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