A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Toronto once hosted a groundbreaking (if I do say so myself) technology conference known as Mesh, a place were people came by the thousands to listen to speakers and take part in discussions about a whole range of exciting new tools like “blogs” and “RSS” and live video. My four cofounders and I set out to create a place where people could learn about what was then called “Web 2.0” or what we now call “social media.” It was a simpler time, in a lot of ways — there was the occasional troll, but the idea that a Russian “troll farm” would try to influence a U.S. election would have seemed like science fiction (and bad science fiction at that).
Twitter didn’t even exist at the first Mesh conference, which was held in 2006 at the MaRS Centre in Toronto, a combination convention centre and tech incubator. Facebook was in its infancy (it went from being available mostly to university students to open access that year) and YouTube was only a year old. QAnon and other terrible things that social media would help to exacerbate had yet to be born. The main thing we talked about at the first one was blogging, which was still fairly new; we talked about how you should do it, what tools you should use, whether companies should do it, and what kinds of ethical, psychological, technical and business-related challenges blogging presented.
Speaking of blogs, one of my favourite moments from the original Mesh was sitting around a table with Om Malik (then a writer at Business 2.0 magazine), Paul Kedrosky (a Canadian-born technology investor), Jason Fried of 37Signals, Mark Evans and Rob Hyndman — two of the other Mesh co-founders — and a young guy named Matt Mullenweg, who had built a great blogging tool known as WordPress. Matt was 22 at the time I believe, but he looked like he was about 18 (he’s almost 40 now, and the company that owns WordPress is worth about $7.5 billion or so). We were talking about blog software, and Elliot Noss of Tucows was there, and his company had some terrible blog software (sorry Elliot) called Blogware.
I was telling Mark Evans that he should dump Blogware and switch to WordPress because it was way easier to use, and looked better. And Elliot said something to the effect of: “Oh, there’s lots of things that aren’t that great about WordPress. If that Matt Mullenweg guy was here, I would tell him what’s wrong with it.” At that point, he was literally standing behind the chair Matt Mullenweg was sitting in! (Photographic evidence appears below) So I said: “Well, he’s right in front of you, why don’t you tell him?” And Matt looked up from his coding or whatever he was doing, and said “What? Did somebody say my name?” Then Elliot started backpedalling furiously. It was quite hilarious.
Another amazing part about that first Mesh is what happened when Om Malik got home to San Francisco. He had apparently already been thinking about quitting his job and turning his blog, known as Gigaom, into a full-time job by hiring staff and selling ads, etc. I encouraged him to do so, and a few weeks after he got back from Mesh did exactly that. Om and I kept in touch, and I wrote a few things for him over the next few years, and then in 2010, I quit my job writing about technology at the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto to join Gigaom, where I started writing about the impact that social media and other technologies were having on journalism and the media — something I still write about today for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Anyway, back to the early days of Mesh. The first year might have looked professional (we tried hard to make it look that way) but we were like babes in the woods really. I had never even organized a kid’s birthday party successfully, and many of my partners were in the same boat. Rob Hyndman was a lawyer who liked blogging (we found out after we met that our fathers, who were both pilots in the RCAF, served together in Germany in the 1960s). Mark Evans was a journalist like me, and Mike McDerment was an entrepeneur who turned a hobby (playing Ultimate) into a business (automated bookkeeping software called FreshBooks). Stuart MacDonald, the fifth founder, was the only one with any kind of marketing experience, since he had run Expedia Canada.
When we first got together in 2004 or 2005, we thought it would be fun to get some bloggers together for a “meetup” as people were calling them. So we figured we would rent a room at a hotel or something and order some pizzas and beer. But then Stuart said: “Why don’t I see if I can find some sponsors and we’ll do this right?” So he did, and the rest is history. But I don’t think it would have continued for even a second year let alone eight more years if we hadn’t somehow gotten connected with Sheri Moore, who ran an event-planning company called MCC. She felt sorry for us, I think, and took us under her wing, and took care of all the logistics like renting blocks of hotel rooms, catering, swag, etc. We even got our own shirts with the Mesh logo on them!
Update: Someone commented on this post on Twitter and said “Ah, early social media. Man talking about all the special early visionary other men and only men except 1. The one woman who saved their asses by knowing how to actually run a conference and 2. This guy’s daughter.” That seems a little harsh! But I am glad she posted it, because if I gave the impression with the original version of this post that it was just us men doing everything, except for Sheri and maybe Caitlin, that is 100 percent untrue! Allow me to correct that mistake.
Not only was Sheri an integral part of Mesh throughout its entire lifespan, but she had an entire team of people behind her, including a number of strong, smart, and capable women (thanks a million, Danielle!) and they were likewise an integral part of Mesh and its success. We also all had the support and wisdom of our wives and partners and daughters, not to mention all of the women who helped us with ideas and feedback through nine years of Mesh — people like the inimitable Amber Mac, Maggie Fox, Leigh Himel, Leila Boujnane and so many more — and all of the brilliant women we had as speakers and panelists, people like Rachel Sklar and Christine Herron and Nora Young and Emily Bell and Mary Hodder, and too many others to mention.
Mesh would not have existed — or would have been much worse — without all of these smart and creative and visionary women, and if I somehow suggested otherwise then that was wrong of me, and I’m glad to set the record straight.
From the beginning, we didn’t want Mesh to just be another boring conference with PowerPoint presentations and people half-asleep in their chairs. There was a lot of talk at the time about “unconferences,” where discussions would be more open and less preaching from the lectern. So we decided to make Mesh something in between: we had speakers, and panels, but we banned PowerPoints (Mike Masnick of Techdirt was one of the only people we ever broke that rule for, because he treated it more as an art form). We spent at least half of the time on questions from the audience, and we offered a feature called “15 Minutes of Fame” where startups could pitch their ideas from the stage.
Mesh conferences took place over two days, with four streams in total — two per day. So one day was a combination of the Media stream with the Politics and Society stream, and the second day combined the Business and Marketing streams (the Mesh logo has four coloured streams or threads intertwined, one for each of the four topic areas, and our motto: “Connect. Share. Inspire”). That first year, our keynote speakers included the aforementioned Om Malik, Paul Kedrosky and Jason Fried, and marketing maven Steve Rubel. According to a post from Rob Hyndman, we used tools like Basecamp, Writely (which was acquired by Google and became Google Docs), PayPal and del.icio.us — a great bookmarking tool that eventually became defunct. And WordPress of course!
I don’t know about the other Mesh cofounders, but I met so many fascinating people through the conference that it almost didn’t matter that we never really made any money doing it 🙂 Having thoughtful conversations with people doing interesting things is one of my favourite pastimes, and Mesh gave me the opportunity to do it over and over again. I even got my eldest daughter Caitlin onto a panel about young people and the social web. And it wasn’t just at the conference, but during the dinners and cocktail after-parties that we threw at places like The Drake Hotel — which for a long time was the official Mesh hotel for speakers, many of whom were amused by the hotel’s room-service menu, which included a number of adult-oriented items you could order 🙂
Eventually we outgrew the MaRS Centre, so for the last couple of years we did it in a giant building at the CNE — which had a massive hall you could park an airplane in. In 2010, I interviewed my friend Emily Bell there, the former digital editor for The Guardian, who I now work with at Columbia University; she runs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism there. Steve Paikin filmed an episode of his TVO show The Agenda there in 2010. We also took Mesh on the road and did events in Calgary and Edmonton and Vancouver. But all things — even inanimate objects like conferences — seem to have a natural lifespan, and eventually Mesh came to an end in 2014, as everyone seemed to run out of gas. Is it over for good? Perhaps not. Some folks are trying to resurrect it.
At the last Mesh, I talked with Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Flickr, about a new thing he had called Slack, which he eventually sold for about $27 billion dollars or so. And Stuart talked with a guy named Neil Harbisson, who calls himself a cyborg, because he wears an “antenna” that is attached to his skull, with a tiny camera on the end of it. Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, which means he is completely colourblind — seeing only black and white and shades of grey. So he helped develop the antenna (which started as bulky gear with a helmet) that translates colour into sound. Fascinating stuff like that is what I liked so much about doing Mesh.
Looking back, however, I wonder whether we were a little too naive and trusting in our coverage of these new tools. I wish we had spent at least a little time looking at the potential downsides of citizen media and other tools such as crowdfunding, etc. I mean, they are great, and Twitter and Facebook both helped publicize and fuel the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt in 2011, along with a number of other great social movements (Black Lives Matter, MeToo, etc.) But citizen journalism, if you want to call it that, also gave birth to Breitbart and even worse outlets, and social media helped the worst aspects of 4chan and GamerGate and QAnon flourish and find new audiences.
For my first five years at Gigaom, it seemed as though we only wrote about the positive aspects of social media, and for the last five years or so I think I’ve been writing mostly about the negative aspects. That’s partly because of Donald Trump, and how he and his campaign for president weaponized social media in all of the worst ways. But it’s also because the negative aspects became more obvious, and the business models of companies like Facebook and Twitter — surveillance-based advertising mostly — exacerbated the worst aspects of humanity. I’m not saying this just about other people; I think it has exacerbated some of the worst aspects of my personality too.
As I’ve often said, the internet and social media are just tools, like a hammer or a saw — they aren’t inherently good or bad. You can use a hammer to build a house, but you can also use it to kill someone. The internet simultaneously enables and encourages everything good about humanity, and also everything that is bad about it. But I think the business model that Facebook and Twitter chose, which was based primarily on “engagement,” encouraged people to become their worst selves. A click on a post about how the Nazis were right looks exactly the same to Facebook as a click on a post about crowdfunding to help a family whose house burned down. It’s all “engagement.”
But as naive as we might have been about the long-term impact of the tools we were discussing, doing Mesh was a great honour, and I don’t regret a minute of it. I met some terrific people, made some lifelong friends, and had some fascinating discussions. I wish we could do it all over again!