Future of Web Apps (London) – Highlights & Themes

Moo Presentation at FOWA

Continuing in the theme of hanging out with geeks* I spent a couple of days at the Future of Web Apps conference this week. It wasn’t as fun as BarCamp, but it was interesting.

Here’s some of the things that got my brain ticking (or that entertained me) throughout the two days. (Warning – it’s a rather long post):

YouTube’s success is not to do with User Generated Content, it’s about watching TV online (IPTV). Almost all the top viewed videos includes copyrighted material (TV shows, music videos etc).

Michael Arrington was talking mostly about the formula for a winning startup, but I thought this passing comment on YouTube was interesting. I’d not thought about it that way before. Makes total sense. (It made even more sense when Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo showed his chimp video later in the conference as an example of the best of UGC.)

‘There are websites I now visit just so that people know I’ve been there’

Arrington again, this time talking about MyBlogLog. I’ve always sort of gotten the vanity aspect of MyBlogLog, but I’ve never thought of it so politically! Personally, I tend to find it somewhat surprising, in a disturbing way, when I go to someone’s website only to see my own noggin staring back at me!

Again, as an interesting counterpoint to Arrington, Yahoo’s Horowitz spoke more about MyBlogLog and the role it plays in ‘turning users into neighbours’. Making each member of a blog’s audience more visible to one another, and how that can in turn promote a sense of community around a blog (and I am thinking that it actually provides readers with some potentially interesting information they can use in evaluating a blog too….).

So, that’s peaked my interest in MyBlogLog a little more… to the point that I’ve finally given in and put their little widget in my sidebar. It’s an experiment. If you have opinions, I’d be interested to hear them. (Except for opinions on the pink. It’s a phase, you’re going to have to deal with it or stick to RSS! :) )

Community has been a key promise of the web since the beginning (Edwin Aoki, AOL)

Community or the social web was a continuing theme throughout many of the presentations at FOWA, the centrepiece of which was Tara Hunt’s presentation early on day one.

Tara opened with a nice definition of online community care of Lee & Vogel (2003) which was more or less ‘generating member driven content resulting in relationships’. I also liked her definition of the three ‘Levels of Engagement’ which were Lightweight Social Processes (a la Digg, Last.FM), Collaborative Information Structures (a la Flickr, Threadless, YouTube ) and High End Collaboration (a la Wikipedia, Open Source projects, CouchSurfing).

Tara picked up on the theme of fun and play as being common to successful online communities that she has reviewed, and that this playfulness stems from the founders of the communities and plays all the way down to error messages and tone of voice.

She quoted Ev Williams of Twitter fame who says something like:

Fun in work means freedom, creativity, people I respect and like, pursuing ideas that are just crazy enough to work.

On a kind of related theme, I really enjoyed the presentation from the boys at LastFM. A couple of cool things:

Involve users in your web application’s story. Make growth in the best interest of your existing users.

Attention Data – I’ve totally missed the whole concept of attention data up until now. What it is, how you can use it, who it belongs to, the whole shebang. (You too? Get up to speed here: AttentionTrust.org). They say:

When you pay attention to something (and when you ignore something), data is created. This “attention data” is a valuable resource that reflects your interests, your activities and your values, and it serves as a proxy for your attention.

Interesting? Now think about how it can be used as a input for information architecture and design. Here’s a great example from LastFM.

LastFM let users add tags for artists. One day they noticed,  perhaps by looking at Paris Hilton’s tag cloud, that people were using tags as a way of waging a hate campaign against particular artists. Subsequently, some artists had many less than flattering tags associated with their music – and many of these were submitted by only a few members.

What to do? How to handle this tag spam?

The first thought was blacklisting particular tags. The team quickly (and wisely) decided that censorship was not the answer – not only was it not in the spirit of the community, but it also wasn’t a very efficient solution.

Rather, they went with the theory that ‘attention data doesn’t lie’ and began to add weight to tags from users who had actually listened to the artists music. The more you’d listened to Paris Hilton, the more weight associated with your tags. If you didn’t listen to her music, your tags carried less weight.

Clever huh. It certainly made a difference to Paris’s tag cloud. (Although, I just checked back there today and I still wouldn’t be particularly proud if the current tag cloud described my music!)  

So, there’s another tool in the toolbox for filtering and weighting content. (Just that revelation made it worth my while spending two days at FOWA!) 

Some snippets:

On Ajax:

What’s important about Ajax is not the technology. It’s about caring about the quality of your UI, the user experience. (Chris Wilson, Microsoft)

Check out this cool screensaver – it’s the blogosphere, live, 3D. V nice. (Do we even use screensavers anymore? I can’t remember the last time I saw mine).

There was lots of talk about the importance of having a great team. This came from a Venture Capital guy talking about what you need to get their cash.

The team is more important than the idea. We’ll be asking – does this team have the ability to produce a great product?

Khoi Vinh gave a great presentation with insights on what it’s like behind the scenes at the NYTimes. He talked about how the design approach has changed from a traditional ‘narrative design’ to a ‘conversational’ design approach. From what I understand this means that design is less about telling a story now and more about enabling a dialogue and being part of the conversation itself.

I like this in theory. I’d love to see some ‘before and after’ examples so that I can really get a sense of what this actually means. Short of just adding a ‘comments’ box or a ‘digg this’ button at the bottom of the story.

Khoi also talked about what he called the ‘countervailing forces in quality’. (countervailing… I’m going to use that word more often. I like it). He was highlighting the fact that even as we have access to higher and higher quality of media via HDTV, Skype, Digital SLRs etc. the popularity of much lower quality formats like YouTube, SMS, and the Camera Phone continues to grow at least equally.

I have no idea what this means and I don’t think Khoi knows either (or I didn’t pick that up from his talk). It certainly is intriguing tho’.

Other cool stuff from Khoi:

  • Feature Noise – everything on a page is something people have to evaluate and either attend to or filter out. Don’t make people work too hard.
  • Options are Obstructions – preferences and settings on a separate page should be regarded as something you couldn’t resolve in the main interface. (This mean’s they’re bad, unfinished, should be either treated more elegantly or killed)
  • Offend experts not beginners (but most users are intermediates) – refer to Alan Cooper’s Inmates Running the Aslyum for more detail.
  • Writing is interface design. Language informs interaction.
  • Aim for a maximum of elegance with a minimum of ornamentation
  • Context over consistency (avoid monotony, emphasis variety)
  • Use a grid. Design for order. (It allows variety, makes opportunities for variety obvious).

Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of PHP, was great. His talk was an interesting mix of PHP stuff and community stuff (via open source community). I loved it when he said:

I have programming with a passion… I endure the pain to solve problems

He had some interesting theories on why people contribute to communities. His list was:

  • Self Interest (they get something out of it, like learning PHP)
  • Self Expression
  • Hormones (in particular, the hormone oxytocin, nature’s trust hormone), and
  • To improve the world (although, there are only a few strange people with this motivation).

And, one last quote, from the Moo guys (another excellent presentation).

The internet’s great. But it’s just the internet.

Happy Friday everyone!

* previous thoughts on the term ‘geek’

Photo explanation: this was a slide from the Moo presentation. The s/z thing always gets my goat. This was followed by a slide that said ‘Do Internationalise’

4 thoughts on “Future of Web Apps (London) – Highlights & Themes

  1. thanks for sharing your notes, Leisa! sounds v. interesting. much appreciated by those of us nowhere near the centre of the conference universe.


  2. Ack! There is my face again. on your sidebar now.

    I actually don’t care for this feature on mybloglog and won’t use it.

    I like the idea of mybloglog but in the context of using it vs. showing up on actual blogs.

    Just a preference. I have noticed it makes me comment more, so maybe that’s a good thing?

  3. I agree with you. Without copyrighted material, YouTube could quickly lose all interest. If all majors will choose startup like Joost, it could be a problem!
    PS: I was at the RomeCamp 2007. It is true, barcamps are really funny and interesting!

    In my blog you can post in English, if you like…

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