Category: rants

Webstock and why words matter

I’m fresh out of Webstock, and as usual, I have many thoughts. Sadly though, it’s not the usual “OMG I am so inspired and happy and my work will be amazing now and I will kick ass and take names” kind of thoughts. I mean, there are those too, but mostly, I am really disappointed in some of the choices made by some of the speakers.

Disclaimer first: I love Webstock, I mean I really love it. Mike and Tash and Deb and Ben put together the most amazing couple of days every year and I am super grateful that I get to go along. But here are the things that I had problems with, so I can express myself a little better than on Twitter.

The very first speaker was Clay Johnson, whose talk was Industrialised Ignorance. He used the line “Cheese tastes better than broccoli  and talked about the “obesity epidemic” (my quotes, not his) and how we know the names of the Kardashians but not what the child poverty rates are (22% in New Zealand, according to Twitter).  This is what my problem is: he talked about how left wing and right wing media would use bullshit phrases as boogeymen (like “Obamacare” or “socialised medicine”), but that is exactly what he was doing with his use of “obesity epidemic”, because omg being fat is the worst thing ever. Except it’s not.  And he used graphs about how obesity was growing, and while there wasn’t a reference for his figures that I caught (I could be wrong), I would be willing to bet they were based on BMI measurements, which are extremely problematic. When I tweeted at him about it, he said “I’d say childhood life expectancy going down for the first time in recorded history due to obesity is, yes, “omg worst thing ever”.  So we have differing opinions about obesity, and have read different things. Okay. But this is where I come back to the “cheese tastes better than broccoli  line. Sometimes, cheese is much easier to buy than broccoli  Sometimes cheese (or whatever junk food boogeyman we’re using)  is cheaper. If you’re living in poverty, you need to go for whatever food options you can. Not everyone has the luxury of time, or the knowledge of how to cook, or even just access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and I think Clay was going for an easy laugh, because hey, showing a picture of a pizza in Japan that comes with hamburgers and nachos on top is much more funny than discussing the actual real issues around nutrition and poverty and health. And I think if you are of the calibre of speaker who is invited to Webstock, you should do better than that.

One of the next speakers was Aza Raskin, and while I absolutely loved his talk about how constraints can actually be a really good thing and I was hella inspired, he started his speech with a summing up of how the world is in trouble or some such “and obesity is spreading like a virus”. SERIOUSLY? I made sure to touch as many people as possible after that, so that my fatness would spread to them. Using fat as shorthand for “bad things and health problems that might not actually be related to actual size at all” is just incredibly lazy. This is not what I expect from some of the brightest, most articulate voices from around the globe.

Then Garr Reynolds spoke, and his topic was on how to give a good presentation. There was a lot of talk of death by PowerPoint (oh I feel that, hooooooooooooo boy do I feel that), and then he showed us bad examples of graphs ,and good examples of graphs. What were the graphs of? Obesity rates in Canada. You know, without any context. Because FAT IS BAD.  The graphs could have been about anything at all. Later he used one about deforestation rates in Germany. But why not go ahead and push the OBESITY IS GOING TO EAT US ALL message a little further?

If you think I am being oversensitive at this point, you’re damn right. Lots of surface area here for all these messages to be absorbed through. My tweet at this time was “Once more, obesity, obesity, obesity. Is this a web conference? Or are all the presenters actually medical experts?”. My friend Emma and I started texting each other playing Fat Bingo every time it was mentioned. Jason Scott in his really great presentation about saving data was telling a story about an evil tow truck driver, and used fat as shorthand for “this was a bad person”. Unnecessary. Michael Lopp referred to designers as “guys” and then quickly added “and gals” which I really appreciated, because the huge gender discrepancies in tech are not going to get any better unless we actively work on them, but then he too used the whole “FAT IS THE WORST THING EVER” laziness. And then there was Mike Monterio. Oh boy. We’re going to need a new paragraph.

Mike’s talk was How designers destroyed the world. Read the first line of that description – “You are directly responsible for what you put into the world.” His talk started out great, mentioning how bad design decisions had made Facebook privacy settings terrible, how people got outed by them, and how Facebook Graph could have devastating effects for homosexuals in Iran, for example. I had a slight sense of unease at his “no one is forcing you to do anything, you can just quit!” mentality, because actually there aren’t a whole lot of jobs around and bills still gotta be paid, etc, but I understand he was there to inspire. And then he started talking about killing your ego, and also misogyny and how it needs to go, and I was like yes, thank you. But meanwhile, every time he talked about designers, he referred to them as “he”. I tweeted at him that maybe not doing that would be a really good starting point, because when you’re standing on stage talking to 900 people, you are a role model, and you should model good behaviour. When he retweeted me, I thought he was like “cool, point noted”. But instead, he came back “what’s the female term for ‘troll’?”. Oh, awesome. You know, I get drunk and say stupid stuff on Twitter too. All the time. But not on my work Twitter account. I wouldn’t bother trying to engage with YouTube comments because I know that people there are idiots, but when it’s speakers at a conference I love, who are very smart articulate people, yeah I think it’s worth trying to talk to them about something that’s problematic. I don’t think asking someone to be more careful in their language deserves this kind of abuse.

A couple of years ago, I went to one of the speaker’s website, and saw that their basic speaking charge was around $10,000 for a keynote. I don’t remember who that speaker was, and I don’t actually know how much Webstock pays their speakers (Mike hasn’t sent those financials out to the entire mailing list. Yet). But they are experts in their fields, and all of them are professional speakers, who make a living from it. Assuming that they get paid $10,000, and speak at around 120 words per minute for 40 minutes. That’s around $2 a word. Is it really that hard to make sure that those words are picked very carefully?