Webstock 09 : Bruce Sterling – The Web is all Turtles and Duct Tape

Live blogging The Short and Glorious Life of Web 2.0 presentation at Webstock 09 by Zeitgeist Author and Wired Blogger, Bruce Sterling.

Bruce starts by saying, here in New Zealand, we have lost sight of Web 2.0. Mistakes have been made. You think it’s the world of tag clouds, drop shadows and fonts.

Web 1.0 was the Britannica online while Web 2.0 was Wikipedia. Web 1.0 was portals while Web 2.0 was search engines. The canonical definition of Web 2.0 was coined by Tim O’Reilly: “.. the network as platform spanning all connecting devices, apps that make the most of blah blah blah…..”

The definition is thesis-long and reads like a Chinese takeout menu says Bruce. He then showed a slide of the visual flow chart of the defintion (see below):

Web 2.0 looks like a social network. Add some scenery and pictures to this Web 2.0 diagram and it becomes a Webstock Conference (at this point there is some sniggering in the audience).

You can’t break it down and analyze it. What’s exciting about this 5 year old flow chart is the pieces that are utter violations of previous common sense e.g. the web as platform. Native web logic is a new turtle, sitting on another, older turtle, sitting on another older still turtle. Just like platforms sitting on clouds. (This imagery has me grinning because I actually have a ceramic representation of the turtles on turtles analogy on my bookshelf).

AJAX is an acronym. How the hell can you make an acronym of an acronym? (more sniggering). Everybody knows that Web 2.0 with it’s JavaScript binding everything is made out of AJAX. After all Sun built Javascript. Javascript is the duct tape of Web 2.0 – it’s the ultimate material that will bind anything. It’s the glue of mashups.

Bob Metcalf, the inventor of ethernet had to eat his words claiming that the Internet would fall over. We’ve used JavaScript to duct tape the turtles all the way down. What’s with this blog business? Most of the things we call blogs today have zero to do with weblogs. True Weblogs are basically records of web surfing. Bruce’s own *blog* is consumed with link rot. He blogged stuff that is now in mystical 404 Land. (At this point the sniggering in the audience has turned to a little bristling and some vexed looks. Tweets fly about the room with the same theme – is Bruce Sterling giving us geeks a public spanking for worshipping Web 2.0?)

The phrase Web Platform is weird. Up there with *wireless cable* and *business revolution*. What about *dynamic content* – content is static for Pete’s sake. It is not contained.  And don’t forget *collective intelligence*. Google apparently has it and therefore it matters. Businessmen and revolutionaries alike use Google.  Bruce sees Larry and Sergey as the coolest Stanford grads ever, with their duct-tape ridden offices (more laughter).

Geek thought crime is the assumption about what constitutes *collective intelligence*. This attitude makes you look delusionary. He’d like to see a better definition such as: *semi autonomous data propagation*. I paid attention to Web 2.0 because I thought it was important. I supported Tim’s solar system invention and thought Web 2.0 people were a nifty crowd. The mainframe crowd were smarter than Web 2.0 people – the super selective technical elite. Problem was that all sense of fun had been boiled out of them.

The telephone system was the biggest machine in human history, but the users couldn’t access the cables or the pipeline. Unlike now = where everyone gets their hands on the components. But I’m not nostalgic for the old days, after all nostalgia is not what it used to be.  Look at Microsoft: the place where innovations go to die (loud guffaws, including one from me and we all rush to tweet that little gem).

Next for the web is a spiderweb in a storm. Some turtles get knocked out. The Fail Whale fails. Inherent contradictions of the web get revealed. Prediction: the web stops being the fluffy meringue dressing of business. What kind of a world do we live in when pirates in Somalia can make cell phone sonar calls via super tankers? We’ve got a web balanced on top of a collapsed economy.

Next is a transition web. Half the world’s population is on the web and the rest are joining. We need to know how to make the transition. During Web 2.0, we sold ourselves to Yahoo. In the transition web, we have no safety net. We’re all in the same boat. I’m bored of the deceipt, disgusted with cynical spin etc. etc. Let’s get on with real lives. (Bruce’s rant continues, but at this point I am seriously rapt and stop typing to be able to pay more attention).

To experience the full spanking by Bruce, see his own transcript of the presentation.

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Webstock 09 : Russ Weakley

Live blogging Open Web, Open Data, Open Panic? presentation at Webstock 09 by Author of “Teach Yourself CSS in 10 Minutes”, Russ Weakley.

Russ works at the Australian Museum. He had an idea for the museum web site about four years ago and it has taken this long to get to the pre-launch stage.

The public services world is about analysing, justifying and strategizing. The commercial sector is fast but the public service process is incredibly slow. This has had one unexpected benefit: Having to defnd every aspect has meant that we had to carefully think about many issues before launch.

The museum’s site was launched in 1994. It grew enormously and now has 43,000 pages plus 16 sites. Sounds good? Nope, trouble in paradise. It’s hard to maintain, users can’t find content, so there’s lost relevance. The site provided a one way contact stream but this is no longer relevant in a Web 2.0 world.

Four years ago we went to management with an idea: To build a rich, interactive web site concentrating on 4 objectives:

1) Communication. Interaction, not static. Allow users to communicate with museum and each other.

2) Allow users to share their own content

3) Provide new and easier navigation pathways

4) Allow all staff to publish easily

Management reaction? Initial shock! Than 1 year of silecne, 1 year of discussion, 1 year of planning, 1 year to build.

The overall concept:

– site has 3 levels, categories, sections and assets

– every piece of content will be an asset, no more web pages

– there will be a range of different types of assets

– wanted assets and sections to exist in multiple locations

Traditional model of site design doesn’t work because things are boxed together in a static location. We wanted it to have a dynamic, multiplicet model.

– every asset will have five different navigation methods. New asset pages show “other sections”,

– in new model, users can comment on any asset

– users and staff can add tags any asset

– author and user tags will provide new methods of navigation and richer search

– allow users to collect favourites and sets and share them with others

– upload their own images, movies, audios, comments, stories

– allow people to apply for expert status

– Wanted the system to be seamless. Allow users to move seamlessly through any type of content

What about staff? Every staff member will become an author

– allow staff to publish assets directly (after training). Initial management concern but now overcome with approvals in place.

– allow staff to own their assets

– allow users to create their own focused, passionate and personal blogs

– allow microblog to create instant news

Russ talks about how his bosses’ first day at the museum involved taking a chain saw to a dead whale in the museum carpark. Also mentions the discovery of Mr Blobby in the deep sea off New Zealand. This type of stuff makes priceless social media juice. Why waste it? Let’s give staff the ability to share such stories with the public.

– the system will allow authors to publish all content via one simple system

Questions asked by management about the new system:

1) When we go live, can we all sit back and relax? (no, we will need to work very hard to build the site and grow communities)

2) Will we moderate comments and tags? (no, we will use a simple login and allow all comments, tags, uploads)

3) Will a forced login alienate some users? (Yes, however we will review process after a 6 month process)

4) What if the information in comments is wrong? (Deal with it. Let the comment trail educate. Mistakes benefit everyone). Therefore clearly identified author comments are important.  Allow the community to self-moderate.

5) What about tags that are irrelevant? (Misspellings are useful because it allows more people to find information, no matter if they can spell or not. Long-tail keywords add to searchability of site. Just because they’re not relevant to you, doesn’t mean they’re not relevant to someone else.

6) Who is going to take responsibility for the comments? (Authors are responsible for comments associated with blogs.)

7) What if we are inundated with comments? (Nah, won’t happen)

8 ) Should we allow staff to publish? (Yes)

9) Should we have a single voice? (What? No answer to this. Can’t provide a single voice. Have different voices for each different asset)

10) How will we encourage tags and comments? (answer comments, encourage commenting, reward good behaviour, promote outside the site, eventually – let it go)

The new site strategy for the Australian Museum has been a long, painful journey. Despite the frustration, it’s also been a lot of fun.

Enjoy your own journey!

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Webstock 09 : Joshua Porter

Live blogging Designing Sign Up Screens and Flows presentation at Webstock 09 by Author of “Designing for the Social Web” Joshua Porter.

Josh got started in this biz because every client he ever had came to him with problems relating to web site sign ups.

Joshua wrote a book called The Usage Lifecycle. First up: Sign up is hard. If you have 8% of first time visitors signing up for a *free* account, you’re doing well.

When we think about the hurdle of sign up, we generally think about the friction of interface. So how do you remove friction? The Tumblr sign up is a great example of this. The URL box shows you what your URL will be. No need to understand sub-domains or anything else. The action button says “sign up and start posting” – it’s clear what will happen when you sign up.

We’re starting to see cool ways to make forms easier to use. Things like:

– Password strength

– Check username availability

– Inline help

– refilling fields upon error

– sending username in confirmation email

– Show/hide password

Joshua is currently working on a Facebook app. Facebook applications are great to work on because of all the different metrics. He’s been trying to improve the ease of use of typical Facebook forms:

Original Flow looks like:

1) Confirm personal info

2) Add your friends

3) Invite others

4) Getting started

Original Conversion Funnel:

Of the 100% of people who started the sign up process using the original flow, only 14% made it to the getting started screen. So at every level of the app sign up, we lost users.

What would happen if we took down some of the steps? He started by removing steps 1 and 3. The new flow was:

2) Add your friends

4) Getting started

The new conversion funnel resulted in 86% of users making it to the *getting started* screen.  Always ask clients why they want their user sign up forms changed. Focus tends to be on the form. But the form is not the problem of sign up. There’s a lot of good info on the web about form design. That’s not the issue. The issue is motivation.

“If ease of use were the only requirement, we would all be riding tricycles” – Douglas Engelbart

You need to change people’s minds about your software. Sign up is in the mind, not the web. People will find a way to sign up if they are motivated enough.

What are we asking?

1) A change in behaviour – old habits die hard

2) Give up accepted shared practices

3) Jump into the unknown

4) Shift from potential to kinectic energy – psychology behind wanting to change

The Psychology of Sign up = 9 x Effect by John T. Gourville. People tend to overvalue the software they currently use by about a factor of 3. Software makers tend to overvalue the software they offer by about a factor of 3. This creates the 9 x Effect. That’s why entrepreneurs tend to think they’re going to set the world on fire.

What we imagine people are thinking: confident, decisive, passionate

What they’re actually thinking: unsure, scared, non-commital

The Preconditions of Sign up:

– product research

– considering an alternative

– learning about the product

– comparison with other options

– reconnaissance

The form goes where the moment of readiness to sign up comes along. Therefore, pre-conditions are very important.

Design for 3 distinct visitor types:

1) I know I want to sign up

2) I want to make sure this is for me

3) I’m skeptical

Ways to tackle sign up:

1) Immediate Engagement

Geni’s family tree image where user can picture their *place* in the tree. NetVibes sign up reminds people it’s free, provides unobtrusive help comment window. Most importantly, you are allowed to create a personalized page via various fields etc BUT you have to sign up in order to be able to save that page. Slide widget that is on many social media sites uses similar thing. If you click on other people’s slide-shows, you can add and customize a photo BEFORE you sign up. Tripit use a helpful signup graphic and allows you to send travel data such as flight confirmations etc and then Tripit creates the account for you based on your return address. You’ve never even filled out a form, just sent an email. Posterous also has an email generated sign-up process and has “sign up” crossed through to remind people how easy it is

2) Write to Reduce Commitment

Copywriting is the easiest, fastest way to improve your sign-up process.

Highrise did A/B testing using Google Web Site Optimizer. They tested copy at top of sign-up form. Most conversions resulted from:

“30 day Free Trial on All Accounts. Sign-up takes less thann 60 seconds. Pick a plan to get started”.

Another example was PearBudget which started as an Excel spreadsheet and was converted to a web app. It allows you to create an online budget. The sign up is simply a pop up field “Save Your Budget” with an email and password field.

3) Levels of Description

First level is your elevator pitch – one line description of service, logo, screenshot

Second level includes more detail – features, benefits, how to join

Third is In-depth level – more complicated, details, links to deeper levels of information

The NetFlix sign up is a great example of the 3 levels in action. They also add their phone number for persons still needing help during the sign up process.

Bill My Clients recently changed their sign up which was not successful. Freshbooks has a great user interface (yay team!).

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Webstock 09 : Annalee Newitz

Live blogging Your Business Plan is Science Fiction presentation at Webstock 09 by American journalist Annalee Newitz:

Science Fiction is a public arena, where we talk about how science and technology will impact our lives. It can impact business in an inspiring way. It inspires people in the laboratory in terms of new creations online and offline.

Science Fiction is a public discussion and then they go into the lab with the idea – the area of innovation – so that is no longer public. This feedback loop can be represented as follows:

Sci Fi – public space

Laboratory – innovation, private space

Business – commerce space

Science Fiction is a kind of cultural baggage.  It’s heavy but you need it if you want to change your underwear.

The idea of the tri-corders in Star Trek is appealing to us. Like a smartphone. We are nearly there! So this is an example of how science fiction can impact future business products. William Gibson coined “cyberspace” in his book the Neuromancer. His notion of “cyberspace” is a metaphor, not a prediction. We now live in the vocabulary that Gibson and his contemporaries invented for us. This is crucial to undertanding the way we use the Internet.

The movie Tron from 1982 predicts today’s notion of cyberspace. The hero Tron is a security program that fights for the user in cyberspace. We are still living in that vocabulary. Similarly, The Matrix Movie from 1999 uses almost the same vocabulary as Tron, in that you have a version of yourself in the real world and a mini version in the Matrix and you need to be rescued by the hero. So we are still living in the same sci fi vocabulary as we were in the early 80’s but with better special effects.

A Tale of Two Androids

Cylons from Battlestar Galactica are working against humans.  Early on, the Android platform from Google was designed to replicate a cylon from Battlestar Galactica. The start up screen for Android was even the evil cylon red eye. So why did they abandon that metaphor and change it to the cute friendly droid that we see now for Android? First up, friendly droid is reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars, he is a happy, silly, approachable robot. He’s never an angry bot. You never imagine R2D2 will plot an uprising against humans.

So that’s an example of how a product coming to market was influenced by a sci fi myth.

Wearable computers are also packed inside a sci fi myth. Our language for describing wearable computers far outstrips the products available. E.g. Batman and IronMan movies show humans using wearable computers to give themselves special powers. So we have the notion that wearable computers can make us into super heroes. There are already technologies that are already available. Like the projected phone on hand revealed at TED and exoskeletons, which in a real sense give humans super powers and have military applications. So these type of technologies are already prompting the question: do they make me a superhero or a supervillain?

The Segway personal transporter failed in the marketplace because it wasn’t superpowered enough. It played into the idea of us wanting to be super powered, but it wasn’t very fast, didn’t do anything super exciting so ended up as kind of dorky.

Many wearable bluetooth devices default to protected mode as a safety feature to prevent evil hacking nasties. So it’s the traditional Super Villains vs Super Heroes scenario just like in a recent Dr Who episode. That’s another example of sci fi behind developing technologies.

Dollhouse is a brand new sci fi show on US television. The premise is about a new kind of computer interface – a brain computer interface. A rogue scientist has developed a technology to erase memories and re-program brains with new personalities. Ninjas and sex companions are the most requested personality types. This suggests more interest in neurotechnologies, which are already available e.g. BrainGate and the neuro pacemaker, which are both brain computer interface systems.

There are a lot of anxieties around this storyline and it’s a staple of sci fi stories e.g. Frankenstein. People fear new interfaces because it asks the question ” Can I be programmed like a computer?” We are comfortable with one-way interfaces but not two-way.  We see computers as the happy droid, not the angry cylon. But as long as we can control how the interface works, we are comfortable.

One of the absurd ways that interface designers deal with this fear, is to create a sense of privacy around networks where you provide information. For example, FaceBook takes a LOT of personal information and it tries to reassure you by giving you the ability to add *privacy* levels. You control the flow of data. Apparently.  It’s an illusory sense of control because there are many ways to get to the *private* data via hacks, other entities, etc. Yet another odd connection between sci fi and everyday technologies. You don’t fear that Facebook is going to suck your brain out. But maybe you should. Assumption of control is the key.

So how do you escape from science fiction if you’re designing stuff? [Here she showed an image from a sci fi horror comic instead of the usual cute puppy slide to break up the presentation. ] Here’s how:

1) Work within the narrative – build somethng into the product that people recognize and relate to.

2) Tell new stories that counteract the old ones – build stories that counteract the nasty sci fi stories e.g. the bluetooth default on phones is OFF now.

3) Pay attention to the fears expressed and address them – listen to the consumer trends, hear their fears. Watch, listen, learn and apply. Make sure your users don’t enter a Frankenstein story when trialling your products.

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Webstock 09: Derek Featherstone

Live blogging a presentation at Webstock 09 by accessibility and web development expert Derek Featherstone:

Derek starts with an example of a blind user trying to call a website help line.

Blind User: “Hello? I need some help please”

Help desk staff: “What is your login password please?”

Blind User: “Just a moment”. (He starts JAWS screen reader that reads out his password login info that’s stored in notepad)

Help desk staff: “Is there someone in the room with you sir?”.

Blind User: “No, it’s my screenreader”.

Help desk staff: “Sorry sir, but my superviser says I have to hang up on you now”.


This actually happened. User experience encompasses EVERYTHING. Even the help desk phone manner. People need to think about this! User support etc. Accessibility is SO important

Derek then showed the example of an accessible door sign with white lettering on a black background, plus raised lettering underneath, plus braille on a raised angle. This equals excellent accessibility and it should be inspiration for what we do on the web. Can we do things on the web to help people with a disability? We can and we should.

Derek’s vision: “People with disabilities will have their preferences and needs always available so the web / environment could adapt to them for a change.” Imagine if we could walk into a bookstore and signs would adapt to your personal disabilities, flaws or needs?

Accessibility is not always inspiring or cool. Most people think of the W3C guidelines when they think of accessibility.  But we should think of progressive enhancement when we design accessible websites:

1) Content

2) Presentation

3) Behaviour

That is the baseline for an accessible web site. Let’s go beyond this.

Small barriers can become big ones for people with disabilities surfing the web. Derek gave an example of an Advanced Search form which is completely unusable. Showed another example where the word “news” was used for popular items on the site. This created false expectations in the user because the items were nothing to do with breaking news items. The web designers should have used “highlights” instead.

Just because something is technically compliant DOES NOT mean it’s going to be easy to use. He showed an example of a hugely complex and challenging wheelchair ramp. It may have been technically compliant, but it would have scared the crap out of wheelchair-bound users. Accessibility doesn’t have to be hard.

Derek then played a sound-bite example of tags on Amazon URL being interpreted by a screen reader – it took foreeeeevvveeeerrr. Accessibility FAIL. He then played example of Chapters URL interpreted by a screen reader – All layout is done with CSS, using JavaScript correctly, implemented web standards properly. BUT something gets lost. The pop-up comment box interrupted the navigation. ALL tags get read out. Result = confusion and the Amazon site was actually easier to use for a visually impaired visitor. Goes to prove that even the sites who try the hardest can get accessibility wrong.

Derek was born with a club foot. He wore a cast for the first year of life. He had a major operation to correct it at age 3. But sports were still impossible as a kid. NOW, he does triathalons. Between his first in 2006 and his latest in 2008 he got better and fitter. Like Nat said yesterday, he had successful failures and learnt from them. He pushed his limits and got better.

We should do this on the web in terms of accessibility. Let’s get better at this stuff and keep improving accessibility. Derek showed an example of Google Maps – zoom not accessible via tabbing for visually impaired visitors, so they must use grids. Ugh. For a voice recognition user, this is awful. Luckily, Google Maps API allows us to create our own accessible version of Maps.

Someone challenged Derek to make an online crossword puzzle accessible. They said it couldn’t be done! He did it by using labels on clues, using JavaScript to jump from one clue to the next. He created a field set in correct numerical order and then applied JavaScript to make the crosspoint easier to use.

This is the type of thing you can do if you think a bit harder about accessibility. Previous version was image-based. You can also do Inline Editing and hover navigation. In BaseCamp, there’s no way to navigate without a mouse. So he created a GreaseMonkey script that allows disabled users to use BaseCamp right now. 37Signals should address the accessibility issues but who knows when?

The Social Accessibility Project is a FireFox plugin that uses crowdsourcing to improve usability experience for disabled surfers. It provides and takes instant feedback from user community in real time.

On August 1 2001, a Mozilla Bug Report was filed about a major accessibility issue in FireFox when trying to view Flash movies. Nothing has been done about it! So Derek and others took the same approach they used with Google Maps and hacked a solutionto use tabs to control play/pause, mute/unmute, again using a GreaseMonkey script to add keyboard controls. Awesome.

Some people created Outfox, a GreaseMonkey script using Firefox that brings voice to Firefox using JavaScript. It reads out maps etc. and effectively creates a talking map. Is this helpful? He’s not sure but let’s push the limits and see. These are all just experiments.

Ubiquity for FireFox enables Derek to invoke granular data such as specific addresses, links etc. The web is so much more complicated now – people say “I wish I had a command line”. So Derek thought, what could we do with this? What if we could create a play command line using Ubiquity so that a user doesn’t have to tab 30 times to get to the control they want? There are lots of applications here.

This stuff is cool to Derek. It may not be as cool as online gaming, but if it improves the User Experience, it is cool to him. What type of functionality can we all build into the web to improve it? Let’s see.

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