I just spent a week in New York attending O'Reilly and TechWeb's Web 2.0 Expo. I'm sure this has been covered to death in other places, so I'll spare you the blow-by-blow delayed liveblog of the entire event. While the keynotes were considered relatively weak from the perspective of most of the event's participants that I chatted with — aside from the always impressive Gary Vaynerchuk, who, to use his own words, "killed it" in his 15 minutes on stage on Thursday — the sessions were a pretty good mix, on the whole.

As a footnote to the event, I thought I'd take a little time and highlight a few sessions I thought really stood out during my time there. I didn't stick to any particular track (there were several offered), instead mixing things up and sample sessions in each track that struck me as interesting. Not all of the slides are available just yet, but the ones that are available are up here.

Viral marketing 2.0

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed / Huffington Post
This was definitely one of my favourite sessions of the entire conference. Jonah Peretti, best known for his "Nike Sweatshop" email meme, the New York City Rejection Line, and his work on a variety of viral marketing stunts afterwards, was funny, entertaining and enlightening in front of a packed house. He discussed what he called the "Bored at Work Network" (BWN) in some detail, breaking down his thoughts on contagious media, strategic product evangelism, and various forms of viral marketing.

He went into some detail on viral marketing strategy, but summed things up by saying that in order to market virally, one needs to focus on the mechanics of how the idea spreads, not on the idea itself. The lessons I drew from the session were that (a) the BWN trumps influentials, and (b) the BWN creates its own influentials. Give those "fanatics" the opportunity to thrive and to evangelize for you, and you're set.

Design for sign-up

Joshua Porter, chi.mp
Having already read Josh Porter's book, Designing for the Social Web, from cover to cover, this session was old hat to me. I'm mentioning it here because I think it was still very important to anyone who hasn't read Porter's book. To those who already had, most of the material covered in the session was the same as his chapter "Design for Sign-Up: How to Motifcate People To Sign Up For Your Web App," with a few examples thrown into the mix that you might not have seen in the book, along with Porter's commentary. The same material is available as a free chapter from his book, in case you're interested. If you're building a web application that requires registration of any kind, I'd suggest you take a look; his tips are invaluable.

Lessons learned in scaling and building social systems

Joshua Schachter, formerly of Yahoo!, creator of del.icio.us
While Joshua Schachter's name might not have been familiar to many of the folks attending his session, the application that he created was: del.icio.us. Fresh from his recent departure from Yahoo!, Schachter gave us a somewhat disturbing look into the scaling of what could be considered a very simple web application by most accounts. When I say disturbing, I mean in the sense that even a simple site like del.icio.us seems to have encoutered some major issues while scaling up to support amazingly heavy volume, which I'm sure gave the many developers in the crowd fits and sleepless nights following his talk.

Much of his session covered how to scale an application gradually by offering up slightly different feature sets to users as you progress up the traffic ladder, and his three ways of scaling applications: technological, personal, and social.  Schachter's insight into handling specific situations such as dealing with trolls and griefers, creating viral loops, managing the identity and reputation of your users, and variations of application language and terminology was invaluable, and was supported by examples that hearkened back to Josh Porter's earlier talk.

Schachter's talk — dry wit and monotone delivery inclusive — was excellent, but I think he may have scared off a lot of attendees as he got into some pretty elaborate technical detail. I'm not complaning, though. I took reams of notes.

Scaling Digg and other web applications

Joe Stump, Digg.com
I hadn't heard of Joe Stump before walking into this session, but I was suitably impressed with his credentials as both Lead Architect at Digg, and as the President of the Cal Henderson fan club (for those not in the know, Cal is the architect of Flickr, and author of O'Reilly's Building Scalable Web Sites.)

Stump's talk about scaling Digg had a lot in common with Joshua Schachter's talk from the day before, and I'm sure they've discussed their overlapping issues in the past. I do think, however, that Stump was the more entertaining of the two; he had the crowd laughing pretty regularly throughout his session. Just as technical as Schacter's presentation (or moreso), but specific to Digg (whereas Schachter's was more general in terms of social applications), the crowd was obviously expecting a much more detailed technical talk in this case.

I think Stump's comparison of the Web 1.0 sites (flat, static sites where you can just throw more powerful hardware at them to handle additional load) to Web 2.0 applications (heavily interactive, database-driven sites that need to be partitioned to scale both horizontally and vertically) was pretty much dead on the money. To quote Joe, "Web 2.0 sucks (for scaling)."

Using Real Time Game Concepts to Increase Engagement

Charles Forman, ImInLikeWithYou.com
Although Charles Forman's presentation came across pretty rough (if you find a copy of the slides, you'll see what I mean in the first half-dozen slides), I think this was the highlight of the conference. Although many people didn't make it as Forman's talk was at the end of the day (after 5pm!), he presented the development of Web 2.0 sites in a totally different light, drawing parallels with his previous experience in the video games industry and with his development of I'minlikewithyou, a thinly-veiled dating site disguised as a collection of mini-games.

I took a good three pages of notes in this session, surprised at the depth and breadth of the topics he covered. Forman's main point, distilling a 45-minute session into a single sentence, was that many things that we take for granted in video games can easily be abstracted and applied to web applications for the benefit of both the sites' operators and users. A good example of this is LinkedIn's "XX% to complete your profile" widget, which is a very game-like concept (compare this to having to gain a certain amount of experience to level up in an MMORPG) that really encourages members to keep chipping away and coming back to complete their profiles.

The main take-away was that one can encourage interaction by applying the same lessons that make video games so successful, addictive, and viral: implementing realtime feedback, providing objectives via quest-like constructs, providing rewards for interaction, and encouraging interpersonal communication will go a long way to making your site more successful, whether it be a community, social network, or anything else.