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…
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.
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 🙂
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…