Field Theory by Hadyn Green


Webstock, rollin' with heat

365 days without something happening that changes your life would be a rare thing. A fairly disappointing thing too. It's been almost 365 days since I had three life-changing experiences in one month: I got an iPhone, I turned 30, and I went to Webstock.

I had been to conferences before. Ones where all I did was try look interested, ones where I was speaking and was trying to remember the funny bits I had prepared, even some great ones where I got to talk to interesting people like David Bellamy ("wind turbines are evil"), Bill English (he was eating baked beans and bacon for breakfast and his real first name is Simon) and Helen Clark (she was in the middle of some ‘scandal' and I was too nervous to actually talk much, no it wasn't awkward).

I had seen amazing presentations where data, research and insight had been blasted at me in various formats. I remember one that even had a 3D representation of student reading-comprehension achievement data that we all had to wear the red/green glasses to see.

And yet I have never been more amazed by a gathering of minds set towards one task than I have at Webstock. I still have the trading cards decorating my cubicle.

From the opening speaker (Jane McGonigal) there were instantly 1,000s of ideas streaming from the audience into cyberspace. Discussions on everything from user interaction to whether a Star Destroyer could beat the Enterprise. If you squinted and turned your head to the right angle, the air sparkled with electrons.

I talked tattoos with Heather Champ and Derek Powazek. I managed to keep a cool exterior as I talked to Ze Frank about The Remnants despite an incredible urge to giggle the whole time.

Bruce Sterling's talk caused so much fuming and grumpiness that he had to put the transcript up on and his description:

Web 2.0 guys: they've got their laptops with whimsical stickers, the tattoos, the startup T-shirts, the brainy-glasses — you can tell them from the general population at a glance.

caused us to start a game where we had to find that exact person. In the meantime Jane McGonigal had started a dancing contest.

At Webstock the presenters are reacting agents. They are a dirty big lump of sodium thrown into a pool of gleefully-watching water. Sodium by itself is a silvery lump, water by it self is wet… but together…

Other conferences the speakers are there to show how smart they are, you are there to applaud then take those ideas away. And fair enough in many cases. At Webstock you interact. And not always with the speakers.

The conversation over drinks is thick with the evolution of ideas. Each primordial idea branching and diverging (or converging) to suit each attendee's ecological niche. Or (as I continue to mix my scientific-discipline metaphors), think of Webstock as a Big Bang size event; the speakers are the initial expansion and the concurrent and subsequent discussion is the cooling and coalescing of planets and solar systems and galaxies of ideas.

But I don't want to build it up too much.

Webstock does seem to need that audience atmosphere to really get rolling. This is despite the usual New Zealand audience reaction of sitting politely and quietly during the talks (something that freaks out international speakers). And with many companies tightening their belts for conference attendance there was a concern this year.

Webstock is one the most sought after tickets on the conference calendar. But it does come with a high price tag. Personally I believe it's worth it, but I'm not running finances for a company. Thankfully those crafty Webstock organisers have a guide for a great business case.

And why not, this year's line up is as strong as ever. Personally on the top of my list is Rives and Kevin Rose and Shelley Bernstein (who I missed last time she was here). But I'm bound to be broadsided by a speaker I wasn't expecting or currently know nothing about.

I wanted to write more about the presenters this year, but I realised that I don't really know about them. And that their talks are usually only vaguely related to the title. For example, I have no idea what will be in Toby Segaran's talk "Beautiful Data". I know what I'd like it to be, but then again, if I knew what he was going to say why bother going?

Because that's how Webstock rolls. Fast and with a lot of mass, but nobody jumps out of the way.

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