XOXO: The Web Strikes Back

I was drawn to the Web early and I was able to contribute to some early tools for publishing online. I was part of a group of people in the late 90's who identified themselves as "from the Web" or "Web natives". We were building tools that took advantage of the new medium while questioning some of the old metaphors and ways of doing things. There were some common values like openness and sharing ideas. It wasn't all free (as in beer) information and hacky sacks, but it felt like we were making something different from the status quo.

Over the years, and with millions more online, my identity as a Web Native has faded. We're all a part of the Web now. But I often feel like an outsider in my own country. The personal Web feels a lot less personal these days (get off my lawn Facebook!) and the money horserace of startup culture isn't very exciting to me. So I often find myself looking around the modern Web thinking, "Is this what I helped build?"

XOXO Stage

Luckily the more personal Web is still out there. It just doesn't have its own press. Last weekend, Andy gave that community a voice. The XOXO Conference brought together people who have gone around normal systems to find an audience for their work. The message, 'get out there and make things' from successful outsiders is inspiring, and they feel more like the direct descendants of those early Web days which I'm very happy to see.

I thought the talks themselves touched on three main topics for creators: lifestyle, infrastructure, and problems to fix. Basically, people talked about the way they work, tools that help them, and problems that keep them from working as well as that could.

I'll just share a few quotes (well, paraphrases) that I jotted down in my notebook. First, life/work:
Work at something you're passionate about because if you're successful you're going to have to do it all the time. — Dan Provost & Tom Gerhardt (Studio Neat)
Emily Winfield Martin gave a great talk about working toward her dream of writing a children's book. Some of her thoughts:
  • Do small things and put them out there.
  • Audience is the alchemy that makes things happen.
  • Misfits can make a place for themselves.
Along those lines, Dan Harmon (creator of the show Community) said that work and audience can be like two people who are separated. It's better to stay put than move around. The people who are looking for you will find you eventually.

Dan Harmon Keynote

Kickstarter and Etsy were the two most frequently mentioned pieces of infrastructure. (Those two are helping put over $1 billion into the economy this year.) I was also surprised to hear R. Stevens thank Apple, Amazon, and Paypal for figuring out micropayments. People are used to spending $4 here and $10 there for things online.

Newer pieces of infrastructure like VHX and CASH Music are working on solving problems for artists. Maggie Vail and Jesse Von Doom from CASH Music described those problems and why they're working on tools to help. Jesse mentioned that current systems exist for mass audiences. Some art is not going to be mainstream, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. He also mentioned that disruption is easy; fixing things is hard. For them, disruption is about more than just tearing down what we already have.

Another problem that came up frequently is copying. The speakers seemed to think that was part of the cost of doing business. I liked the way Bre Pettis put it best: "How can we share in a way that encourages innovation over direct copying?" The underlying assumption there is that sharing is good. I'm encouraged that there wasn't more talk about how to clamp down and protect your intellectual property.

xoxo room

Beyond the substance of the talks, XOXO was fun personally. I got to catch up with friends in an inspiring atmosphere. Well done, Andy and Andy. You made me proud of the Web again.

Gel 2008

Last week I went to New York for Gel 2008, a conference about good experience. They invite people from varied disciplines to talk about their experience with providing experiences. The first day all attendees break into small groups for a direct experience of some kind, and the second day is a traditional conference with a series of presentations.

My activity on the first day was a sound walk in Central Park. Around 12 Gel attendees met near Central Park South where we were promptly blindfolded, asked to hold onto a rope, and led into the park. I managed to snap a quick cell phone picture before we started moving.

Gel 2008

At first I was worried about falling on my face, but we moved slowly and the path was flat. Nothing focuses your other senses like moving through space without sight. I heard lots of details in the Central Park soundscape, but it was all overwhelmed by voices. As a group of 12 people walking through the park blindfolded, we were very conspicuous. And we had a running commentary (bordering on heckling) from people as we listened which definitely detracted from the experience. After regrouping, our host Douglas Quin talked with us about sound.

Gel 2008

We continued walking in silence through the park (sighted), listening to the way the different park geographies affected sound. We occasionally stopped to discuss our progress, and this was the most instructive part of the day. It didn't hurt that it was a gorgeous, sunny day.

Gel 2008

The second day of Gel looked more like a conference. What I like about their approach is that they pull in people from across industries. Clay Shirky (I've seen him speak several times at tech conferences) kicked off the day and was followed by a designer, filmmaker, professor, brewmaster, psychiatrist, and several authors and artists. As much as I think the tech community has some things to teach other industries, Gel reminded me that other businesses have been around for a long, long time and also have many lessons to share. I'm going to make an effort to expand my daily reading list to non-web folks. (Radical, I know.)

Gel 2008

The most disturbing talk of the day was by Natasha Schull, an assistant professor in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. She described the way the gambling industry relates to their customers, and it sounded to me like a cautionary tale. Their marketing materials discuss maximizing "time on device" and achieving "player extinction" (a gambler running out of money), which makes them sound inhuman. She suggested optimization of customer relationships over maximization.

Gel was fun and a nice change of pace from tech conferences. It would benefit from a more coherent theme—there was no big picture at the end for me. But I definitely experienced New York City in a new way thanks to the conference, and living briefly in the city's energy was definitely a good experience.

OSCON Wednesday 2

Just for some OSCON closure...I enjoyed the rest of the day. Michael's talk convinced me that I should be looking into this whole "Ruby on Rails" thing, it's impressive what he's put together (, unroll backwards) with Rails and Scriptaculous. He mentioned that he barely knew JavaScript, but was able to put together the highly interactive interface for the game thanks to existing libraries.

I saw a demo of the Google Ajax Search API, and got a better feel for that. It's definitely buzzword compliant, but I'm not convinced it improves over the standard Google API beyond the perceived response time. I personally wish Google would put as much effort into expanding their existing Search APIs, rather than delivering the same data in a new, souped-up way.

The rest of the day I was on the "Six Apart" track. Artur Bergman lead a session about 6A's infrastructure. Lots of talk about load-balancing, caching, and managing servers ensued. Then 6A-er Tatsuhiko Miyagawa demoed his project Plagger—an RSS/Atom slicer and dicer. It does a ton of cool stuff, but it looks hard to install. I need to play around with it.

I didn't make it to the community sessions I was talking about, but I had fun peering into windows on tech worlds outside of my normal experience.

OSCON Wednesday

I'm blogging live from the Portland Convention Center where OSCON 2006 is well underway. After attending Webvisions last week, it's amazing to see a conference that is several orders of magnitude bigger. Instead of a few hundred people spanning a handful of conference rooms, OSCON feels like thousands of people spanning dozens of rooms. (Don't quote me on the numbers.)

It's always great to hear Tim O'Reilly talk about what he's thinking about. He listed five ideas related to open source that are designed to provoke the audience:
  1. Architecture of Participation
  2. Open Source Licenses Are Obsolete
  3. Asymmetric Competition
  4. Operations as Advantage
  5. End of Open Data
Out of context, these probably don't mean much. But I've added them here for my own benefit. And he included a couple of quotes that I'd like to remember: "When the best leader leads, the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'" -Lao Tzu, and "In the future, 'being on someone's platform' will mean being hosted on their infrastructure." - Debra Chrapaty, VP Windows Live.

Anil had a keynote this morning as well, and he talked about making meaningful applications to help people connect. He also talked about the open source Six Apart developer tools for building scalable web apps. He mentioned that most of the applications we think about when we think Web 2.0 are using at least some of the tools. I didn't realize how widely they were used.

Conference organizer Nat talked about a new focus on talks about community at OSCON—one of my primary areas of interest. And there are a bunch of sessions today that aren't specifically about coding that I'd like to see.

I'm in Michael Buffington's talk about games with Rails now...

Webvisions Day 1

Webvisions was fun for me because I know most of today's speakers. And it was great to hang out and chat with friends, and meet some new folks.

The day started with Matt talking about making money with blogging. His recipe was simple: find something you're passionate about, write quality stuff, and an audience and money will follow. The section that stuck out to me was his post "templates" for generating content: product reviews, interviews, op-ed vs. news, and mining hard-to-use forums for good bits of information.

The blogginess continued with a Practical Business Blogging roundtable, where there were good stories about blog culture clashing and melding with the corporate world.

I had lunch with Oregon bloggers and pals with almost the same lineup as last year. With the "pals" being the guys behind Daily Ping. (It turns out I'd met Ryan several years ago at Web2000 in San Francisco.) It's great to meet people face to face for some eyeball contact when you only interact online.

And speaking of meeting up, Andy's afternoon presentation about virtual communities meeting offline was fantastic. It was a history lesson in virtual groups coming together in meatspace—from ham radio guys to BBSers to Metafilter meet-ups to He proposed a three component system necessary for virtual groups to assemble in real space: 1. Personal identity development, 2. Group identification, 3. A commons (or virtual backroom) for organization. His barrage of group pictures of all types of people meeting for all types of things were fascinating.

The day ended with Derek talking about distributed communities. He was kind to mention ORblogs as an example of a new type of "connective tissue" that helps visualize distributed communities. I like his "company town" analogy for describing centralized services, and I agree that in the long run completely distributed "suburbs" with "home owners" will be more stable than having a few large company towns. If these analogies don't make sense out of context, keep an eye out for a podcast of the talk. (Or check out this earlier version of the talk he gave at Etech: The New Community.)

All in all, great sessions, great hallway conversations, and a very casual day of thinking about some of my favorite topics. Thanks, Webvisions!


For the next few days I'll be in PDX, that city of Roses—Stumptown, Bridgetown, Little Beirut, last affordable city on the West Coast, also known as Portland, Oregon—where I'll be having visions. Of the Web. At Webvisions. If you'll be there too and want to talk about envisioning the Web, drop a line.

Oh, and to read what Oregon bloggers are saying about the conference in their backyard, tune in to Topic: Webvisions at ORblogs.

Update: I'll also be in Portland a week from today for OSCON—it's conference mania around here. Ditto on the line-dropping for next week. And ditto for Topic: OSCON.

sxsw baby!

Brad has resurrected sxswblog for 2005 in the form of: sxswbaby! Due to changing servers and changing plans, the old sxswblog is no more. It's great to see Brad keeping the tradition alive. If you want to get an off-the-record, unofficial view of South by Southwest Interactive—and meet some folks virtually before you meet them in person—sxswbaby will be the place.

Unfortunately, it looks like I'm not going to be able to make it to Austin for the conference this year. But I'll be eavesdropping on the site and living vicariously through everyone else. :)

OSCON, Thursday

I spent all day yesterday at OSCON in Portland. The day started with a keynote by Freeman Dyson and his son George Dyson (moderated by Tim O'Reilly).

Freeman Dyson on screen

One of the things that struck me from the conversation was the idea of the "domestication" of technology. Freeman felt that the failure of nuclear technology was in part due to the fact that you can't have a small nuclear project. In other words, you can't run down to Radio Shack and pick up a fission kit and power your home projects with nuclear energy—it's solely the domain of large projects. By contrast, biotechnology is becoming domesticated. Freeman mentioned plant and animal gene-splicing kits for backyard breeders that are only a few years away. He mentioned a future children's game where kids compete to see who can grow the prickliest cactus, and the fact that DNA synthesizers—while currently outrageously expensive—are coming down in price. What I took away from this is that decentralization and adoption by a wide number of people is a key attribute if a technology is ultimately going to be successful.

There were a lot of other good elements in the talk, and they did discuss the dangers and unintended consequences related to new technology. Though Freeman said luck would prevent catastrophe, as it always does. (hmm.)

ora screen

For the rest of the day I was on the O'Reilly-track. I saw a preview of their new magazine, Make, which looks fantastic. It's produced by Dale Dougherty and edited by boingboing pioneer Mark Frauenfelder who were both on hand to describe it. One of the first feature articles is how to build your own kite photography rig. Dale mentioned the inspiration for the magazine came when he realized there was no Martha Stewart for tech geeks.

I also saw a demo of SafariU, a tool that lets teachers assemble custom books from various sources. This is definitely a disruptive technology for the college book market, but should be very appealing to professors who want more control over course material. And I gave a demo of the newly launched Safari Affiliate Program, and their related Web Services—a project I've been involved with for a while. Like I mentioned yesterday, Safari is doing the important work of making books available as bits in addition to atoms—something I first read about in Being Digital almost ten years ago. It seemed like a far-off future at the time, but here we are.