Tony Parkin finds #MozFest! the most inclusive, constructive geek event ever
Officially it was called the Mozilla Festival, but more often it seemed to be referred to as #MozFest! An event so achingly modern that it started with a hashtag, but so creative, anarchic and alternative that it ended with an exclamation mark, like Hair!
This was my, but not their, first #Mozfest!, held on a November weekend at the futuristic Ravensbourne College, right next to London's O2 arena. And, like many, I found it a joyous, engaging and informative if occasionally bewildering experience.
Mozilla is probably best known for its Firefox web browser, and the company's open source ethos, but it does have a whole raft of tools and projects aimed at helping us (and our students) stop being a generation of web consumers and become adept webmakers. And that was the aim of the #Mozfest!, to work actively to get nearly a thousand people engaged in webmaking.
At times of austerity Brits have always bought into the idea of "make do and mend". So the timing seemed right for a #Mozfest! at which everywhere you looked there were people making, doing and mending. And that was the great delight of this event – this wasn’t a talk-shop, it was a do-shop. All over the building there were excited huddles of people actually doing and making stuff. Yes, there was the odd plenary and announcement and even award presentation, but most of the time there was an eclectic mix of educators, coders, journalists, webmakers, designers bouncing ideas and projects back and forth.
When Michael Gove says 'school', Ravensbourne is not what springs to his mind
Navigating the agenda, with its many layers and array of different start times was initially as challenging as navigating the building. Nine floors, two huge atria and hardly any rooms. You just know that when Michael Gove says "school", Ravensbourne is not what immediately springs to his mind. But it was the perfect built metaphor for the event – exciting, modern, open, and when you look you can see all the workings, barely concealed behind mesh grids just above your head. It was as if one of our finest school architects had thought, "I have a great idea for a festival venue which we could use as a school between festivals."
At Ravensbourne all the stories, and the views, go through the round windows. At one point I was sitting in the festival atrium watching Boris cable-cars through one circular window, people scaling the roofway walk over the O2 arena through another and people clinging on to the chains of their fairground ride seats for all they were worth through a third. I felt like an extra in a Terry Gilliam remake of Alice in Wonderland – a feeling that stuck with me for much of the weekend. And all the time, overhead in the atrium, a Mozilla airship was taking photos. Luckily no one there was old enough to remember the Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, so the ominous shape merely created happy, smiling crowds looking upwards in amazement, to be photographed clearly having a very good time. And the Popcorn interview video (linked below) gives just some idea what it feels like to be buzzed by an airship.
There were lots of different strands at the event; my own experiences were largely confined to the education strand, with occasional forays into the webmaker tools such as Popcorn and Thimble. My main aim for being there was working with UK’s very own Doug Belshaw, now of Mozilla, and Tim Riches of DigitalME, exploring the use of Mozilla’s Open Badges in education. Successful workshops spreading this message occurred throughout the weekend. But of course I didn’t just hear about badges – I got to make badges, get a backpack, issue badges etc. At #Mozfest! you don’t just hear, you do!
Mitch Resnick brought his PhD students for a 'Scratch' masterclass
The other great learning highlight for me was sitting in a Scratch workshop being run by personal hero Mitch Resnick and some of his PhD students. I got to work on an alpha version of the next release of Scratch which allowed me to mash up Scratch and Google Maps, and to interact in real time with Scratch objects via the webcam in my laptop. Meanwhile, sitting next to another hero, Derek Robertson, down from Scotland, it was the closest a coding numpty like me will get to geek heaven.
If you weren’t there, the web is full of material to help you sample what you missed, available via the Mozilla Festival website. The creative output of the event was demonstrated at the Demo Party. An introduction to Popcorn Maker, an exciting video-and-web mixing tool launched at the event is available on the Mozilla Popcorn blog and an interview video made with the tool, featuring the creator being buzzed by that Mozilla airship is available on the Popcorn content site. The Mozilla Webmaker site offers access to the exciting tools such as Thimble, X-Ray Goggles and the newly-released Popcorn Maker.
I must confess I did struggle somewhat with the Californication of my native tongue experienced everywhere at the event. If the geek do inherit the earth, it may be because they are the only people who understand what is being said. The only resemblance #MozFest had to an academic conference was the impenetrability of the language on the agenda and wall posters. Some was impenetrable through geek speak, but some seemed wilfully and capriciously opaque – defying you by implying ‘if you can’t understand this, you aren’t cool enough to be here’. But in fairness there were many young folk who clearly spoke the language and thrived on it.
On The Graham Norton Show the night before the event Cameron Diaz had explained the Californian drawl as merely a symptom that Californians were too lazy to use their tongues. That certainly didn’t apply at #MozFest! No lazy tongues there; never have so many tongues flickered, lashed and beaten the English language to its knees. #Mozfest! didn’t have stewards, it had ‘space wranglers’ who bounced whooped and hollered around the venue. Instead of guides, there were HumanAPIs, whose outfits started life as lab-coats but in some sort of homage to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and perhaps under the influence of dubious chemicals ended up customised and glitterised beyond all recognition. There were other roles, too, though mercifully I can’t remember what they were called.
But at this point I need to say that they were all really wonderful! Never have I experienced more enthusiastic, cheerful and helpful people helping make sure an event ran smoothly. At one point on the first day I was huddled defeatedly as I attempted to access the wifi. A beaming HumanAPI came over unsolicited to see if she could help. As it turned out, she couldn’t, but she left me feeling a whole lot better about my failure.
The wifi challenge did get resolved later. And I was able to share what I learned with a colleague who subsequently encountered the very same problem (you don’t know how much better that made me feel, Dan). This sharing happened all over the event, as peer learning was definitely the order of the day.
Even the baristas were tweeting
Everyone there seemed to throw themselves into the spirit of the occasion, even the baristas. Ah, the baristas. Neatly tucked away in a couple of locations were people making some of the best coffee I have ever enjoyed. Each cart had coffee sourced from a different country but all were uniformly excellent – as were the black-uniformed baristas. They hailed you by name, though not in that buttock-clenchingly, teeth-grindingly synthetic way they do in well known coffee shops, but in a friendly jokey way that just made people smile. It was made easier for them by large handwritten name-badges (great idea). But they kept their queue smiling with their banter, or by insisting that you personalised your own foam cup by decorating it before they filled it (thereby stopping you from noticing the queueing time).
There was a lot of smiling at #MozFest! And most of the smiles were genuine, warm smiles from even the most cynical of Brits (I am one of the most cynical of Brits). And when I tweeted my appreciation of the excellent coffee, of course I got Twitter replies from two of the baristas. #MozFest! was just that sort of event.
Their website describes Mozilla Webmaker as a “big tent” for teaching the web to the world. Evangelists since time immemorial have pitched their tents and tried to get people to ‘come and join us’. I for one, as with #CampEd12, would dearly love to be inside that tent, facing outwards. I was made to feel welcome, even if I was a little disorientated at times. And as a final point, one of the really positive aspects of that tent was its inclusiveness. For a technology event this was one of the most balanced and representative crowds, both on the staff and audience sides, with which I have ever mixed. The only noticeable absentees were those with beards, Star Trek t-shirts, open-toed sandals and a deep and passionate love of real ale and assembler code. But I bet Mozilla is now working on a strategy to make even them feel welcome in the tent too.
What did you make at Mozfest?
Interview with the creator of Popcorn (Popcorn-enhanced video)