Fractious Friday: IO ignites the Web geek landscape

Logo-ignite.pngMost of the time, geologic change unfolds too slowly for us humans to perceive. Changes in the built landscape tend to be cyclic, and easier to notice. Expansion/contraction, verticality/sprawl. The pace of change in the urban environment has quickened dramatically in modern times. Travelers describe the changing skylines of fast-growing cities, which can be entirely transformed over the course of months. Leave for half a year and you may not recognize the neighborhood you come home to. But it seems to me the Internet landscape and the marketplace of digital technologies change most quickly of all. I stopped in at Google IO in San Francisco last week, and that was what impressed me most.

If you follow the industry pundits and prognosticators, from Arrington and O'Reilly to Dixon and Wilson, this won't be news to you. Google and Apple aren't friends anymore. Sun is gone. Adobe is licking its wounds.

In this climate of shifting allegiances and alignments, debates on curation vs control, privacy vs connection, it's interesting to consider a "wisdom of the crowd" phenom that's become a landmark feature of many influential tech conferences -- Ignite talks.

Ignite is a rigorously defined format for speedy "geek talks," devised by O'Reilly's Brady Forrest and his pal, Bre "Makerbot" Pettis. Each speaker gets 20 slides that auto-advance after 15 seconds. Ignite talks are to conference panels and keynotes what tweets are to blog posts and essays. "Enlighten us but make it quick." The attention must flow.

Speakers propose Ignite talks in advance, which lets the local organizer stitch together a coherent program from 10-15 presentations, delivered by a hodge-podge of speakers on a host of topics, loosely joined. Ignite sessions distill the themes of a conference and the passions of its attendees, creating a compressed time capsule of the attention landscape in a community at a particular place and time.

Personally, I'm hooked. I like the brevity and rigor of the format, with its sharp focus on storytelling. The slideshow is important too: visuals amplify, enhance, and add a whole new layer of nuance. A well-composed collection of talks is like an overture--introducing, revealing, and repeating motifs from the rest of the conference. It's also a place where the line between expert and enthusiast is very deliberately blurred.

At Google IO Ignite there were 10 speakers. Soon, I'm sure you'll be able to view the videos on the Ignite Show website.

Here's a quick run-down:

  • Clay Johnson, from Washington DC's Sunlight foundation, who talked about opening government data and introduced me to Little Sis, a public database that brings transparency to networks of influence, by detailing the connections between powerful people and organizations;
  • Vanessa Fox, SEO expert and creator of Google Webmaster Central, who chased down the meaning of life in a fast-paced rap about how we search today, and evoked the Google superbowl ad that went from Paris to marriage in just under 60 seconds;
  • Bradley Vickers, who described a 71 day rowing expedition across the North Atlantic, fraught with adventure, peril, and solid lessons about goals, planning, and positive outcomes;
  • Van Riper, a regular guy and unlikely serial community organizer, who's discovered in himself a talent for bringing people together online and offline to make things happen and get stuff done;
  • Krissy Clark, a public radio journalist and 5th generation Californian, who spoke eloquently about the layers of story that augment the reality of place, and how we can now effectively click on place to understand where we come from and where we are going.
  • Aaron Koblin, a technologist from Google's Creative Labs, whose visual explorations of big data, crowdsourcing (a la Mechanical Turk), and collaboration invalidate the old distinctions between art and technology;
  • James Young, a network security guy and navy of one from Utah, who builds warships made of balsa, on the joys of shooting the crap out of scale model boats on a pond in naval battles of epic proportions;
  • Anne Velling, an IT guy from the Netherlands, who built an Eliza bot for Google Wave and introduced a new generation of geek guys to the ever chatty and forever young Eliza.
  • Ben Huh, of icanhascheezburger.com, on lolcats and lulz and the evolution of the meme. Ben finishes his talk with a high-stepping dance transition to the final speaker, the perennially dancing Matt. As far as I know, this is a first in the annals of Ignite talks.
  • The aforementioned Matt Harding, of Where the Hell is Matt, the man who's made it ok to dance badly round the world, gives a whirlwind tour of the Imaginary Line of Ancient Cosmic Weirdness, with stops in places like Giza, Easter Island, and, of course, Atlantis.

The prevailing themes reflect the web zeitgeist in the spring of 2010: open data, big data, visualization, curation, discovery, crowdsourcing, maps and location, community, augmented reality, collaboration, and the evergreen topic of boys and their toyz. Which reminds me of another first I saw last week at IO Ignite: the iPad, used masterfuly by Matt Harding, as a handheld presentation tool. More geek cred than a set of 3x5 index cards, and much easier to read from than notes on a palm.

Havi Hoffman
Havi Hoffman, Yahoo! Developer Network
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