June 19th, 2006


Web and flow

Institutional Web Management Workshop 2006
June 14th-16th, University of Bath

A quick summary, before life overtakes me and I lose the impetus:

As a first-timer at the event, I risk looking like a wide-eyed web innocent with the following comments, but I'd still like to say that I thought IWMW-2006 was fantastic: at its best it was like living in some kind of experimental utopian always-online community, and even at its worst (not counting networking-induced hangovers) it was always interesting and thought-provoking.

The big buzzword of the event was "Web 2.0": not a technology, not even a formal methodology, more an attitude, or (allowing myself to be infected by the general enthusiasm) a vision of the future of information. The emphasis was strongly on collaboration, on sharing resources and working together (at all levels -- personal, technological, methodological) to produce something greater than the sum of the parts. It's easy to feel enthusiastic about the benefits of collaboration when surrounded by a couple of hundred excited experts; harder by far, but ultimately the only point of the exercise, to carry that torch back into the office -- or at least blog the brightness and capture the flame on Flickr.

At the other end of the scale from all the shiny new technology, I was delighted to see IRC being used as a force for good. I've loved it since I started using it in about 1997 (scat0324 will probably remember my first tentative steps onto OxIRC, and somebody may even have logged it) and I've found that it's a medium of communication ideally suited to my way of talking/working; but this conference was my first experience of seeing just how neatly and productively IRC can interact with realtime input to the enhancement of both, as the general IRC channel allowed us to interweave parallel debates and comments with the talks and workshops which were taking place.

At a personal level, the conference was hugely confidence-building; I felt as though I'd been weighed in the balance and found, well, obviously comparatively young and inexperienced, but nevertheless on the right track. There were a couple of moments when I really thought yes, I do know what I'm talking about here, I'm contributing something to the discussion, and experts in my field are prepared to listen to what I have to say, and that's always good for the ego. Being able to 'speak geek' helped a lot, too; never underestimate the bonding potential of usenet nostalgia! Though I should note that the thing that broke the ice with the first conference delegate I met (at the bus-stop outside Bath train station) was the "BRETT ANDERSON IS GOD" badge on my bag strap. Call it interdisciplinary networking. 8-)

I've come back with all sorts of ideas: from low-level improvements along the lines of how we can make our wikis more useful, or tools we can use for processing Quark files into HTML; to issues of information architecture, and an even more urgent and more focused sense of the need for proper user-testing and feedback-gathering so that we're at least making an effort to reflect our users' mind-maps; to visions for setting up more active collaborative networks, both internally and externally. It was significant that I probably spent more time talking to my Cambridge colleagues during the three days of the conference than I had done in total during the 2.5 years or so I've been in this job; that's something I want to change in the future. (If we can't even talk from one University site to another, what hope do we have of communicating with the wider world?) Also, I went to the conference hoping to put out feelers for the possibility of setting up a network for Oxbridge 'Informationists' (a term I've picked up via infomatters [relevant blog entry here] and am determined to popularise) and I got some encouragingly positive noises in response; so that's something to pursue more actively between now and next year.

I've also come back with a new resolve to sort out the tagging on this LJ, and to update my shockingly outdated website (and write a monograph on the death of the personal home page). There's really no excuse for the cobbler's children to continue cutting their bare feet on the broken glass that litters the information superhighway.

I'll do a more coherent and comprehensive writeup at some point, which will probably appear here and/or elsewhere; in the meantime, sorry if I've missed email/LJ from you while I was away (feel free to nudge) and I'll do my best to catch up soon.