Storytelling on the Shoulders of Giants: an OSCON Keynote

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I originally gave this keynote at OSCON 2014 in Portland, Oregon to something like five thousand opensource enthusiasts. It was my first keynote, and I wrote a comic script for it, drawing each slide as a comic panel. Here's the video followed by the original script and artwork!

Storytelling on the Shoulders of Giants: A young woman stands on the shoulder of a massive giant.

I tell stories.

Me as a teenager, drawing comics, living the dream, hordes of fangirls. The works.

I’ve been telling them since I started drawing comics professionally at the young age of seventeen. I’d always felt limited by static pencil and paper, two-dimensional linear storytelling. Paper was easy to grasp, but it was limiting.

A comic I drew from back then, with references to music playing over a radio.

For instance, I couldn’t play my favorite music while making witty references to it (which I did a lot of).

SYMBOLISM! In the foreground, I work at a computer, my eyes shadowed. Behind me, alone, in the dark: my unused drawing table.

After a career change into web development, I continued to tell stories in presentations, comics, articles, and now with code.

Scott McCloud bursting forth from a web browser, shouting that the prophesies were true.

It took me a few years and a few CSS specs to figure out that the “Infinite Canvas” Scott McCloud wrote about had been in front of me all along: the browser. HTML5 has all these APIs, these wonderful APIs we build as a community: audio, animation, text to speech, geo location… and I’d spent the past five years mastering the foundations to wield them.

Me going from conference organizer door to conference organizer door, asking if they've 'heard the good news' about CSS animation.

The power went to my head and I quit my job to tell stories with code full time. I’ve traveled the world spreading the gospel of the Infinite Canvas. The most common thing I hear is, “I wish I could draw like you.” (My response to which is that it’s easy, just spend seven years drawing and earning 75% less than what you currently make.) But the images are only the surface treatment. There’s so much more happening underneath.

I made Alice in Videoland (the name is a tribute to one of my favorite bands) to feature in Adobe’s Inspire magazine. I knew it would mostly be seen by designers, so I wanted to introduce them to some tools for making their own stories come to life: it uses SVG, CSS to animate the different illustrations, and jQuery and a handful of plugins to trigger events.

I talk about this project quite a bit. At jQuery Europe, someone in the audience asked, “Why did you use jQuery instead of doing all the JavaScript from scratch? What you’re doing is fairly simple to a JavaScript developer.” Well because I’m a storyteller, my priority is to pick the best tool to tell a story as quickly as possible. And the people reading the article are the same way. Their goal is to get stories onto that canvas, and that’s often faster if you stand on someone else’s shoulders.

I wish I could draw like you!

The feedback I hear most often after I give a talk is, “I wish I could draw like you!”

A developer and an artist both look dejectedly at their desks and sigh whil separated by a gulf.

Well, just as developers often wish they could “draw like me,” those artists often wish they could “code like you.” (I should know. I’ve got the emails to prove it.) But neither of you have five to seven years to sink into learning the other’s craft when there are stories to be told today.

Collaboration. Mic drop.

Which is why collaboration is so important. Together we can build amazing things. It is not a matter of learning how to draw or code like me. It’s a matter of seeking out and collaborating with those people whose skills you wish you had.

When you look at the things I make, you’re not looking at my stories, my art. You’re looking at the culmination of many creators: the people who contribute to big libraries like jQuery; the team who releases some unassuming script they couldn’t imagine using outside of that one weird project; the editors who argued until the spec was ready and the programmers who actually implemented it; that person who answered my “silly question” on Twitter; the author of the original Alice in Wonderland; the inventor of the multiplane camera.

I can tell stories because you help me tell stories. You are creators, too.

Those who come before us lift us up.

Let’s tell stories forever together.

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