Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Web Summit Vol 4: the report card

What the Summit does right, and not so right.

Fri, Nov 1, 2013, 10:23


So the Web Summit is a positive thing. Yes it’s exclusive and expensive and there’s a lot of noise, but it’s an interesting event with lots of see. Would I pay for a ticket? No, but I’m not a start-up. Aside from the cab ride I shared with a guy detailed at the end of Vol. 1, just one person I spoke to (random disinterested Spanish start-up dude) seemed to think it wasn’t any great shakes, but I don’t know what his experience was. Overall, everyone I spoke to both Irish and international were networking well, having interesting conversations, meeting new people, sparking ideas off on and other, and getting access to huge names for both inspiration and information. That’s a big deal.

As for the Web Summit as some wider thing of benefit for Ireland? I don’t know about that. Everyone exists for two days within the radius of a couple of square miles. It’s a Dublin thing. People engage with the city in the sense that they’re in it and they’ll go to the organised parties and events and grab some food. It makes complete sense that the Web Summit is here because so many major tech companies are.

Ireland and Dublin has bigger problems when it comes to sorting out its own shit. Companies need access to talent; which means young people have to be incentivised to not emigrate. Education in skills that are of benefit to the tech sector need to be pushed – if that means waiving fees for people to study in those areas, then do that. We need to up our pathetically awful language skills, seriously, it’s embarrassing – if that means revisiting how we teach French and German etc. in our schools, then let’s look at that. That’s just looking at one tiny part of access to talent. This post would be the longest thing ever if I continued with the rest of the issues so I’ll put those on ice for another time. 

So aside from the big picture stuff, here are other things I thought went right and wrong: Fistbumps and Facepalms.

The Library Stage
As Jim Carroll rightly pointed out to me yesterday, the Library Stage was where it was at. This was the place ideas were being discussed, it was intellectual, it was deep, it was meaty, there were few Oprah-isms.

Le Cool’s Spiel events
Considering tickets to the Summit are stupidly expensive, you need free events such as the ones Le Cool organised at the Library Project and the Stag’s Head. Harper Reed (pictured) at the Stag’s Head last night was great; honest, refreshing, personable and likeable, even if he was (probably understandably) short on information about what they actually did and how during the campaign. His thoughts on big data – that it’s all bullshit and a marketing term – are something I concur with (I wrote this piece a while ago), his awareness that Obama’s team liked the way he looked, his honest focus now on ‘wealth creation’ (for himself), it was great. Reed actually made a good point that was pertinent to the Summit in Dublin. Working on the campaign, his team was in Chicago. That’s surprising. Many would have thought they should be in DC. But he said don’t ever wish you’re somewhere else as if that’s where things happen. Because those places can be terrible: case in point DC, which he seems to hate. Things can happen anywhere. It’s not about geography.

I was interviewing Cindy Gallop next, but really I was just there to ask a couple of questions to move it along, as Cindy is of course a fantastic talker. She spoke at length about the problems with hardcore pornography which young children are accessing at an earlier and earlier age, the need for parents to have honest conversations with their kids about sex, the need for all of us to talk about sex in a more honest manner and the pros of Make Love Not Porn. Here’s her TED talk:
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The Night Summit
I didn’t go to any of the pub crawls but the opening party was fun and there were Irish acts playing Meeting House Square last night. Pushing a nighttime music agenda at the Summit smacks of SXSW but if you’re going to copy something, you might as well mimic the best thing that’s out there. I wonder what the potential is for HWCH in this realm, considering it’s the premiere multi-venue city festival showcasing new Irish acts?

Cult of personality
Obviously there’s a lot of ego flying around at the Summit, and it’s that very tech ego, dressed down as ‘hey I’m just a guy’. It kind of can’t not be like that when there’s thousands of people in a room staring at your giant face on a video wall, but I find that side of things quite off-putting.

Self-help and surface
I heard an awful lot of bullshit over the two days along with an awful lot of smart stuff. Many of the talks – because they are so short – just scratch the surface. And many more are about multi-millionaires who have already succeeded preaching clichés. People want ideas and intelligence, not fortune cookie speaker circuit Chopra-isms. Well, I do anyway.

The lack of women
It was pretty glaring in terms of speakers. I’ll be addressing this further in another post about women in tech, but there need to be WAY more women speaking at, presenting, chairing, pitching, hosting, and attending the Summit. There were plenty of moments when as a woman, you really just felt surrounded by dudes. I’d like guys to think about how it would feel if you were walking into a space where most people in charge of everything, on stage, pitching, and talking were all women. One extreme or the other is not the answer, it’s just about an even ratio. I know the Web Summit guys are making an effort to address it but three years in, it’s a long way off, and it is of course representative of a much broader and problematic issue in the tech industry and in most industries.


Words I never want to hear again
Billionaires – stop thinking about a billion dollars and start thinking about how you can make your start-up actually work.

Innovative – your product would want to be innovative, considering the opposite of that is pretty much ‘shit’.

Multi-platform – isn’t everything multi-platform?

Cross-pollination – you are not a bee.

“It’s like Instagram for…”, “It’s the LinkedIn of…”. It’s like Twitter for sandwiches. It’s AirBnB for pets. It’s the goddamn SnapChat for architects. Your comparisons are probably not realistic and indicate a lack of originality as well as positioning the successful product your aping next to your less successful one. Not a good luck, unless you have actually developed Shazam for faces.

‘Mobile’ as if that’s something new – NO WAY? REALLY? So I don’t have to carry my MacBook everywhere?

Reaching out – are you falling off a cliff?

On the plus side, I didn’t hear ‘phablet’ the entire time.

Now you’re sucking diesel
People who work in tech like Diesel jeans. This is just something I absentmindedly noticed. Is this a thing? Like Acne and graphic designers?

It’s all about the money at the Summit. That’s the starting point, meat, punchline and footnote to nearly everything. The word ‘billionaires’ is everywhere. It’s so much about the money that on day one there was someone handing out chocolate coins at the exit. The lust for cash is obvious, but it comes at the expense of ideas when you put someone up on a stage talking about something. If everything is about how to make cash, then the bigger picture ideas get sacrificed. People have made plenty of comparisons to SXSW during the week, but SXSW as well as obviously being a pitching ground, a huge networking space, a launch pad and a place where money also gets talked about a great deal, is a festival of ideas. When the ideas take precedent, then you don’t just get the chugging start-ups at your festival, you get smart people who want to be immersed in new thinking for a couple of days. The Summit would do well to shave a little bit of the ‘trade fair’ vibe off. There was a lot of repetition in the talks, tips on how to make your start-up happen, obviously, which many seemed to ignore: do you have a good idea or not? While the money takes precedent at the Summit, the money only comes out of a good idea, so let’s get back to talking about ideas, the internet’s past, the future, and what’s going on right now. Money as a goal is boring to me, but obviously it drives everything.

PS: I heard a lot of people just refer to the event as ‘Summit’ or ‘The Summit’, rather than its official title and hashtag. In the words of Justin Napsterlake drop the ‘Web’, it’s cleaner, right?

And finally… I had a really good time over the last couple of days. Heard some great speakers, met some cool people, encountered some interesting Irish ideas and start-ups, so *applause*. People are always going to bitch about stuff because that’s what people do. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Summit does next.

Previously at the Web Summit:
Notes from Day 1.
The genius of Leonard Kleinrock.
- Notes from Day 2: The heart of the matter.

Women in tech post to follow.