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5 lessons from Webstock 2015: Let’s all throw our phones into the sea, and be on MTV Cribs

I can honestly say that few conferences have made me desire to crush my cell phone with a rock, but I guess if one was to do that – it would be Webstock. Which isn’t to say that I walked away from the 2015 conference with nothing but destructive feelings. After two days of talks from the likes of Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow, amazing author/designer/UX wrangler Kim Goodwin and the hard to un-see Harper Reed, its hard to be anything other than inspired. For the uninitiated, Webstock is a yearly event held in Wellington, comprising of a few days of workshops and a two day talk-based conference with lots of chances for networking. The theme is loosely all things web and digital, with the acknowledgement that innovation comes from the intersection of ideas, so you have a little web design, a little UX, a little thinky stuff and a little something inspirational.

With so much on offer its hard to pull highlights, so we will be turning the talks we heard into some wider projects to share with you all. In the meantime while it’s all fresh, I wanted to share 5 lessons I took away from my first time at Webstock, may it not be my last. 

1) Everything is horrible, lets do something great
We live in a world where protestors can be texted the day after demonstrating to let them know that their government knows exactly who they are and what they were doing, or where you can bomb someone using meta-data – apparently the future might be less joy and Jetsons than we had previously envisaged. By the time that Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing, EFF, Novelist, Writer) finished his talk, the crowd was left worried, angry and a little hopeful. Drawing on themes raised in a previous session by Moxie Marlinspike (Open Whisper Systems), Cory laid out with alarming clarity the rough edge of technology, pulling through his concerns into an overarching theme of bewilderingly systemic disempowerment. To be fair, none of this was really news to those attending – the solution? Us. Folks that have technical aptitude and a desire to care. In lieu of his relentless talk not being live for sharing just yet you can listen to Cory speak on similar themes in this talk here. And then of course – do something about it.

2) Everything is wonderful, lets do something great
If you are stuck in a rut, feel your life is not full of joy or simply want a reason to follow your heart’s beat – Elle Luna is your homegirl. Webstock started with the kind of talk every conference should start with, one overrunning with hope and reckless abandon. Elle left her tech start-up day-job (Mailbox) to follow her calling – art, sharing the insights surrounding the act of choosing between what she should do, and what she must do in a hugely shared article on Medium. It’s not hard to figure out why this article resonated with so many; after all when someone is telling you – ‘hey, that thing that makes you happy? You should do more of that’ you would be pretty weird to not go ‘yeah – YEAH!’.

I hear you Oh Cynical One, peering over your cup of coffee on deadline grumbling at me with the obvious questions –  what about time? What about finding that thing that makes you happy? Or the kicker, ‘What about money Anya, I have to pay my mortgage/waxist/rent/cat/beard oil guy’. Elle, whilst being an idealist is not a crazy person – she knows you have bills to pay. Turns out your dreams don’t have to be the thing you do for money. And before you start grumbling at this somewhat harsh reality have a read about Phillip Glass, the internationally recognised award winning composer, plumber and wait for it – taxi driver. The truth is whilst Elle does not have all the answers, she’s got a great framework for many of them, so if you have a dream worth doing, now might just be the time.

3) Sharing is caring, and also rebellion
If you were raised on Sesame Street (like me) you will objectively know that sharing = good. Yet somehow in the post-Sesame Street world, things have become less giant talking bird and a little more Ayn Rand. So by 24 you start thinking – sharing = good, but also keeping info to myself = a better commercial result for just me = a shinier bigger house and a white lion = a possible spot on MTV Cribs.

Brad Frost made 6 year old me happy when he took the stage at Webstock to wax lyrical about the joy of collaboration, of being open, of sharing and of helping other humans. Sharing your success? That allows us all to get better! It raises us all up a little higher so that next awesome breakthrough is even better – we can ALL get that white lion and be on Cribs (not just Beiber and Drizzy).

I found Brad’s talk really affecting, it spoke to me on a personal level, but also meshed with many of the goals we hope to achieve here at GridAKL. If you have a moment watch his similar talk at TedX above, and if you don’t have a moment do it anyway – consider it me sharing a tip with you.

4) Diversity – the same is different and the different is the same
It’s awesome to go to a geeky conference and have a tonne of women there, it’s better to see even more of them on the stage delivering talks, and at Webstock – we had both. It seems odd to have to even mention this as something that’s great, because it should just be a regular thing, which I guess was the entire point of Janet Crawford’s talk on neuroscience and gender. Janet implored us all to really check our behaviour and then keep our media, our bosses, our co-workers and our families in check. Be open and honest, and above all – stop letting implicit assumptions hold back women. Hear, hear!

However I would feel somewhat remiss to mention gender diversity without raising diversity as a whole . Webstock was a real melting pot of disciplines, speaking styles, messages and projects. The audience came from backgrounds as diverse as coders and usability experts to people like me – designer/illustrator/communications types. We had type-designing bogans on stage talking about the science of how your eyes work and data vis folks talking about meditation and Hockney. Difference is glorious.

5) Build to Exit! Um, maybe not…
Using the example of a Japanese Onsen, handed down from one generation to the next, Natasha Lampard (Webstock, Lil Regie) urged us to all reconsider something that is oddly innate – the exit. In this current phase of GridAKL, the focus of much of our work is to support startup businesses to succeed, however for some in this industry the only success that seems to matter is the amount of money you make when you sell your business to someone else. Proposing an idea of ‘More’, Natasha urges us all to reconsider what success is, and create businesses that exude value in more than just dollars and cents.

So the low down? Over two days I heard talks from 21 speakers from a massive range of backgrounds with talks that were both intensely practical and detailed; to looser and more flowing. As a newbie, I was blown away by the quality of everything, from really great speakers to the friendly team working the floor. It is also probably the most open and welcoming conference I have attended. The team is detail orientated, so everything from food to swag was thoughtful and wonderfully executed,

I’ll be back, and you should be there too – we can destroy our cell phones together.

Anya is the Brand & Communications Co-ordinator here at GridAKL and  likes to attend events around New Zealand where she can learn more about tech, design, web and content. If you have an event you think Anya would like to attend, or write about for GridAKL then get in contact with her through our contact page.