Webstock: Making Magic and Other Stuff that Matters (Day Two)

webstock-logo-smlBelow is a continuation of my personal takeaways from Webstock 2013 presentations and how they fit into the three word mantra: Stuff That Matters. Day One coverage is over here.

The WordPress / Automattic interactive Haiku Wall

The WordPress / Automattic interactive Haiku Wall

winning haiku

The haiku that scored me a battery pack (thanks WordPress!)


Karen McGrane – Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content

Karen’s main point was that the web is not print. What worked for the desktop web simply won’t work for mobile. You can’t determine how your site will look in every browser, on every platform, on every device. So why are we still letting content authors decide where their content will “live” on a web page? Why do we give in to their demands for a WYSIWYG text editor that works “just like Microsoft Word”? Worst of all, why do we waste time and money creating and recreating content instead of planning for how that content is likely to be reused?

CMS is the enterprise software that UX forgot. In the next few years, organisations are going to realise that their CMS is broken. It’s not enough to shorten the content to make it fit. “Truncation is not a content strat…”. So many probs would be solved in mobile design if every website used headlines and decks, like news orgs use. Every time your staff are fighting with the system, rather than creating great content, you are losing money. Use the shift and focus towards the mobile web as a wedge to help review and challenge the poor existing content management strategies your organisation has.

The age of Stupid Print Dinosaurs is over. We need to adapt to creating more flexible content that can be pulled through into different mediums.

Key Takeaway: The medium matters.


Breakout time between sessions in Civic Square

Breakout time between sessions in Civic Square

Bruce Sterling – Dark Euphoria : What a feeling!

I’m not buying Bruce Sterling’s schtick anymore.  Anyone who saw him at Webstocks past recognised that he simply wheeled out the same lecture and simply replaced turtles with stacks as his metaphor of choice this year. Fun to watch the brain explosions from Webstock newbies around the room, but I didn’t find his group spanking particularly enlightening.

Bruce thinks we are in the depression era of the Web. It’s no longer the wild West, Web 2.0 is over. Now there are private castles and skycraper stacks in cyberspace and we are the livestock of the biggest stacks. We are being monetized and we are their product. Apple’s stacks look like Ivory towers washed with unicorn tears and we’re all fluffy pets of Zuckerberg.

At this point I left to go get ice-cream to avoid throwing myself off the gallery.

Key Takeaway: Nothing matters because we’re all going to DIE.


Tricia Wang – The Elastic Self: What Millions of Chinese Youth Tells Us about the Future of Online Identities and Social Media

Wow, this was a fascinating presentation and my next favorite behind the one given by Kelli Anderson. Tricia is a sociologist and researches how technology makes us human.  She spends weeks at a time at Internet cafes in China, studying the online habits of Chinese youth and is currently writing a book about the Internet as an expressive space for identity change in China.

Although the Internet is global, the experience of it is not universal. The way Chinese youth experience the Internet and US youth experience the Internet are poles apart. China has the largest population of internet users in the world. So what is it like to grow up digitally connected under an authoritarian regime?

The sudden availability of the internet in China, combined with open-market capitalism over the last decade has created a new social space and a new self has emerged, something Tricia calls the Elastic Self. Youth in China face unique risks by going online, which creates a unique set of behaviours.  They are closely monitored online and could potentially go to jail if they post the wrong thing. As a result, there are vast sociological impacts.

Searching for trivial information viewed as unpatriotic. Chinese sex education can consist of simply showing a video of pigs mating. This is confusing for young people in China and they naturally seek answers online. Chinese youth are more comfortable chatting online to strangers about their personal issues than they are with persons IRL.

Grass mud horse has a special meaning in China

Grass mud horse has a special meaning in China

Chinese youth go to extraordinary lengths to defy online censorship, using extraordinary innovation. Most operate under pseudonyms, or create dual identities – one more acceptable to the Communist regime and another *true* identity which they only reveal to their most trusted online friends. Ways they get around censorship include using an online service that converts text to a jpg image which is then embedded and cannot be scanned. Or posting wording that phonetically sounds like what they want to say (e.g. in Chinese, “Grass mud horse covering centre” sounds like “Fuck your mother, Communist party” without actually saying it).

What does this teach us about Internet use in the West? Just because we don’t operate under an Authoritarian regime, doesn’t mean we don’t censor ourselves online. We can’t make assumptions based on how users interact online, because we all operate as different versions of ourselves online. We are operating in a censored Internet, but we don’t recognize it because of our *democratic* propaganda machines.

Key Takeaway: Stuff that matters to me may not matter to you.


Webstock inspired API beer

Webstock inspired API beer, courtesy of Garage Project

Adam Greenfield – Another city is possible: The “smart city“ from above and below

The concept of the “smart city” has been introduced as a strategic device to encompass modern urban production factors in a common framework and to highlight the growing importance of Information and Communication Technologies, social and environmental capital in cities. IBM, Cisco, Siemens and LivingPlanIT all propose smart city definitions that don’t focus on citizens or else they speak in terms of an ideal, seamless framework.

Advocates of the so called smart city often have political motivations and commercial priorities that don’t gel with the society that it is being built for. Take Christchurch as a case in point. It is classed as a Greenfield site in that very large areas of the entire city are to be completely redeveloped.  Greenfield re-frames the smart city as a tool used by institutions of power to maintain their desired socio-economic boundaries.

Smart city proponents would pull the city into various urban developments that meet their own narrow definitions of a smart city, rather than let the urban areas develop organically in a way that meets the needs of residents. Adam sees this as a form of disaster capitalism at best – or at worst – corporate terrorism. Treating post-#eqnz Christchurch as a Greenfield site is deeply injurious to what the city has been and will be.

The real problem with the smart city is it has nothing to do with cities – corporations treat cities as an abstract terrain, not as places with histories that are animated and brought to life by its people. Building a city to represent a singular destiny/united goal is not going to work.

“Cities don’t have goals — what a strange anthropomorphism — people have goals.”

The idea of the Proximate Future where miraculous cookie-cutter solutions for the smart city will happen. What this really means is that the city lives in a consistent state of procrastination and awkwardness.

Another city is possible. Cities are made of people, not buildings. We are the city. Why not use daily activities, culture and history to plan a city that has meaning and value. This requires five necessary ingredients for a framework:

  • broadband connectivity, open and free.
  • smart personal devices.
  • open municipal data in useable formats, open APIs, reusable for low/no cost.
  • public interfaces, to bring data and broadband together, accessible to all 24/7.
  • cloud computing, for a robust infrastructure.

Key Takeaway: People, places and history matter.


Google Maps as watercolor artworks

Google Maps as watercolor artworks

Eric Rodenbeck – Drawing outside the lines: Data visualization done wrong

Eric founded Stamen design in 2001 and works in the field of live information visualization and data interpretation. Eric and his team managed the live twitter feeds during the MTV awards and various other live shows.

Data visualization and online mapping are rapidly achieving mainstream status and even have a bastard stepchild: infographics. We should be expressing data in a more graphic way. Think of Google maps as paintings. Anything can happen with data.  Building live structures is interesting as you don’t know what will happen next. For example during the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, the fatal luge crash happened, which entirely changed the tone of the Olympics Twitter feed.

Data visualisation makes data accessible and draws the eye to it. Think about the possibilities of data visualisation in your business. Live visualisation of occurring events, interactive maps to show connections and relationships between sets of data, custom cartography, even maps as art, like the watercolor Google maps that Stamen produce.

Imagine using data visualisation to track financial transactions on the stock market? That’s what Eric and his team have done. Dot sizes indicate transaction sizes, while colors indicate stock types, which makes riveting art and lends itself to interpretation. Data visualisation exposes rogue traders and mass robot trading on NASDAQ in glorious technicolor.

Key Takeaway: Data interpretation matters.


Tash closing Webstock

Tash trying to hold it together while closing the conference to a standing ovation (photo courtesy of Webstock.org.nz)

Robin Sloan – Inventing Media

Think of the formats we love: books, two-hour movies, serial TV dramas, blogs… the list goes on and on. All of these formats had to be invented. But how does that happen? How do new formats get started? And how might a person participate in this process of media invention? To find out, we travel all the way back to the turn of the 20th century… and the shadows of the Black Maria.

The Black Maria was the nickname given to the building Edison used to invent the kinetoscope viewer (the precursor to the modern motion picture camera) in 1893. The building was a tar paper covered studio with a retractable roof and moveable platform in the floor that allowed pictures to be taken at any time of day, regardless of the sun’s movements. This opened up a world of new media.

Around 1500, the invention of printing led to the invention of books that could be carried. Italics developed as a response to the constraint of fitting a large number of words on a page. Constraints can lead to invention. We’ve had smart phones and tablets for approx five years, so we’re in the middle of our own Black Maria. The medium is changing rapidly – get inventing!

Key Takeaway: Invent new stuff that matters.


Michael Lopp at Webstock

Michael Lopp on why he keeps coming back to Webstock

Michael Lopp – Stables and Volatiles

You have a deep desire to build. Every so often, a thing you build creates unexpected value and you discover success. But while your success is satisfying and perhaps profitable, continued success is often dependent on two non-intuitive strategies: hiring people who are willing to disrupt that success and your willingness to throw your success away.

Homework: go and talk to a big room of people, you’ll learn things about yourself every time and it never gets easier.

Humans are bad at decision making – just look at the number of power plug types worldwide. Apple recently changed their device plug style. Why? Tech startups are risk takers. We should all use failure as a learning experience. Embrace failure!

The human spectrum is between volatiles and stables – folks with different attitudes.


  • Appreciate direction and are happy to work with a plan.
  • Think that order is good.
  • Dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
  • Play nice with others.
  • Carefully work to mitigate failure.
  • Make good & predictable decisions.


  • Define strategy rather than follow it.
  • Find failure interesting.
  • Get a thrill from risk taking.
  • Code volume over quality.
  • Are reliable when it’s in their best interest.
  • If you tell them what to do, they’ll probably say “fuck you”.

There’s an allergic reaction between Stables and Volatiles. You can probably relate to one more than the other and they usually hate or barely tolerate each other. But guess what?

1) Everyone is right!
2) If you are planning on growing you need BOTH.

In start up terms, 1.0 volatiles generally become stables after 1.1 to protect their work but then their business model becomes “a yardsale of mediocrity”.  They keep and monetise everything, leading to a slow death. Another problem is that volatiles tend to hire more volatiles and this is how companies die.

We need to mix it up, fail often but fail forward.

Key Takeaway: Failure matters.


Jason Scott on stage at Webstock

Jason Scott on stage at Webstock (image courtesy of Webstock.org.nz}

Jason Scott – Wanted: Dead or Alive 

Jason is a filmaker, historian and archivist. He is also the founder of the Archive Team (not to be confused with archive.org), a collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths dedicated to saving our digital heritage. Jason’s mantra is: trust no-one with your data. He refers to his team as Archive Warriors and appropriately arrives on the Webstock stage dressed as a Steampunk Warrior.

Whenever @textfiles needs grounding, he remembers his cat @sockington has more followers on Twitter than almost everyone (1.4 million).

Jason Scott's cat @sockington

Jason Scott’s cat @Sockington has 1.4m followers on Twitter

History is full of people being awful and ridiculous ideas e.g. insecticide wallpaper for the baby nursery. But there is often a background story that we miss. Artifacts are important as they point the way to that background. But sometimes this history gets deleted. Yahoo! deleted the entire Geocities archive in about 10 minutes – most people didn’t know how or have the capacity to back up their pages (cue rotating images of hundreds of kaleidescopic Geocities home pages).

We think we’re safe because we’re storing data *In the Cloud*. Fuck the cloud! Yahoo! found the way to destroy the most massive amount of history in the shortest amount of time with absolutely no recourse. We might as well be storing data in the Clown. Look out – Clown computing is the future!

clown computing

Clown computing is the future!

Keep in mind that user-generated content is not ballast. Bottom line is that when you make a new thing, document it and make the documents available. Archive your stuff with the help of the Archive Team Warrior, (a virtual archiving appliance). The Archive team are going to rescue your shit (including Posterous). There is no gone, there is only forgotten.

Key Takeaway: Stuff that matters can be deleted. Protect it.


Mike Monteiro

Write, speak, teach, says Mike Monteiro

Mike Monteiro – How Designers Destroyed the World

You are directly responsible for what you put into the world. Yet every day designers all over the world work on projects without giving any thought or consideration to the impact that work has on the world around them. We used to design ways to go to the moon, now we design ways to not get out of bed. This needs to change.

Careless decisions by designers can have serious consequences.  At one point, Facebook group settings could override your own privacy settings. This had a devastating impact on the lives of some people. Despite having carefully set up her privacy settings, Bobbi Duncan from Texas was inadvertently outed as a lesbian to her homophobic parents on Facebook because the gay choir she joined in college automatically added her to their Facebook group and this showed up in her timeline. In response, her father left her a vitriolic and abusive voicemail on her phone and threatened to cut her off completely. Through no fault of her own, Bobbi was the victim of irresponsible design.

So how does bad design happen?

  • They ignore it (fuck it up)
  • They speak up (but then someone says “fuck it”)
  • The chain of command ignores it (someone higher up says “fuck it”)

So who in your organisation can pull the plug on something that sucks?  YOU!
Design is not just how something looks and feels but how well something works and how it affects people. We need to fear the consequences of our work more than the consequences of speaking up. You should be comfortable enough in your role to say NO and you should be willing to lose your job over it. Don’t work for anyone you don’t feel comfortable saying no to.

The work we choose to take on defines us.

Key Takeaway: The work you do every day matters.

We always have a choice.

We always have a choice.


And so ended another magical Webstock, capped off by a geektastic after-party at the stunning art deco Embassy Theatre (home of the recent Hobbit world premiere). Some party photos below.

@belindanash and I at the Webstock after party

@belindanash and I at the Webstock after party

 foyer at The Embassy Theatre

The groovy foyer at The Embassy Theatre

Me with @jbowtie and @textfiles at the Webstock after party

Me with @jbowtie and @textfiles at the Webstock after party

Thank you Tash, Mike, Deb, Ben and the Webstock 2013 special agents for yet another week of magic and inspiration. It will loom large in my mind for a long time.


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