Last week I attended New Adventures in Nottingham. This year’s line-up featured a fertile mix of practical advice (Jon Tan), thoughtful reflection (Stephanie Troeth), live coding (Seb Lee-Delisle) and characterful inspiration (Wayne Hemingway), with a few sweary truisms thrown in for good measure.
In addition to the main track, conference sponsors Ubelly hosted The Soapbox, a series of five 10-minute talks held during the lunch break. A well attended session, this proved a great opportunity for new (and not so new) speakers to take to the smallest stage in the venue — an actual soapbox — to present an idea or explain a topic concisely. It was a lot of fun.
Yet, beyond all the good stuff Ubelly is doing, I find the underlying proposition a little strange. Pitched as “the unofficial official Microsoft blog for developers who love the web”, I sense a degree of embarrassment in being a Microsoft programme. When many developers consider their relationship with Internet Explorer to be painful and enduring, perhaps that’s not surprising.
Having once dominated the market, the corporation is now playing catch up. Ubelly is tasked with not only re-engaging the web community, but also encouraging developers to build software for Microsoft’s new — and often innovative — platforms. This can lead to odd scenarios, like that at the Soapbox event, where presenters had to use Powerpoint and Windows 8; cue apologies for fonts looking wrong and misplaced.
Of course, when discussing platform evangelism, it’s important to remember that any outreach is preferable to the oath of silence Apple’s engineers have signed.
My broader point is, I think, that Ubelly have their heart in the right place, but sometimes the tone feels a little bit off. One example of this is the Critters, their annual awards ceremony for which nominations are now open.
I’m not a great fan of award ceremonies, but they do have their place. This is especially true when used to highlight new talent and honour those deserving of recognition.
However, the nomination criteria for this year’s Critters is unclear, with the entry form consisting simply of a textfield below each category. Some awards are self-evident, but a few need further explanation (e.g. Win of the Year and Voice of the Year). One award should probably be removed altogether: Web Personality of the Year.
What does that mean? Should YouTube celebrities like Psy be nominated, or is it limited to those within our industry? I can think of many personalities, but not all have contributed positively. What values should nominees be judged against?
I don’t subscribe to the notion of web celebrity, yet it becomes harder to dismiss such a meme when awards like this are handed out. Rather than highlight new talent, they appear to reinforce the status quo instead.
If recipients of this award are those deserving of recognition — either for the quality of their work or taking it upon themselves to push the industry and the web forward — then surely it is better to state that. I imagine Outstanding Contribution would be a much more appealing honour for the winner than that of Web Personality.
I suspect the title is influenced by the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Yet, sport is often marketed as entertainment, and the context around a particular industry matters when picking names for such things. Many web designers and developers are entertaining, but I wouldn’t want to see them on my television!
Fixing with clarity
Previous editions of the .net Magazine Awards had a similar category also. Thankfully they soon dropped it, and this year their awards seek to highlight new talent, projects and technical innovation.
Notably, and unlike the nomination form for the Critters, the criteria for each category is clearly stated. They also include a few quotes from last year’s winners, such as this from Janna Hagan:
Winning the first .net Young Designer of the Year award was an absolute honour. Being recognised by such a large magazine within the design industry and some industry experts was a wonderful way for me to validate my skills and hard work.
Clearly stating nomination criteria and choosing better award titles may seem like minor issues, but I believe the language around such events can influence the broader discourse. This has suffered in recent years thanks to 140-character sniping and drive-by criticism.
When awards are given out, they should encourage everyone to be finer practitioners, not louder personalities. Instead of putting people — however deserving — on pedestals out of reach of new talent, when done right, they can promote inclusivity and celebrate our collective achievement.
Ubelly are fostering a young community, supporting new writers and sponsoring events. I’m not sure their awards, in their current state, live up to the same standard.