Last Friday I went to a stormy Brighton for dConstruct, a conference on “Designing the social web”. I had a great day, one that reminded me how little I’ve socialised over the past couple of years. The conference was well organised and very simple — a single track of talks and plenty of time for mingling and chatting. But I did feel underwhelmed by the talks, a feeling I remember from previous times I’ve been to web conferences.
Maybe I’m going to the wrong conferences (for me)? Maybe I don’t know how to get anything out of conferences? Maybe I’m way too critical and cynical? Maybe it wasn’t very good?
Steven Johnson kicked off, talking about his book, The Ghost Map, and segueing into his “hyperlocal media site” Outside.in. I’d seen him talk about the book before, so there wasn’t much new for me there. And while the promise of Outside.in is great I remain sceptical of how well it can work, particularly in the UK. I almost wondered why he was showing it off at a UK conference when it only works in the US. It made me wonder what UpMyStreet Conversations, launched six years ago, could have been like today if it hadn’t been left to whither.
Aleks Krotoski gave the most enthusiastic talk, wondering aloud why the web and gaming development worlds don’t mix. Of all the presenters who didn’t stick behind the podium, she was the only one who had mastered the art of standing still while talking, rather than rolling aimlessly around. Easier said than done. I’m not sure I learned much, but I very much enjoyed it — I never find time for gaming and enjoy little glimpses into the world by people who know their stuff.
Joshua Porter talked about using bits of psychology to inform the wording on and design of websites. All valid stuff but it felt like there were two flaws. First, all the psychology felt very third hand, as if we were only hearing fragments from popular science books, rather than anything really meaty. Second, there were no data to back up any of the claims about how, say, changing a few words can increase sign-ups on a site. Consequently it all felt a bit floaty and unspecific, and could have been given any time over the past decade.
Daniel Burka trod some of the same ground, talking about Digg and Pownce. I remember liking it better than the previous talk — a little more specific and more obviously drawn from practical experience — but can’t remember much of it now, which maybe says something about one of us.
Tantek Çelik spoke about microformats and how to use them to make it easier for users to move their lists of friends from one social networking site to another. On the one hand it’d be great when this works and we no longer have to construct friend lists from scratch every time. On the other hands (a) most peoples’ “friends” are different across different sites, and (b) this feels very much like solving a problem for geeks rather than the real world. Most non-geeks I know only use Facebook and if they dabble with, say, Flickr or Twitter they have very small networks. I guess it doesn’t hurt to make this stuff easier, but I was left wondering what other, real, problems could be tackled with the same energy. Also, in a presentation, long explanations of how to mark up web pages quickly get tiresome — give me one quick example then point me at the wiki.
Matt Biddulph and Matt Jones gave a tag team presentation about Dopplr. I can’t honestly say how this compared to the others as I know both Matts — watching a presentation by friends is always fun (as this was) but impossible to judge objectively.
Jeremy Keith gave the final talk. Well, lecture — the entire thing was read out word for word and I felt like a university student attending an introductory lecture by a smug tutor who knows he’s extremely popular, but later in the year I’d realise that the rest of the course contained nothing that wasn’t squeezed into that first talk. It was a self-consciously clever whizz through the internet’s favourite pop-science memes of recent years: the madness of crowds, the wisdom of crowds, six degrees of separation, power laws and long tails, tipping points, black swans… although I did learn about Erdös numbers and that Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years now writes about maths and has an Erdös-Bacon number of six. But otherwise the point of the thing escaped me entirely. I feel bad trashing the talk, and Jeremy Keith may be a lovely chap, but I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough.
So, I learned very little. I’m tempted to go to Brighton again next year but without paying for a conference ticket, solely to meet up with friends for lunch and dinner around the event, as the social side was the highlight for me. I’m guessing I’ve been around too long, and am way too jaded, to learn anything from talks at events like this.
Which leads me to wonder… what events should I be going to? I haven’t been to ETech for a few years, and although that also left me underwhelmed then, next year’s topics look much broader and more varied. I’ve never been to Reboot. What else is there that will make me think, rather than make me grumpy?