Webstock 2011

Webstock 2011

It’s only 10 days since Webstock, New Zealand’s biggest web conference, but it feels like longer. My post-conference excitement faded into the background last week as, like many, I became glued to the internet for information and updates about the earthquake in Christchurch.

Social media wasn’t such a star at Webstock this year as it has been in some previous years, but last week, in the aftermath of the quake, it certainly was in ascendency. Twitter was how, in our office, we found out about the quake, and where we came across the first pictures of damage and devastation, even before there was anything on news sites. Twitter and Facebook were how many people found out their friends and family were ok. Last week a friend (in Wellington) asked on Twitter if anyone in a particular isolated Christchurch suburb could help an elderly man there. A few minutes and many retweets later, she’d had several offers of help from total strangers.

Many people have used the internet to raise money for organisations helping with quake relief. In just one example of this, some people I know have put together a bundle of role-playing game pdfs, which they’re selling for US$20 instead of the $338 they would cost separately. By this morning, after only a few days, they’d already raised US$34,680 for the Red Cross.

It’s this kind of thing – genuine, meaningful connections – that I love about the internet, and at Webstock the talks that dealt with the internet as a place of meaning were the ones that got me the most excited.

Webstock began on Thursday morning with one of those, with Frank Chimero talking about the importance of story on the web. He said that content can be warm or cold, and that the way to warm content up is to use story. Using the story of WALL-E, Chimero suggested that robot plus story = human, while human minus story = robot – essentially, that we relate to and empathise with people because of their stories. Encyclopedias are not traditionally warm-content publications – though I hope we manage to make Te Ara warmish with our images and media, topic boxes, contributed stories and plain-language approach – but it got me thinking about how else we might warm up our content, while still being authoritative.

One way we try to make information on Te Ara more accessible is by using graphs, charts and diagrams, which are created by our design team. The ‘it’ word for these things are infographics, and the infographic king, David McCandless, of Information is Beautiful fame, was a definite highlight of Webstock for me. His talk– which was very entertaining, especially considering a great deal of it involved showing us graphs – really brought home to me how powerful and meaningful it can be to show information visually. A particularly stunning example is his animation Debtris, which simply shows the relative amounts of various things such as the cost of the Iraq war and US credit card debt (there is a US and a UK version – he said he’d get on to doing a NZ version ASAP). He also showed how our fears seem to be seasonal, a lot of Facebook users break up on Mondays, and that US adults spend a lot more time watching TV in one year than was needed to create Wikipedia.

This year’s Webstock seemed to have a little bit more about website content than other years, which, as a content-focused person, I was happy about. Sometimes, when all you hear about is design and coding, you’d start to think that a website didn’t need to have any content at all. And, according to content strategist Kristina Halvorson, leaving content to the last minute is a common problem when websites are developed. I’d also suggest that having a content strategy still doesn’t mean you actually have content, but I suppose it’s a start.

Other highlights for me were:

  • Jason Santa Maria on typography. Turns out you can make websites typographically beautiful.
  • Peter Sunde on the benefits of internet piracy, and his site Flattr, through which you can directly financially reward people whose work you like on the net
  • Tom Coates on all kinds of things – I can’t entirely remember what his point was now, it was fun getting there. On the way we took in ancient Persian roads, his bathroom scales that tweet his weight, and networked cities
  • cartoonist Scott McCloud, who didn’t just talk about comics on the web, but on visual communication and how the human brain will always want to make a story or connection out of two, possibly unrelated, images
  • and Amanda Palmer, of whose music I am a big fan, both for her talk/Q&A on how musicians can survive and thrive without a record label in the new world of the music industry, but even more for her special after-conference concert with Jason Webley on Friday night.

It seems to me that Webstock is well named – it’s like a soup: you throw a lot into it, some things give it flavour, some things rise to the top, some things are a bit meatier, other things seem a bit unnecessary. But each year this soup has shown me some visions of where the web is heading, and what we need to think about for Te Ara, to keep it relevant in the future.

What were your highlights or lowlights? What did you take away from the conference that you’ll be able to use in your work?

3 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Mike Riversdale || February 28th, 2011

    I think the Twitter conference backchat has become so much part of a geek conference that we forget just how amazing it is – especially when presenters get involved 🙂

    I squeeled with delight when I saw how well the collaborative note taking was such a hit as well – http://webstock.waveadept.com/

  2. Comment made by Helen Rickerby || March 1st, 2011

    Thanks for your comments Mike. And good on you for the collaborative note-taking site. I found it particularly helpful when writing this post! I found I’d been so taken along with Tom Coates that I had written absolutely nothing down.

    Weirdly, when I go to Webstock, I’m more offline than usual – I take notes in a notebook (a paper one) – so I totally miss all the Twitter stuff until I go home. It’s probably just as well though, or I’d be too distracted.

  3. Comment made by Heath || March 1st, 2011

    Webstock is so inspiring, each year I’m stunned at how much it reinvigorates my passion for the web.

    The highlight for me was the workshop with David MacCandless. The main thing I took away from it, as an information designer, was to come up with as many ideas as possible. Start researching them, assemble the data, and start visualising it and see what stories are hidden in the data. Some stories can only be seen when data is visualised.

    We always approach information design knowing what the final piece will look like. We know what the data is going to show, and we just try and make it look pretty and easy to understand.

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