Having been through this process over the past nearly four years myself, it's not that I can't empathise: it's more that I want recovery and resilience and remaking of personal identity to be less of a focus in my own life.

Writing the above - and struggling to find the right tone - showed me that Webstock is truly more than a conference: no mere conference makes you question how you've changed over the past decade. Having said that, this year I found I had to sift harder to find the nuggets that will expand my thinking. Several of the talks that I have chewed over most vigorously - both inside my own head and through haranguing friends at the conference - were not ones where I learned something that will significantly enlarge my thinking, but ones where I disagreed with the speaker's central premise. A couple of talks gave me a few bright moments of insight. Two really stood out.

Here are my notes - the Webstock speaker blurb appears in italics first for longer entries.

Short takes (small insights from a variety of talks)

Heather B. Armstrong - the creator of talked about how her career as a writer who makes her living online has evolved (and impacted on her children and her ethics). Armstrong startd her 'mommy blog' in 2001. In 2005 she joined Federated Media, who placed banner ads on the site - within a few years she was making enough from this advertising to support herself, her family, and a staff of four. From 2009 onwards, with the rise of Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat, and the mainstreaming of Facebook - all systems designed to keep you within their content walls - the bottom has fallen out of the web advertising industry, and now her income is in sponsored content. I've thought quite a lot about how the broadcast of the web is turning into the narrowcast of fragmented channels, but not from the point of view of someone who makes their living from their online production.

On a side-note, I noticed that the Twitter stream for #webstock was quite quiet, and talks that in my past experience would have raised controversy or condemnation were largely skimmed over. This made me wonder if negative opinions (or even just most group conversations) have moved over to Slack or back to texting over the time I've been out of the loop. It may also be that the seating in the venue (St James Theatre) is less conducive to having your laptop open and therefore less typing goes on.

Luke Wroblewski - spoke about screen time, the freakish increases in the sheer amount of glass screens sold year on year, and designing for the diversity of screen sizes out there. He also told the story of Corning Glass's 'Gorilla Glass', the ultra-light, ultra-strong glass used for the first iPhone screen, which originated in 1952 when a malfunctioning temperature gauge lead to a kiln being run 300 degrees hotter than intended and a new form of synthetic glass ceramic being discovered. My lightbulb moment with Wroblewki's talk wasn't from his ideas about responsive design or even the startling stat that 50% of download traffic in the States is attributed to Netflix and Youtube combined: it was that I have high awareness of the Corning Museum of Glass, due to its refurbishment and extension last year, but the fact that the museum was established in 1951 by a glass-making company had completely passed me by.

Michael Lopp - a 5th-time speaker at Webstock, Lopp noted at the start of his talk that he had again decided to talk about poetry not practice. His talk however was about the practice of writing, for his own blog and books. I was impressed by the rigour with which he approaches writing: 5-6 hours of writing for a 1000 word post, 1-2 hours of editing, and an external reviewer. I empathised with his starting-writing process, which is very much like mine (make your second cup of coffee, open a buttload of browser tabs, and read until something ticks up in your brain that you need to investigate further yourself). But most of all I took away from his talk his conscious commitment to writing, and the satisfaction and utility he finds in committing to turning inchoate thoughts into a coherently arranged argument. This chimed with my own renewed commitment to thinking through things on this site. Now to squeeze in that editing time ...

Askew One - Graffiti and the Internet

Askew’s talk centres around the relationship graffiti has had with the internet – both good & bad. Where graffiti was a very localised phenomena pre-internet, various online platforms have enabled it to thrive and evolve, and enabled people, like himself from an isolated country, to have an international career.

Askew One (aka Elliott O'Donnell) showed me the recent history of Auckland through the lens of abandoned and run-down infrastructure of bus depots and train tracks, remade in the pre-internet age as a place to travel, congregate, and express yourself through visual imagery. (I could say 'pre-internet tumblr' but that would be glib compared to the depth with which he spoke.) His ideas about graffiti as a mode of transmission - of South Auckland as a bright bead in a necklace of connected cities around the Pacific Rim - and how the internet has amplified and enhanced (and occasionally detracted from) this transmission, would make a freaking awesome exhibition.

Anab Jain - Rockets of India

A few months ago I roamed the streets of India with tiny Mars probes, speaking to strangers about space missions, aliens, climate change and nationalism. It was the start of a thrilling adventure exploring the history and future of India’s space program within the context of global geopolitics, militarization and cultural imperialism. From astronauts to afronauts, from cosmonauts to vyomanauts, how can deep space exploration inspire us to create more democratic future visions?

This was *the* presentation of the conference for me. I can't even pretend to have absorbed let alone understood everything. But this is what I took out of it (for now, and until I re-watch the presentation).

I have been thinking a lot, over the past six months, about how Western the values of the mainstream web and web culture are: personal exceptionalism, massive growth, reducing the friction of everyday life. Even all the extremely well-intentioned, and often necessary, drives for inclusion result more in making space for the 'outsider' in the mainstream, not changing the mainstream's core aspirations or assumptions. (I think of how a speaker I heard at MOMA last year, a black lesbian feminist academic who studied hip hop, told the audience that 'Capitalism takes our difference and sells it back to us'. I can't stop thinking about that sentence.)

In her talk, Jain showed us - among other things - how different cultures in different countries have imagined space travel and undertaken space missions, focusing on India (where she was born). The audience giggled when she showed a photo of a space probe being moved in a ox-drawn cart, but I saw something I was hungry for: a glimpse of another way of making the future.

Jain also observed that space programmes are moving from being nation-state aspirations to private endeavours: Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos. This observation joined itself in my mind to James Surowiecki's New Yorker column 'In defence of philanthrocapitalism', where he wrote:
Philanthropies, by contrast, have far-reaching time horizons and almost no one they have to please. This can lead them to pour money into controversial causes, as Zuckerberg has with education reform. But it also enables them to make big bets on global public goods. There is a long history of this: the Rockefeller Foundation funded the research that produced a vaccine for yellow fever. The Gates Foundation, since its founding, in 2000, has put billions of dollars into global health programs, and now spends more on health issues than the W.H.O. 
It’s been suggested that if we just taxed billionaires more there’d be more money for promoting social projects globally. But it’s far likelier that those projects would just go underfunded.
That article broke my mind: by which I mean, an easily-made assumption got challenged by a new idea and my thinking was better for it. Likewise, Anab Jain gave me a new lens for looking at the world around me, and that is what I go to Webstock for.

Nick Gray - Museums are F***ing Awesome

A lot of people do not enjoy museums. Some millennials find them old, boring, irrelevant and lacking in entertainment. Museum Hack is a company from New York City out to change all of that. The live, in-person guided adventures that Museum Hack produces are advertised as “Not your Grandma’s museum tour” and have become a top way to experience some of America’s best museums. Big companies like Google and eBay and Facebook regularly hire Museum Hack to produce their company events at museums in NYC and San Francisco. Museums have also been collaborating with Museum Hack for workshops, consulting, and membership work.
Nick will talk about how he started Museum Hack, what makes his tours different from all other museum experiences, and why museums matter. Note: This speech contains adult language. Like fuck.

To be honest, I went into Webstock primed to hate all over this presentation. As it was, I found Gray to be a delightful presenter and a very powerful storyteller.

The way I look at it, Museum Hack is an example of private enterprise making use of the museum-as-platform: the buildings, artworks, and existing research and interpretation as effectively an API that Museum Hack calls on to run their paid-for tours and team building exercises. Gray noted that last year the company made $1.3M and returned $200K to museums, but it was unclear whether this was simply in entrance fees, or whether there was an additional payment being made (effectively like venue hire).

I think this is a healthy model (healthier if the payment being made to the museum is more than just counting admission fees). One American museum professional I talked to recently about the company regarded them as a threat - Museum Hack has moved into an market (young, affluent, urban, disinterested) we should be in ourselves. Personally, I see the company as taking on the risk (staffing and marketing and R&D costs vs revenue) that we could not, so more power to them. The kicker is that while we focus on access for people who face other barriers to access than lack of interest (lack of awareness, geographical distance, the lower socio-economic pointers associated with lower use of community facilities, a sense of genuine exclusion), Museum Hack is homing in on the audience that might help us pay our way in the future. This may mean the key is actually in the handover, in trying to convert the Museum Hack attendee into an independent museum-goer.

However. A big key to the marketing drive of Museum Hack is downgrading the museum brand (old, stuffy, boring, disconnected) to promote their own product (fun! communal! active! irreverent!). I'm just so over this dumbass dichotomy that, as the kids say, I can't even. Could you please just quit negging on us already?

Anna Pickard - Bug Fixes & Minor Improvements, Writ Large (aka Humorous Self-Flagellation and the Multiple Benefits of Being Old On The Internet)

Somehow, improbably, the release note — that little space used by apps to describe their latest updates – has become a remarkable, human way for the creators of software to communicate with their users, and Slack (where Anna words*) has been at the forefront of the movement to turn that microcopical nugget of technical documentation very few people bother reading into (basically) a new literary genre. This little revolution didn’t happen by accident though: it’s the result of a fortunate series of events, a short list of values about how to behave as a company, and a long trail of people feeling out what it means to be oneself on the interweb.

Anna Pickard was like old-skool Webstock for me. In talking about how Slack uses the release note to communicate with users in ways that surprise, delight and inform, she took us right inside Slack's values and how these values permeate every decision and interaction. In talking about how every time we find a new place to write things down, it changes how we write, she reminded me how my own writing had its own series of growth spurts with blogging, web content crafting, and tweeting. In the end, Pickard reminded me that what I learned from writing on the web was, ironically, to be as human as I can be. 

1 comment:

Mike Riversdale said...

Thanks for posting that Courtney, it was insightful and most helpful to me.