Friday, November 30, 2012


There's a fascinating conference called "An Event Apart"  designed for people who make websites that "brings together twelve of the leading minds in web design for two days of non-stop inspiration and enlightenment."  Conferences are held at different venues around the country;  eight are scheduled in 2013.

I was curious to see posted a video of a 2010 talk entitled How the Web Works;  I'd have thought web designers would already know about the technology on which the Internet is based.  So I clicked on the link and was surprised to hear an engaging, enlightening hour describing the human culture of innovation that indeed underpins how the web works.

Here's the conference's synopsis:

Turns out that the fundamental principles that led to the success of the web will lead you there, too. Drawing on 15 years of web design and development experience, Jeff Veen (Adobe Creative Cloud, Typekit) takes you on a guided tour of what makes things work on this amazing platform we’re all building together. You’ll learn how to stop selling ice, why web browsers work the way they do, and where Rupert Murdoch can stick his business model.  

Basically the talk is about the culture and history of the web and web development, placed in the context of technological innovation and disruption.   Veen starts with some fascinating -- and surprisingly relevant --  historical stories including how the refrigeration industry fell apart and why transportation companies Wells Fargo and American Express wound up in the financial industry. He goes on to talk about fonts, consensus, information, dissemination, design, pricing, platforms and much more.

His central thesis is that the qualities that contribute to the success of the web are also the qualities that make us successful too -- which he calls being native to the web.    He illustrates that with specific and illuminating stories of web development through its short history, ranging from standards development to inline image to hashtags.  He discusses three pivotal principles that drive the web:
  • Consensus and Code:  Development happens by rough consensus (zeitgeist) with actual running code as a catalyst.  Writing code as quickly as possible, iteratively responding to feedback is a way of taking that consensus and turning it into a win.
  • Networks:  The value of a network is equal to the number of users squared (Metcalfe's law)  There's a network behind us growing exponentially that adds increasing value to everything we develop.
  • Information wants to be free (a phrase coined by Stewart Brand)  Computers can copy ones and zeros perfectly, which is directly in conflict with the business models of so many companies.  Most of the digital world is "non-rivalrous" and "non-excludable" (e.g. I can't stop you from taking this without paying, and it's infinitely copy-able) and this drives effective business models for the web. That's why business models that have worked in the past aren't working any more.  "Free" is now a competitive advantage.   Find a way to turn what used to be a product into a service, and you take advantage of this native feature of the web.

Some favorite quotes:
I particularly liked the people who said we would fail, because they gave us a list of things we had to achieve to make it work.
Media is not about the thing -- the disk or the movie or whatever -- it's about people's attention
The velocity and responsiveness of your team to user feedback will set the tone for your software more than any release every would (Jeff Atwood)  which means you can screw up if you do it quickly and recover quickly.

If you are not embarrassed when you release a project, you've waited too long. -Reid Hoffman
Launch the minimum viable product.
The faster you iterate, the faster you learn.  Twitter is the fastest feedback loop we have.
The Internet is a giant copy machine. 
A culture has emerged that's a a set of values that we use every day in creating the web.    These values were identified and reinforced by each of the speakers at this conference. For instance, connection with the users is one of the core values of the web. When you have that connection with the users, what do you you do with that relationship once you have it?

The web is one of the biggest things that's ever happened to us on this planet.  It's redefining how we connect with one another and how we stay connected with one another.   It's where we store all the things that are precious to us . . . we don't have physical copies any more.  It's the place where for the first time ever we are writing human history collaboratively.  The web is about to spill out of these computers.  These changes are remarkable, unbelievable.

Veen's whole talk is engaging, sometimes surprising, full of big ideas and definitely well worth listening to.  Curl up with some popcorn and a notepad (or listen while you drive -- there's not much to look at)  and enjoy an hour of insight and inspiration.


  1. This is true, but old. I remember seeing the source code myself when this was new. They have changed it now. psd to css

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