AEA Boston and web development potlatch

In this entry I give some impressions of AEA Boston, as well as an attempt to compare the current web dev world with the old potlatch system.


  1. Boston is great.
  2. An Event Apart is great, too.
  3. Delta sucks, though.
  4. It’s worth paying extra for a direct flight. Next time I go to Boston (September, The Ajax Experience) I’m not going to go through connection hell again.
  5. In fact, should I avoid US airlines altogether in the future?
  6. There must be an International Federation of JFK Haters. (The airport, not the president.) How do I subscribe?
  7. Sam Adams is excellent. (The beer, not the Founding Father.)
  8. Thanks to Andy Budd I can now say I visited a baseball match. I thought it was just me, but several Americans confirmed it can be a pretty boring game.
  9. Mr. Z and Mr. M are most gracious hosts—and the speakers’ dinner was truly excellent.
  10. Jared Spool is such a good speaker. It’s off-putting.
  11. Not to detract from the rest of the rest of the line-up — I learned a lot about public speaking and UI-related topics.
  12. I wasn’t quite happy with my own presentation, but the audience and other speakers loved it unanimously. Nonetheless, next time I want to do some things different.
  13. In fact, I started wondering if there’s any such thing as preparing your session too much.
  14. People can’t figure out if I’m sarcastic when I say things like “Right now we’re having three paradigm shifts a week.” The answer is Yes.
  15. I seem to be at my best in Q&A. Allow more time for it.
  16. Somebody asked me if speaking for a US audience is different from speaking for a UK audience. I said No, but maybe there is a difference — mostly in humour and reaction to humour. Needs further study.
  17. Chris Fahey loves duck, too. (Eating it, not adoring it.)
  18. Bruce Lawson leverages synergies at Opera. That does not mean what you think it means.


One unusual feature of AEA Boston was the appearance of a conference magician, Reed Spool (Jared’s son). He’s an excellent magician and he kept us entertained during lunch and in the corridors. I hope he goes pro some day.

Even more interesting than his tricks was a quiet talk he, I and Andy Budd had. During that talk, Reed voiced his amazement at the conference and how it differed from magicians’ conferences he’s visited. He noted two important differences:

  1. All of the speakers were so good. (Top-notch magicians sometimes make lousy speakers.)
  2. It’s so incredible that you guys just give stuff away for free. (At magicians’ conferences, it’s not unusual for speakers to sell their notes to attendees, and thus make a nice extra bit of money.)

We explored these differences for a while, but it was only when I got back home that I understood how to explain them.

Bloggers make good speakers

The fact that all AEA speakers (and, in fact, most speakers at web conferences in general) are so good is easily explained.

All web dev conference speakers have become well known through their blogging, and in order to maintain a good blog you have to be able to write good articles. Writing good articles, in turn, means that you are able to present your material in a logical order, use the right examples at the right time, and generally make sure that your story flows well.

Once you’ve got that down, creating a presentation is not so hard: you basically create a story in the same way you’d create one for your blog.

To me, that explains why good bloggers generally make good speakers.

Giving away knowledge

It’s Reed’s second point that deserves most of our attention. Why do all good bloggers/conference speakers/general web design gurus give away their material for free?

That’s an unusual feature of our little ecosystem. It would make far more sense to carefully hoard our technical knowledge, and use it only when we are paid to do so. Thus our competitors would not be able to compete with us on equal terms: they may know less than we do and thus clients would come to us, and not to them.

Nonetheless, that does not happen. Giving away knowledge for free is a fundamental tenet of the web world right now. Why?

The potlatch system

My answer is potlatch (also spelled potlach). Originally this was a ceremony that determined relative status among certain tribes in the American North-West, but it seems to apply to the web world, too.

(An excellent summary of the phenomenon in its social context can be found in Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the people without history, University of California Press, 1982, p. 184-192. The Wikipedia entry does not pay sufficient attention to the gaining of status through lavish gift-giving.)

Basically, what happened in the old days was that several chiefs competing for power and influence would come together and hand out large, lavish gifts. The larger the better; and sometimes wealth (in the form of food, blankets, slaves, what have you) was even destroyed (though later that destruction became symbolic instead of literal).

Whichever chief gave away the most lavish gifts gained the highest status; after all a man must be really rich and powerful if he can afford to give away or even destroy part of his wealth.

This system is not unique to the American North-West; but potlatch has been studied in the 19th century when it still was in use, so it remains the best-known example of gaining status through lavish gift-giving.

Potlatch in the web world

Now it does not strike me as unreasonable that the current web design/development world uses a similar system. Essentially, bloggers (and companies such as Yahoo!) compete by giving away as much knowledge as they can — and for web devs their knowledge is their wealth, far more than money is.

A difference with the old ceremony is that our giving away of knowledge is less easily measured. Is one of my compatibility tables worth more than Eric Meyer’s Reset Style Sheet? The question itself is wrong — it all depends on what a certain web developer needs most at the time.

Nonetheless, the system works pretty much as in the old days. Those bloggers that are most conspicuous in their giving away of knowledge are rewarded with high status (Pagerank and Technorati rating, speaker slots, etc.). Besides, they’re also awarded with clients.

In the last two years, more than 90% of my clients found me through my website, and not through my network. I wouldn’t be surprised if that holds true for other bloggers, too.

Apparently, clients, too, feel that someone who gives away knowledge for free must have an awful lot of it in store, and they’ll prefer somebody who openly displays his knowledge to somebody who carefully hoards it and only unlocks it when an actual payment is forthcoming.

In any case, the fact that we web designers and developers give away such a lot of knowledge for free is quite understandable when seen from a potlatch point of view. We humans haven’t changed a whole lot in the past several thousands of years, even though our world has. Apparently, social systems that made sense to other, more ancient cultures still make sense to us modern people, too, even though we can’t quite articulate why.

The conclusion must be that in order to gain status as a web developer you have to give away stuff for free. So go and give. It’s a whole lot nicer than demanding money for everything.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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Comments are closed.

1 Posted by Pete B on 29 June 2008 | Permalink

I think there is a culture of handing around knowledge on the web partly because in web history there are so many people learning and relearning skills.

But to be a little cynical, it isn't all altruistic - all the big names in the field, have become big names and presumably more wealthy through their reputations build on 'giving away' knowledge.

It's a paradox that web designers and developers need knowledge for a competitive advantage, but also need all the knowledge that flows freely around the web in order to get the job done.

It's probable that as the industry becomes more established, the open passing around of trade secrets will start to close - the professionals protecting the professionals in the industry.

2 Posted by Lapalazala on 30 June 2008 | Permalink

"all the big names in the field, have become big names and presumably more wealthy through their reputations build on 'giving away' knowledge"

That's exactly PPK's point.

3 Posted by bruce on 30 June 2008 | Permalink

Maybe the giving away free information is also a by-product of the browser manufacturers' decision to have a "view source" option?

That explains two phenomena to me: the incredible expansion of the web (wow! I like this page! view source .. oh *that's* how it works. Maybe I can make my own page?).

And if anyone can view source and "steal" your code, why not accept that and actually explain how you do it. If they're going to steal it anyway, you might as well gain some kudos from it.

(When we were setting up the glasshaus book publishing company for web standards developers, I really wanted to call it "view source", but the domain was taken.)

Anyway, must go; there are synergies to leverage, and I'm feeling pro-active, baby...

4 Posted by Paul D. Waite on 30 June 2008 | Permalink

I agree with Bruce that some of the web’s features have encouraged this approach to information. The web was designed to share information as easily as possible, right from HTTP (if you know where information is, you can grab it) through HTML (human-readable) and View Source.

If you work with stuff like that all day long, it’s going to affect your idea of how things should work.

The potlatch model is a great explanation of why it works.

5 Posted by Bob Mitchell on 3 July 2008 | Permalink

I think there is also the influence of 'open' licenses (GPL and the link) and their evangelists - such as the extremely eloquent and impassioned Richard Stallman to consider. They have brought the concept of sharing to people that have never traditionally shared.

Of course, this mostly manifests itself as 'taking', but it might give people ideas.

6 Posted by Miguel Coquet on 8 July 2008 | Permalink

This gift culture phenomenon (something very close to potlatch) exists in all computer science almost since its inception. You can see some exploration of the topic both in "The Cathedral & the Bazaar" and in "Homesteading the Noosphere", both by Eric S. Raymond. They can be found here: if you are interested.


7 Posted by Jez on 14 July 2008 | Permalink

Very interesting post, and comments.

I take a different view to Pete B who suggests:

"the open passing around of trade secrets will start to close - the professionals protecting the professionals"

The fact is that the professionals are trying to gain competitive advantage over one another. By giving away "secrets" they can:

1) Build personal reputatoin (brand) as you imply in your comment.

2) 'Wreck' tools on which their competitors are reliant.

Of course there is the whole open source argument too, which Miguels references touch upon. If you look at the way OS products and services are monetized, and the increasing amount of 'free stuff' given away by large corporations, it is clear, to me at least that we can expect more of this in the future.

Regards the benefits in terms of pagerank / profile you need look no further than studio7designs dot com who have a page rank of 8 and are very a widely known design agency... due in no small part to their contributions to oswd dot org.


8 Posted by Jerry Loggins on 15 July 2008 | Permalink

Yes, there is a significant difference between British humour and Amercian humor. British humour leans more towards the sarcastic/dry side.

9 Posted by Sander Aarts on 19 July 2008 | Permalink

Someone left his closet open... things are falling out ;-)