At the fifth Webstock conference, held in Wellington, visiting speakers said they wouldn’t have missed it – and somehow you knew they weren’t just being polite.
Webstock’s approach of melding music, art and the philosophy of social relationships with the more technical topics is increasingly relevant in today’s world. As introductory speaker Frank Chimero pointed out, the “stuff” web designers and developers produce is ever more important in delivering the “warm” human messages that help form and sustain communities, rather than expecting “users” (itself a mechanical word, he says) to bend the format and tone of their communication to a “robotic” network.
“We should try to replicate high-quality conversation on the web,” Chimero says.
He sees the over-used word “content” referring to the data handled by web apps, as a cold robotic term. “You wouldn’t describe Catcher in the Rye as 200 pages of content,” any more than you’d think of a friend as a bunch of chemicals with 72.8 percent water, he says.
Attention should be paid to the form and tone of the conversation as well as the message – drawing people out to tell stories and reflect on the progress they are making in their lives and careers. “The web is a mirror, it shows us what we are – and also a crystal ball – it changes us and makes us what we will be” he said.
Chimero is a writer and designer, based in Portland, Oregon, whose work has featured in media ranging from the New York Times to television’s Colbert Report.
The title of his presentation, “Digital Campfires”, sums up for him the atmosphere he sees as ideal for the web and exemplified, he says, by Webstock.
Similar views of the modern web were reflected in different ways by subsequent speakers, who pointed out that richer kinds of data, such as the video accommodated natively for the first time in HTML5 and an increasing range of communications devices, present new opportunities and challenges for developers and interface designers – negotiating the software environment of different devices, operating systems and client programs is not only a technical decision, but also a marketing decision.
However, with more complex applications, the developer may still be forced to decide which part of the market to go after, tailoring their product appropriately, he says.
The task of appealing to users demands not only technical but artistic and design skills. Jason Santamaria spoke of the impact of typography and the layout of type on a screen, expressing enthusiasm, though at the same time a note of caution at the wider range of fonts now readily available to developers.
David McCandless presented data visualisations from his book, Information is Beautiful and discussed techniques of presenting data visually.
Doug Bowman, now creative director at Google, was the first speaker at the first full Webstock, in 2006. He talked of “delivering delight” – again evoking a warm interaction with the user – but counterpointed it with the “cold” term “expectation management”, indicating that keeping customer expectations low is one way of being positively surprising.
Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley provided the live music for the afterparty, but both also gave thoughtful presentations on the new music distribution environment and its technical and legal complications. Palmer recently extricated herself with difficulty from a contract with a record label and sees giving music away free or at low cost as a way of increasing interest in an artist.
She has even been handed cash at a gig, with apologies from the giver for illegally downloading her work.
The two-day conference was preceded by three days of sold-out workshops.
While much of Webstock 2011 seemed heavy on the social and emotional aspects of the internet, attendees were not heard complaining of a lack of technical content. Some, in fact, like Silverstripe’s Sigurd Magnusson, said the fifth Webstock was more satisfying than its predecessors in that respect.