Do it different

Its always difficult trying to parse a conference as diverse as Webstock into a few lines of blog posts or a 1 hour talk. Sometimes I end up talking about a handful of the fascinating sessions, the ones that really resonated with me or the ones that seemed to have the most bearing on libraries, our work and our customers. Often I try to draw out a theme or two, as Webstock speakers often seem to have shared themes. It never does justice to either the speakers or the event as a whole. This year you’re getting a book/link list c/o BiblioCommons and a Wordle. Enjoy, explore, employ.

The Webstock 2014 book / link list

Cover of The year without pants by Scott BerkunThis list features books by Webstock 2014 speakers as well as those they refer to, their presentations where they’ve been posted publicly, websites that they have referred to or in some cases their own websites.

The books in particular are very interesting in that you’ll notice that NONE of them are to do with web specifically. In fact most of them are to do with psychology, or rather thinking, with some design and media stuff thrown in. That’s because, despite its name, Webstock is not really a web conference (any more?) – sure most of its speakers and attendees are doing stuff on the web, but then most of everyone is on the web these days. If you tied me down and tickled me for an answer I would say that Webstock is about creativity. Not (only) arty farty creativity but the creativity that makes us make and innovate, whether it’s a really great public service website, a music album, an orchestra, a park, a health programme; and creating the conditions that maximise that creativity.

My Webstock ’14 Wordle

Wordle based on phrases from webstock 2014

Check out that great big change. Not that that’s surprising – whether it was Liz’s “QUIT”, or Tom’s “revolution not evolution”, or Scott’s “‘what we’ve always done’ has no value”, there was a huge emphasis (see, a theme emerges) of making major changes to the way you do things and think about things, of letting go of the past and its baggage and reassessing where your plans are taking you. So to end this rambling summary I’m going to leave you with some of the snippets that made up the above and encourage you to have a look at the book/link list – I’ll be adding to it from time to time, particularly as the conference videos emerge.

Choose important over urgent… Erase the meanings that are holding you back.

Do it properly. Stop making digital services as if you’re buying something.

Don’t underestimate passion and human spirit. Take a leap of faith.

Don’t write a strategy, deliver. Go back to first principles, focus on user need.

Create patterns for personal serendipity. Create rituals.

Choose a gap, start small and run fast. Optimise for momentum.

‘bizarro breaking bad librarians’

Jason Scott photo by Webstock on FlickrJason Scott is mad and he wants you to know it. In fact he’s bloody furious – people’s stuff is being deleted, the world’s nascent digital history is being destroyed, entire artforms are being erased and forgotten. But he and his “bizarro breaking bad librarian” friends “are going to rescue your shit” and if you’re really lucky it may even find its way into a museum.

Jason, @textfiles, is an archivist and historian with a particular interest in digital formats. He started out on BBS systems and has filmed a documentary about them. From there he started collecting textfiles and ascii art and this has developed into a network of archives. Some of the ascii art started out as teletype art and even typewriter art before being transferred to ascii.

Out of the Yahoo announcement that it would close down Geocities in 2009, the “human race coming online for the first time”, was born the Archive Team (not to be confused with and his principles of RAGE (“I find hostility’s really worked out for me”), PARANOIA (trust no one with your data – companies are constantly being taken over and destroyed and with them goes your data) & KLEPTOMANIA (backup everything and download entire sites to protect them for posterity). With software such as the Archive Team Warrior, a virtual archiving appliance, they encourage site owners to capture their own sites to help with the ArchiveTeam archiving efforts. But they can only grab public information and encourage everyone to make secure back-ups of all their private data. After hearing of the loss of the sole copies of recollections of deceased family members and entire family histories when Geocities was deleted we should all make this a priority. Recent projects include saving as much of MobileMe that they could get to – they have rescued 420 Terabytes of data over the past two years.

Jason also has a very famous cat Sockamillion @sockington.

Pizza tastes better than broccoli

So last week I went to the amazing Webstock conference in Wellington. I have gone to this most years and always there seem to be a few themes that seem to creep into many of the talks given. Because usually many of the speakers are American its not uncommon for the ‘themes’ to be heavily influenced by whatever is going on over there, but this is valuable because many of the trends we see in the US eventually make their way here as well. This year a major ‘theme’ that I picked up on is that the news media is broken.

Clay Johnson @cjoh talked about “industrialised ignorance” where a highly politicised media is based on affirming the reader in their existing beliefs, not in informing them. One of the stunning examples he gave was that of the leaked AOL document, The AOL Way, available as slides over on the Business Insider website. It demonstrates how every click that we make reinforces the demand for more of that type of content and therefore is an ethical choice. He showed how today ignorance is caused by the consumption of information, not by its lack, and recommends that we all go on an Information Diet, become a conscious consumer, shift our focus to the local and focus on producing quality content ourselves.

Miranda Mulligan @mirandamulligan was equally critical about the news media although more from a design perspective. She says that journalism is important for democracy but that too few journalists understand the current mediums. They need to understand how the Internet works, not to become developers, but to understand how their content will be consumed. She’s worked in the news media for years trying to teach them but it hasn’t worked so now is trying to get web designers to be journalists as she sees them as being “uniquely positioned to have global view on how the business works”.

Meanwhile Robin Sloan is a media inventor and writer. We have his book book cover Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, but his talk wasn’t about that. Rather he discussed some of the inventions of the past: printing and the development of italic script, movies and Edison’s rotating ‘black maria’ studio (one of his early ‘movies’ featured cats boxing) and his own invention of a new type of media, the ‘tap essay’ available in the Tapestry app for iOS.

I thought that all of these sessions were very interesting as they demonstrated how different sectors are handling the tremendous changes that have been occurring in information format and delivery over the past decade. I think that there’s a message there for librarians too, like journalists our job is still being transformed by the internet and we need to understand how it works, not just at a surface level, in order to be able to help our customers. Karen McGrane talked about throwing away any idea of there being a ‘primary’ medium and focusing on the content and that’s part of this too. Finally we need to become more mindful consumers of information so that we can better assist and teach our customers – if we all need to be on an information diet maybe librarians need to learn to be information dieticians.

Down with blobs, long live chunks!

The weaknesses of content management systems (CMS) have always been pretty obvious to me so I was not at all surprised when Karen McGrane referred to them as “content mis-management” in her content strategy workshop at Webstock this year. CMS just substitutes one set of problems for a set of different problems where people can just shove any old garbage onto the internet with no editorial process or standards. The CMS, she said, is “not your editorial staff, its your printing press” and therefore only a part of the content life-cycle, not the final solution as many try to treat it.

Blobs vs. Chunks

Mobile content strategy rule 8
Separate content from form and create presentation-independent content. Don’t encode meaning through visual styling – instead, add structure and metadata to your content.

A big part of the problem is that we’ve gotten sucked in to believing that content creators need a MS Word-like WYSIWYG interface, but this allows them to dump unstructured ‘blobs’ of styled content onto the web. These blobs are inevitably unsustainable and in the face of the need to now re-style content for various forms of delivery, including but not limited to mobile, they are extremely limited.

What we need, Karen says, is systems that create more structure around content, to create content in reusable ‘chunks’, not amorphous ‘blobs’ and systems that can deploy the most appropriate content for the platform. So we need to create content packages: for example, we might have 2 or more variations on the page title, of different lengths or keyed to different audiences, a short and long page description, the page content itself,  appropriately structured with subheadings that can be reused as in-page contents links, several sizes of each relevant image and a range of metadata.

The content management system would then be set up to fit with the various tasks of its users and to publish the various chunks in the most appropriate way. Karen gave us ten ‘rules’ for content strategy: Continue reading

Webstock 2013

This is my pre-conference blog post for Webstock which I am attending next week in Wellington. I’m going to three workshops prior to the conference proper and this is where a lot of the work actually gets done as the workshops have limited numbers and can get into details. Every year is different which keeps it all fresh and shiny. This year the workshops have a definitely content strategic & design lean to them:

Content strategy into your design process with Karen McGrane. There’s been a lot of talk about content strategy over the past two years but its sort of been as a third wheel to design and functionality and I’m really hoping that this is going to provide the traction between content and design (as the title suggests). This comes at a perfect time as we’re about to launch into a significant design process. As a team we are predominantly content focused and I know that we haven’t really been keeping the design up with our content so I’m hoping that this session will really give me some tools to do that.

Karen also wrote the book on content strategy for mobile and that’s a different session that I am also going to. Mobile is already a significant proportion of our traffic (around 16% last time I looked) and all forecasts expect it to increase. But the big problem is that ‘mobile’ can mean lots of things. Roughly 5 years ago we all designed for 1024 pixel wide screens – my iPad (yeah the original version), while being ‘mobile’ has a 1024 wide screen. If I bought a new one it would be even higher resolution so mobile doesn’t necessarily mean small. And the web design field is full of warnings not to assume that people on a mobile platform don’t want to get all the features/functionality and content that anyone on a ‘standard’ PC would get. This session promises to teach me “how to use mobile as a wedge to create a better experience for ALL users” – sounds GREAT.

Workshop three is with web legend Chris Coyier of CSS Tricks fame: The modern web designer’s workflow. “This workshop is going to be covering the complete front end web designer’s workflow, starting from scratch.” This is only a half day session but I am pretty sure I’m going to come out with my head spinning. We’re going to look at newish technologies that I haven’t had time to really look at yet but everyone’s adding to their development kit. Actually I’m getting excited just sitting and reading the description. Expect to find me at Mac’s for lunch poring over my two and a half day’s worth of notes and cooling my head in a bucket.

If you’re on twitter you can keep up with webstock stuff by following the conference itself and by the hashtag #webstock (DOH). Interesting side-note: all the workshops I’m going to are sold out at this point.