“we have a tech generation that thinks that’s all there is”

October 14, 2008

How to go about writing up a conference like Future of Web Apps? With, what, a thousand plus people converging on a space as large as London’s Excel centre, it’s not like you can be at every talk, breathe in every vibe, taste all the startups. I was even more crippled by the fact that I couldn’t make the first day. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts…

Mark Zuckerberg. Now with media training (TM)

Mark Zuckerberg. Now with Media Training (TM)

Conferences – in my experience anyway – aren’t usually about the sessions. They’re about the people, the schmooze, the drinking, the between bits. FOWA does these bits – big time. I had the headache to prove it. From that perspective, FOWA (and I believe I’ve – almost by accident – been to every one) is a winner. Big name (Zuckerberg, Rose, Arrington, Sierra..), big announcements, big…well, everything.

 

For this, Carsonified (and I’m slowly getting to know ’em – they’re Bath-based after all..) get massive quantities of respect. Ryan Carson is good at this shit: he knows it, the industry knows it, and it’s obviously a formula that works.

But..but..but..

I also think that conferences need a very strong sense of direction. It’s all too easy to revel in the hero-worship that surrounds people like Zuckerberg, and somehow forget that however much we might want to influence 100 million people with our web app, most of us aren’t there yet, and there’s a huge number of boxes to tick – technology, funding, usability, content, luck – before we’re going to even stand a chance of getting there. FOWA should be the place that, even if not actually answering these questions, goes about helping young developers begin to ask them: how can I get funding, what technology should I use, how can I create outstanding content, and so on. I’m not close to being a cutting edge developer, but every session on the developer track was so generic you could probably sum them up like this: “oAuth: it’s quite good”, “cloud computing: it’s quite good”, “work-life balance: it’s quite good”. To me, FOWA doesn’t come across as the future of web apps. It’s the near past of web apps. 

The challenge that Ryan et al. face is not an easy one: they’ve built a conference of big names, and with that comes a conference with a high level of sexiness and kudos. But what they haven’t done, IMO, is to build a conference with big ideas. This is increasingly going be a problem as – in the words of developers – FOWA attempts to scale into the future. As much as the bits-in-between make you feel warm inside about the whole tech scene, it’s a transient kind of warmth – as Simon Cowell said recently on XFactor (I know, hard to imagine someone as high-brow as me watching..): “it’s like eating water”. Without really challenging sessions, the socialising bit becomes really pretty vacuous. 

I don’t have the answers to this, but I have some thoughts:

Firstly, and most importantly – ideas. If we’re not at FOWA to exchange ideas, what exactly are we there for? At events like this – actually, at events like life – I’m looking for disruption, for new stuff, for insight, for difference. I’m not expecting academically rigorous research: I go to museum conferences for that – but newness should surely be a part of a conference all about the future, right? While some of the sessions delivered that (for me: Kathy Sierra on engaging users and Gavin Starks on green computing), for the most part this was very much a safe, formulaic place and not a bleeding-edge, forward-looking one. The business talks were leagues ahead of the developer ones, but even so there wasn’t enough challenging going on. Even Jason Calacanis, who pretty much makes a living from being offensive, didn’t manage to say much about life/work balance apart from “work hard, play hard”, which is hardly disruptive or original. Originality is often brave and sometimes dangerous, but I think this is the space that FOWA should be striving to be in.

Second: speakers need to be not just mediocre or good, but fucking great. I want entertaining, well-delivered, funny. Simon Wardley (I missed his session, but we shared a stage in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago) – is all of these. He rocks. He could talk shit and it’d still be great – as it happens, he talks with sense and conviction AND makes it funny too. Ditto, Kathy Sierra, who in my opinion did the best thing I’ve seen in some time: a funny, insightful, interactive session which really engaged as well as inspired. Many of the people presenting at FOWA just can’t do it. They might be great developers, but they can’t talk in public, and I’m sorry, but if you can’t do it, don’t do it. Or at least have a mind-blowing idea to cover up the fact you can’t talk about it 🙂

wakoopa. software without a reason, and bad spelling too...

wakoopa. software without a reason, and bad spelling too...

Finally: I think that all events like this can – and should – learn from people outside the specific sector. The tech scene should increasingly be listening to, and encouraging discourse with normal people. Ask yourself – where were the users at FOWA? It’s easy impressing a room full of developers with your new startup. It’s incredibly hard impressing a room full of people who have full, busy lives doing things other than geekery. It’s great having the funders and business guys there, but I also think it’d be really interesting to hear from people who struggle with technology – and endeavour to get some insight into what works for them. I’m personally 100% in support of Tim O’Reilly and his crusade to encourage tech that makes a difference rather than tech that scratches a transient, unimportant itch (and yes, Wakoopa, I’m afraid that’s you..).  I think it’s especially important to focus on this stuff in the current wave of uncertainty about our financial and environmental futures.

I hope this doesn’t seem an overly negative response to FOWA. It’s not meant to be – after all, I’ll be going again next year. This is a great event, and really the only one of its kind in the UK – but I also hope they learn to grow over time and mature the conference into something with a bit more weight – not serious, or academic, but perhaps finding ways to improve quality, Pirsig style

8 thoughts on ““we have a tech generation that thinks that’s all there is”

  1. Mike,

    I was only watching the Tweets from my desk back in Bristol, but for me FOWA’s Curate’s Eggness was summed up by the juxtaposition of Tim Bray (who all but one Tweeter I saw thought was amazing, if a little Reality Bites) and the Guy From Salesforce.com doing, basically, a product pitch.

    Perhaps it’s difficult to have one without the other, and – put more positively – it may demonstrate a certain Yin/Yang on the part of Carsonified.

    At least Tim Bray was there giving the reality check…

    Agreed on “where are the users” though. But how to get them to a geek event?

    Cheers,

    Tim

  2. Hi Tim – yes, couldn’t agree more – the sucky sales pitch stuff is probably a necessary part (not least of all to get the thing funded…). In some ways though I feel better knowing that a presentation is salesy than I do about one that is mediocre.

    re. users – I’d have liked to have seen a session (or even a track!) organised at the conference which brought in delegates who were non-technical and asked them how it was using app X or website Y, not necessarily relying on them to turn up..

  3. This year was my first FOWA and it was definitely a positive experience. I came away motivated and inspired, but that was as much due to rubbing shoulders with my peers as it was for a bunch of deeply insightful talks.

    The developer track was definitely more high-level than I was expecting which was a tad disappointing.

    I did find one user there, in the lunchtime ‘University’ sessions one of the http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/ people gave the myspace talker a light drubbing over their accessibility or rather lack of.

  4. Apart from the pool of oil in my plate 🙂 Good post mr dmje! It is really, really hard to strike the content/presenter balance right at a conference. It’s something we spent a huge amount of time on when I was at Carsonified, and each time you do an event you learn a new way to try and guarantee quality, but it’s never 100% perfect. I’m sure Carsonified would be interested in exploring your ideas about involving users in future events because they are always thinking of ways to improve the experience for attendees (who represent *their* users!).

  5. Hey Ryan – great to see you at lunchtime (you Subway guy, you..) – would be great to chat further about FOWA and what you have planned for the future. Preferably, we should do this over a pint 🙂

  6. users
    yes yes yes yes.
    increasingly thinking that apps are being built for…well the hell of it, or for users who liek apps
    twitter, great app love it makes my life so much easier but so what? the general joe doesn’t get it.

    now, how do we build apps for real people?
    what do they want?
    what do they need? (and is it the same thing)
    who are they?
    where are they?
    thats a big ask….

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