Meshing with the Murky Future of the Web
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Meshing with the Murky Future of the Web

Conference attendees “meshing.”

If you had to sum up this year’s iteration of the Mesh Conference in one word, you could do a lot worse than choosing “uncertainty.” That may seem strange for an event that brings together the country’s digital elite and legitimately bills itself as “Canada’s Web Conference”—but it’s as much cause for optimism as it is dismay.

Divided between “society and media” streams on the first day and “business and marketing” on the second, the conference aimed to provide a place to discuss the impact of the web on how we live our lives and how we conduct business. As if to hammer the point the home, the event began with what was perhaps its most impressive session: a keynote chat with Chris Thorpe, the “Developer Advocate for the Open Platform” at UK newspaper The Guardian. In an informal discussion with former Globe and Mail writer Mathew Ingram, Thorpe outlined his paper’s innovative approach to news that he called “co-journalism.” His basic point was that there are always more smart people reading the news than there are people writing about it: opening up access to public data allows people from around the world to do useful, interesting things with it, thereby becoming part of the journalistic process themselves.
Perhaps the most famous example of how this pays off is the UK’s MP expense scandal, which could have never happened without thousands of people poring over the data the Guardian made available. Thorpe was refreshingly unapologetic about his goal to empower people to seek out and end corruption and exploitation. But surprisingly, Thorpe told the crowd that there was also money to be made in the approach, both for the paper (who sells the tools to do things with the data) and the people who use it (who can use that information to sell more specific, and thus more lucrative, ads). Here, finally, was a solution that seems to both actually cash in and make the world better.

A live broadcast of TVO’s The Agenda from Mesh 2010.

It was a rare answer in a conference that was otherwise full of open-ended questions. At a live taping of TVO’s the Agenda about Facebook and concerns about privacy, most of the panelists—including Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Ann Cavoukian—were adamant about the need for online privacy and a plan to educate both parents and kids about how to protect their data and to think before sending each other naked pictures of themselves. At the same time, no one was quite sure how to deal with the other side of the equation—namely, that standards of privacy are also changing. Little time was dedicated to the ideas that, increasingly, you might still get a job despite that online photo in which you were wasted, or that the blurring line between public and private may be as much cultural as it is technological.

LinkedIn’s Arvind Rajan, holding court.

But if the conference’s first day was focused on the ups and downs of so much information being online, then its second was obsessed with the idea of how brands and companies can steer all that chatter in their own favour. In the day’s second keynote, Arvind Rajan of LinkedIn talked about how terrifying the sheer glut and pace of social media can be to marketers, and offered some clear advice: rather than getting online for the heck of it, first figure out what you want. Still, when asked to define what marketing is today, he threw the question back to his interviewer, showing that even Stanford-educated tech gurus can be as stumped as the rest of us.
Much of the rest of the second day’s conversations focused on the difficulty of marketing on “the real-time web,” which is most commonly associated with Twitter and Facebook. These services, which let users react quickly, publicly, and en masse, present new challenges for marketers who are used to the idea that you create a message, send it out to the world, and then sit back. Now, customers are creating their own messages about brands, and while there were recommendations, no one had it down to a science. As Leigh Himel of Toronto marketing company Twist Image pointed out, not only are some companies still scrambling to figure out the best way to react to people discussing a brand online, many are just not on board yet, choosing to stick to more traditional approaches while they figure out what this ol’ interweb thing is for.

“United Breaks Guitars Guy” Dave Caroll entertaining the crowd post-Mesh.

The conference ended with a barbecue and a performance from Dave Caroll—otherwise known as the “‘United Breaks Guitars’ Guy”—who posted a series of videos criticizing United Airlines for breaking his guitar that earned millions of views on YouTube.
Earlier, when the panel Caroll took part in was asked why his videos went viral while so many others do not, some guesses were thrown out there—that they were funny, that they told a story—but ultimately, no one exactly knew. All they could say was that his videos were exciting, showed the immense potential of the web, and that, at the end of the day, they were just really cool.
And as metaphors for this conference go, you couldn’t ask for a better one.
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.