Webstock: An Extraordinary (Un)Conference

I recently had an argument with a fellow non-New Zealander who disagreed with me about how innovative New Zealanders are.

It went something like this:

Me: “Look at that, she’s making a business from broken china. I love how innovative kiwis are.”

Him: “No they’re not.

Me: “Yes they are”.

Him. “They *think* they are, but they’re not.”

Me: “Two words for you: Number 8 Wire.”

Him: “That’s three words.”

Me: “Shut up.”

Him: “Kiwis are too isolated to be innovative.”

Me: “That’s total crap! How the heck do you think they became so innovative? They were forced to innovate because of tyranny of distance, to quote Tim Finn.”

Him: “Who’s Tim Finn?”

Me: “Please tell me you’re joking.”

Him: “Is that someone you met on Twitter?”

Me: “#%%**&^!!”

Him: “Ok, so name some innovations that came from New Zealand.”

Me: “I already did.”

Him: “Something not related to farming.”

Me: “SilverStripe. Weta Workshops…”

Him: “Not…”

Me: “The first iPhone app in the world.”

Him: “I didn’t…”

Me: “Jet boats… bungy jumping… Pavlova.”

Him: “That’s not an innovation, that’s a dessert”.

Me: “A very innovative and complex dessert”.

Him: “You’re kidding.”

Me: “Xero software… America’s Cup yachts.”

Him: “You’re forgetting the long drop toilet.”

Me: “The long drop toilet….”

Him: “Oh come on!”

Me: “Ski planes, egg beaters and… ooh! I know – Webstock.”

Him: “Ok, fine. You win.”

And that’s pretty much why I’m here in Wellington this week. Webstock is as much a celebration of kiwi ingenuity and bravado as it is a web conference.

As I recently learned from the article Raising Webstock, the whole she-bang started out as a bunch of geeks meeting at the library to discuss web standards. This progressed into regular gigs featuring guest speakers, which in turn led to discussions about organizing a proper web conference to be held in New Zealand.

But organizers Mike Brown and Natasha Lampard were insistent that it should be less of a formal conference and more of a geek love-in where they could meet and mingle with Internet legends. Rejecting advice from important conference types, in true Kiwi spirit, they forged ahead with their ingenious plan.

According to legend (well @hadyngreen anyway) during discussions over a few wines one night, Natasha announced:

“Fuck it, let’s get Tim Berners-Lee!”

And get him they did. Berners-Lee opened the inaugral Webstock in 2006 via video link up and the rest is history. Serendipity may have played a role, but so did balls. This joyous combination has created the world’s best unconference that is now in its 6th year.

I don’t say *world’s best* lightly. I’ve attended bags of web conferences and I can assure you that Webstock is the finest of them all. You don’t attract speakers like Amanda Palmer, John Gruber, Ze Frank, Bruce Sterling and Merlin Mann without a radical reputation. And you don’t get speakers like David Recordon, Tom Coates, Amy Hoy and Michael Lopp coming back year after year unless you offer an incredible experience.

And it’s the experience of attending that I get the most from Webstock. Not so much the content of the presentations, although they are usually incredibly inspiring. But no, it’s the thrill of being part of something extraordinary that I cherish the most about Webstock. It’s the only conference I know of where the buzz starts at least a month early – or at least that’s when I feel the need to create a dedicated TweetDeck column for the #webstock hashtag.

Everything about Webstock screams Geek Cool. The barista coffee bar on site, the all-you-can-eat Kapiti icecreams, the grapefruit and lemon Frujus (a new addition for 2011), the Lego building stations, the massage chairs, the luxurious swag, the trading card game, not to mention the incredible after (and after-after) parties. Absolutely no corners are cut for this event and attendees couldn’t be happier. I’ve seen complete strangers high-five each other in the street when they spot matching Webstock gear.

This year’s programme reads like geek viagra. To top off the impressive speaker list, Mike and Natasha have somehow convinced Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley to not only deliver presentations, but also to provide a private concert *just* for Webstockers at the Friday evening wrap party. News of this was enough to make me pay a change-fee penalty and switch my flight home to Saturday.

Such is the prize of being a Webstocker that two Aussie IT guys, desperate to attend after the 2011 event had sold out, turned to begging online this week for help in sourcing the elusive golden tickets.

I feel their pain. I truly didn’t understand how very much Webstock inspires me until I had to miss 2010. I could only watch jealously from afar, scanning the tweetstream, trying to understand the back channel jokes, hanging out for twitpics from the ONYAs, oohing and aahing at the dodgy YouTube version of the amazing $40K light show I’d missed. I was absolutely GUTTED not to be there. And I think my level of guttedness made me love Webstock even more.

So hand me the pavlova – I’m back for the love-in.

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