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?


  1. Megapope

    Thanks for this! Awesome read. Sucks that developers can’t take more care with what they put out there, especially after speaking on that very topic. Hopefully this will help the discussion!

    Also, “fart”, your anon cowardice would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.

  2. Parsley72

    I think part of the problem comes from the terms “fat” and “obese” being used interchangeably. Obesity is not causing the diseases mentioned above, but fat does. Now when I say fat I mean people who have a high percentage of body fat. This does not necessarily mean obese – thin people can have very high levels of fat in their body and the health problems that come from this are very real. So yes, there is a fat epidemic (not virus) and it does come with health problems, but this is not the same as obesity.

  3. fart

    the truth can be tragic, but you people just don’t want to hear it.

    the truth is the author of this blog is another entitled white woman who truly believes she has the right to be another disgusting fatbody.

    and im surprised she didn’t like webstock. seemed like fat girl heaven – free ice cream.

  4. runningwhio

    Shame that THAT ^^ is considered feedback. However, way to cement your point.
    Also, re: Mike FTW (not winning, as it turns out) – I wasn’t there, I don’t know webstock, but that exchange would’ve been a good place to start his part of ending misogyny by just saying, ‘good point, will do better’. I hope he’s googling what ‘ally’ means to understand how exactly he is not one of ours.

  5. QoT

    Protip: correlation =/= causation, you can tell by the way thin people get Type 2 diabetes as well.

    Second protip: when you link to a Wiki article which says “this may be” and “this increase is believed to be primarily due” it may not be the knock-down argument you think.

    Third protip: diabetes can be an epidemic because it’s a disease. Fatness can’t ’cause it isn’t.

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  7. Robyn

    Is it not obvious? By archaicly using “he” to represent both men and women, Mike Monterio was deliberately using the language of the mid 20th century, evoking the retro cool era of Don Draper, the Eames chair and midday martinis. If it seems sexist in 2013, this is only because you haven’t watched enough episodes of Mad Men or looked at enough modernist furniture blogs.

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  9. Pai

    It’s not ‘fat’ that causes diabetes, it’s insulin/leptin resistance and inflammation (the side effect of high IR is often but not always increased weight gain because insulin levels affect fat cells, but to blame bodyfat per se is to blame a symptom, not the cause). This is why there are skinny Type-2 diabetics and overweight healthy people (and that’s not even getting into the whole BMI stupidity).

    There is so much ignorance and bigotry floating around ‘obesity’ lately, it’s really upsetting. So many people seem to feel it’s totally a-ok to be viciously cruel to fat people and assume they’re stupid, lazy, etc. right to their face in a way that totally blows my mind. Especially when they then trot out scientifically-illiterate ‘proof’ as to why their behavior is somehow justified. Bigotry is never ‘justified’.

  10. Maxens McConfused

    Wait, also… I’m not a nutritionist, and I guess he isn’t, but aren’t you supposed to eat some cheese (and other milk products) everyday? That’s what the nutritionists on TV and flyers at my family doctor say and what I’ve been told since I’m a toddler. How on earth is cheese junk food? I just don’t get it, I was always told cheese was healthy, because of the proteins and calcium. Maybe what is considered healthy depends on where you live, since I’m french and in France you eat more cheese than in America?

  11. Tom Coates

    I can’t really speak to much of what you’ve said above, but I would like to correct one thing. Almost none of the speakers at Webstock make their living from speaking – and in fact (without knowing what the other speakers got paid) I would guess you’re around an order of magnitude off in your estimations of the amount they/we got paid. In my experience, the reason that most of us want to come to Webstock is because of how wonderful the event is, how receptive the audience is and how stunning New Zealand is. We get looked after pretty well, but I can say without any doubt in my heart that we don’t come for the money.

    Every speaker that I’ve met at Webstock over the years takes the opportunity they have to speak very seriously and views it as something of an honour to have been invited. That’s why so many of us spend so much time freaking out beforehand (and can experience considerable relief afterwards). Obviously we’re all capable of making mistakes, but I passionately believe that every speaker is doing their utmost to provide value to attendees above and beyond what’s expected. We might not achieve that, but it’s certainly our goal.

    Lastly, I do want to stand up for a friend a bit. Mike Monteiro can be a cantankerous old sod, but he is also a brilliant and hard-working man who genuinely wants to fight every day for more women in our industry, in every discipline and at every level. It’s not pretense or fakery – he genuinely fights for this stuff and I consider him a significant ally in helping us root out prejudice and iniquities. I would be *very* sad if that were forgotten because of some clumsy tweeting and misapplied pronouns.

  12. Joanna

    Hi Tom, thanks very much for your very considered reply. I appreciate I may be way off with the financials, and probably I shouldn’t have even included it – I guess what I was trying to say is that Webstock speakers are experts, not just in their fields, but also at public speaking, which is exactly why I hold them to a higher standard than I might hold others. And that might be unfair, but I’m not sure it is. I also want to emphasise that it’s precisely my love of Webstock that made me so sensitive – when you see the effort they go to for inclusiveness, from ice creams for the dairy-intolerant, to the sign language interpreters to making sure that there are always female speakers, it feels jars when something is off. When Mike Brown opened, he encouraged us to interact with the speakers, to treat them like human beings, so I really don’t think it was trolling of me to tweet at Mike Monteiro that not using “he” all the time when referring to designers would be helpful. And just as you stood up for your friend, I really don’t think my friend Emma is the reason that everything is terrible in the world, even though she is a super staunch feminist and had enough spoons that day to call someone out on uncool behaviour.

    It’s done, it’s over, I hope it was a learning experience for all concerned, etc. Soon (hopefully!) I’ll emerge out from all the work I have to catch up on after two days off for the conference and I’ll get to post about all the things I learnt and loved, because that’s a much bigger list.

  13. Concerned Anon

    Early on in your post you link to a blogger who writes on “fat acceptance”. She points to other blogs in support of her ideas, and once in a while points to edge case papers which can be interpreted as being neutral or positive towards overweight people (not obese or obese) through some degree of mental gymnastics.

    This is sad. Obesity is one of the greatest health threats in the modern world. The World Health Organisation (which has nothing to gain from so-called “fat hate”) states that obesity is the fifth leading cause of death -in the world-. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/

    Get some facts and start on the path to losing some weight. You blog about the food you eat and the alcohol you consume, so I know you have an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle. Change it. Start burning more calories every day than you take in until you’re healthy. It’s that easy.

  14. Bex

    Dear Concerned Anon,

    All I’m going to say is that there is more than one reason that people are overweight. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, but I’m a very healthy 140kgs. I can run 10km without stopping (can you?), I can lift about 30kgs (tried doing 32 this morning, that didn’t go so well), I walk everywhere. And I’m still classed as obese according to most people. It’s not due to my diet, it’s not due to my fitness. It’s the fact my lady parts are f***ed beyond belief (not in a fun way, I know f***ed isn’t the best word there) and there’s not much I can do about that except have quite radical surgery that I don’t want to have.

    I know plenty of people who are overweight, either obese levels or not, and it’s not always down to their lifestyles. Another example is a girl I know who is also one of the fittest people I know but due to bung lady parts (again, not the best words), she’s about 20kgs overweight.

    Can we all please remember that this post wasn’t actually about obesity though? It was a comment on a conference we went to. It wasn’t all great but there WAS a lot of good. Jo could have mentioned all of that but this is more important I think.

    Stop hating the fat, it just makes me more cuddly.


    Dear Jo,

    Don’t listen to the trolls. Eat the cheese, drink the wine. Life’s too short to be concerned about your weight all the time and I bet your friends like you when you’re happy. So: be happy. Friends liking you is the best course of action here.


  15. Ace McWicked

    A lot of people believe a lot of things are their business. Even if you personally hate fat people, you are pretty entitled to believe that other people don’t have the right to look and feel how they please. It is simply none of your business.

    Before you jump up and down with froth in your pants about how much obesity costs the taxpayer I’d care to remind you that sporting injuries, road accidents and all manner of other things also cost the health system a great deal of money, and no one ever debates the right whether or not to play rugby.

    Fact is, most fat people actually don’t suffer health complications because they are fat.

    And before you ask, I can bench 250.

  16. QoT

    Dear Concerned Anon,

    I’m in a super-positive mood so I’m going to assume you’re just woefully misguided, and actually think that you really are concerned, instead of a deliberate trollish spreader of hate.

    Since I’m assuming you honestly have good intentions, allow me to respectfully suggest that the “calories in, calories out” model you propose is not, in fact, accurate. Here’s a helpful blog post which explains the whole thing:

  17. Joanna

    Wait a second, holy shit – being healthy just comes down to burning more calories per day than you take in? I can’t believe that every single media outlet has not been screaming that at me every day for the past thirty two and a half years. Thank heavens for you, Anonymous Commentator on the internet who has found me lacking.

    I’m also super stoked that you’re going to pay for my counselor to stop me from drinking as well. Last time I saw Jessie after I was date-raped, I was a bit miffed to find out that her rates have gone up from $85 per hour to $125, but actually, she is totally worth it, because she does actually give me really good coping mechanisms.

    I am also really excited to start exercising with you, Concerned Anon. I know that you found it quite hard to find both a good sports bra for someone who’s a 24c, and also a good swim suit for someone my size who intends to swim and not to pose. I am actually fucking stoked though that you will be there so that when I do exercise, it will be free from people in cars yelling fucking douche things at me. The way that you have agreed to sponsor my gym membership and also take care of some household chores so I actually have the time to go to my gym is really moving.

    Finally, I would like to thank you, Concerned Anon, for setting up that fresh fruit & vege shop in walking distance of my house, and also that outlet by my work. Your extra cheap prices are really going to make the big difference.

    I hope that with all your help I can reduce my weight down to a level whereby you want to have sex with me, because I’m aware that’s what’s most important. Cheers

  18. Tyr

    Monteiro is a self-important troll who thinks the way to deal with opinions that differ from his own is to ridicule people. I finally unfollowed him because his bullshit was actually making me angry even when he was supporting positions I agree with. People like him who use the excuse of being “outspoken” to let their asshole flag fly do more damage than good to whatever cause they claim to support.

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