It has been a month since the Expo, which has given me some time to reflect on the experience.
Expectations vs experience
I guess my own expectations of the event were skewed by excitement that it was “the O’Reilly / TechWeb conference” and knowing that both organisations are both passionate about the Web 2.0 space. I was also looking forward to meeting people – both fellow IBMers from around the world who I knew from internal and external social networks, and other people I’ve connected with through different social tools. For me, the most important component of social networking online is the ability it provides to strengthen real-world relationships. Sometimes there’s a clash between attending a conference to learn, and having the opportunity to network!
The agenda was packed with interesting sessions, and in most slots there were at least two presentations I was forced to make a last-minute choice between. I’m not going to cover all of them in-depth, but here are my thoughts on some of those I attended:
Improving your site’s usability – what users really want (Leisa Reichelt)
A great workshop covering both common usability issues with Web 2.0 sites, and methods for analysing and improving a site. It was valuable for me in my role looking at software usability, as the issues and techniques described were not specific to the web – although of course one of the hallmarks of Web 2.0 sites does tend to be user friendliness.
Better media plumbing for the social web (Stowe Boyd)
I’ve been a huge fan of Stowe for a long time (check out his blog) and it was an honour to have the chance to meet and chat with him after his session. His main theme was how the web has moved away from static blocks of content and he argued that blogs are becoming less important as the web moves to an attention-driven flow model. They are more like “rocks in the stream”. I tend to get most of my news and pointers to useful stuff from Twitter and microblogs now… it’s much quicker to post to those media too. If you still see Twitter as "saying what I am doing instead of doing it" then you’re missing the multiplicity of uses – lightweight chat, lightweight location awareness, link sharing, status updates, breaking news, and growth of ambient intimacy and stronger loose connections.
A nice complement to both of the above presentations was Designing for Flow (Bruno Figueiredo) which talked about how user interfaces need to “get out of the way” of the user.
IBM was there, as one of the sponsors of the event, and some of my colleagues presented sessions entitled Web 2.0 Goes to Work and IBM’s Grounds-Up Social Software Transformation. My friend Luis Suarez also gave an excellent short talk on the main stage about how he gave up email.
The standout presentation of the conference, for me, was Electricity 2.0 (Tom Raftery), subtitled “Using The Lessons Of the Web To Improve Our Energy Networks”. To me, this talk really showed the way forward – we now have a lot of technology which is about collaboration and adaptiveness, why shouldn’t we be thinking bigger and applying the read/write ethos of the social web to the read-only energy grids built over 100 years ago?
If you want to catch up on any of the presentations from the Expo, you can find most of them on SlideShare.
New ideas, old ideas, and controversy
The disappointment for me was that there weren’t many genuinely new applications on display. A lot of the announcements and new startups did seem to be “me-too” ideas, and that was disappointing. Perhaps the most genuinely interesting and novel application was Soundcloud, a kind of “Flickr for music” which provides a platform for social sharing and editing of audio files.
On the back of this question of why there was nothing “new” was a debate sparked by Dennis Howlett about whether Web 2.0 has ever really had any benefit. It’s an interesting debate that Tim O’Reilly himself commented on. Tim’s presentation at the conference talked a lot about how the technology could shape society in the future – as I mentioned last week when I wrote about Smarter Planet, this is something with a growing groundswell of opinion behind it.
The surprising aspect of the conference for me, as someone who is “in the space” and spends a lot of time on this technology, is that even after 3 or 4 years of what seems to me to have been blanket coverage and hype around Web 2.0 (in my little corner of the Internet at least…) – there are still people who don’t get it. I had at least one conversation in which I ended up explaining feeds and mashups to a newcomer to the space. Even when new technologies seem obvious to us, we have to remember that there are still people to bring on board.
Undoubtedly the most frustrating part of the conference experience was the patchy wifi coverage and connectivity. Most attendees had their laptops with them; most also had at least one smart phone (iPhones were pretty common); and in my case I also had a wireless camera. So I guess that any tech conference these days needs to budget for 2-3 IP addresses per person and the bandwidth to accommodate promiscuous bloggers, Twitterers, and journalists… some of whom want to stream video too. It’s a tricky problem of course, and one which conference organisers need to work on with venue providers. The issue was most marked during the keynotes when many attendees were in the main hall all trying to hit the same routers (I assume) and the connections just kept dropping. If you’re going to run an event like this and encourage people to blog, post images, Twitter and tag, then connectivity is going to be key.
A good conference, although as usual I found the most exciting aspect was the networking opportunity it presented. I guess I was left feeling a bit disappointed based on the unreasonable expectation that there would be some shiny new idea, rather than an evolution and progress with the ideas that I’ve been following for the past several years… but looking back on it, it was a thoroughly worthwhile experience.
If you want to look back at my live thoughts from the event, take a look at the results of this Twitter Search.