Divya Manian

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What should be the aims of a web conference?

I think it should be to:

  • Provide discussion of interesting perspectives
  • Challenge existing perceptions
  • Bring diverse set of people together
  • Inform the audience on current developments and challenges.

These are not met when conferences keep inviting the same people to talk on the same niches in technology, e.g. “Form Design”, “Bulletproof Design”, “Getting Real”, “Progressive Enhancement” (and those who even use the same slides)! Granted, those niches are not “done” and there is lot to learn, but there is a lot of navel gazing when speakers tackle the same questions and problems.

I assert some of this stems from the fact that almost all speakers are from countries that have similar cultures, access to internet, and language (US/UK/AU). The problems/challenges that they deal with, are also those that occur within that cultural context. Consequently, the solutions they suggest (while they do their best to be unbiased) do not take into account challenges outside these countries.

I find that disturbing and sad that conference involve only speakers who reside in those countries. The majority of online users, though, happen to live elsewhere. If Web conferences are supposed to be representative of the online world, then, the representation is certainly skewed.

Most designers/developers overseas face additional challenges while working on the web. Most countries (unlike US/UK/AU) are diverse in the number of languages spoken and cultures that exist. How do they design around that? Some languages do not even have written scripts, how do they work with that? What are some of the design decisions that they take when the written script is right-to-left or top-to-bottom?

Many of these countries also have severe censorship, how do they get around that? Some of them do not have assured source of power or might not have enough bandwidth to download even 500MB file. How do they deal with that?

Several people in US/UK seem to think that the “Rest of the World” will “catch up”. But there is nothing to “catch up” to, each group of people will use the internet in their own unique ways. Learning about those will definitely impact how we (US/UK/AU) look at website design and development.

I do agree it is difficult to know who to ask to speak. Probably, speaking to editors at Global Voices would be a good place to start from. Opera, Mozilla, and W3C have also taken initiatives or organize conferences/workshops in Asia. South Africa has its Tech4Africa conference. TMS Ruge makes the case for why African countries should be counted in the technology space (he also spoke at SXSW).

And yes, I do speak from my experience of being one of the unseen and unheard. Living in the US, I am acutely aware of how ignorant most people are about how the rest of the world lives (surprisingly, the reverse is not true). The ignorance sometimes translates to disrespect or foolhardy choices. I would at least hope that for a platform as non-stereotypical as the web, we should try to mitigate it, since the websites/applications we design and develop are accessed by people from all over the world. The more we learn about the world outside our comfort zone, the better informed our design and development will be.