really? honestly?

That Conference in That London (Part 2)

To the day itself – here’s some of the things others said:

we could rant in stereo about their spivvy sales tactics and crass treatment of SMEs #digieng> hear hear 🙂

Digital engagement conf #digieng ‘please turn off mobile phones’ oh dear

is #digieng being livestreamed @10alps??? @digitalengagement … anyone?

Have followed most of the early tweets covering #digieng. The quality of the stuff they’re coming out with is pretty crap. £850!!!

Is it the “elite” attending #DigiEng Conference, or did the tickets prices reduce to under £100 from £895

ok – at #digieng event that is not being live streamed and apart from practical common sense of @marthalanefox it has been shocking

#digieng Panel leader should have a laptop in front of him with Twitterfall on it, taking Qs from Twitter. Basic.

If you’re going to show us a slide of links & contact details PLEASE leave it up for longer than half a second. @digiengagement #digieng

Losing the will .. Am I at school or a conference …. Drinks beckon .. #digieng

#digieng For a conf on digital engagement there’s very little digital engagement. Great comments on Twitter go un-seen/hear.

#digieng any1 who’s not in plenary but wants to ask a question can tweet through and we’ll put them to the panel

A selection of recent tweets on the #digieng stream (none of them mine, by the way). It’s a pretty negative story, to be sure. But there are few, if any, positives to balance it. These particular tweets have been selected because they all relate to the event itself – and largely offer advice and suggestions that should have helped the organisers and presenters.

The last tweet is from the @digiengagement account. It invites questions via Twitter which weren’t then (as far as the tweeters could discern) actually fed to the panel for a response. [Do put me right here, @digiengagement, if they were – but the audience perception was that they weren’t.]

[UPDATE: I’ve had direct confirmation today from a panel member that they didn’t get any questions passed on.]

But it’s not all about Twitter, as I’ll be the first to acknowledge. The event itself wasn’t that bad – some compelling speakers (Peter Gilroy, Helen Milner, Martha Lane Fox all stood out), what looked to my untutored eye to be a great signing service – you don’t see that at every event, working wifi, and food which to this writer at least (even if not to @technicalfault) was very good indeed. And I see that full content is going to be made available online.

The “lack of live streaming” comments raised a particularly interesting point, though. They, coupled with the comments about external participation not really happening, point to an interesting phenomenon:

This conference was itself being seen as a digital engagement exercise. Now that might not have been a primary aim (or desire) of the organisers. The business model for a closed conference is different to one where participation is widely shared and invited – but as I hinted in my earlier post, conferences are increasingly seen as ‘public’ due to the uncontrollable openness of their participants – particularly on this topic! More people can say things to more people… as the great man once said.

And if your panel includes the likes of Martha Lane Fox who have serious public engagement jobs to do, you can expect the outside world to be showing great interest. That’s a sign of their success, I’d say. Well done Martha – your feedback was very positive, as I’m sure you saw at the time. 😉

Yes, they could have been a bit more savvy about the use of engagement technologies to make the day richer. Yes, there could have been more along the lines of the excellent example set by @helenmilner – who acknowledged to the audience that she’d modified her intended material based on feedback she’d picked up. (Notably, she began by clearing up the distinction between digital inclusion and digital engagement.) Yes, there were a few technical glitches that could have been ironed out – there always are. But the venue was a good one (for That London), as Julia Chandler points out. And I stress again that some of the digital engagement made by Aisha from the conference organising team in particular – such as that on Anke Holst’s blog post – was made in the right spirit.

And I must have got really unlucky in a seminar session on ‘data’ – which avoided all the interesting angles around mash-ups, user contribution, different models of data ownership, VRM etc. and chose to focus on a classic 1990s information management view of the world – seriously: a good digital engagement event would have used some peer review (it’s easy to get if you ask, guys) to spot things like this and weed them out. In contrast, the Redbridge session got some great feedback.

But the real irony lies in the way that the openness of digital engagement has a profound impact on the way that digital engagement itself gets talked about.

I stress again; this isn’t all about Twitter – it just happens to be one tool that’s perfect for very quick, very real, direct engagement. For speakers, the backchannel (conversations going on between delegates – and the wider world – in real time as they are presenting) is an invaluable source of feedback. Used properly, it can build a sense of real participation in an event like nothing else can.

I look forward to the next event along these lines. And wonder if I’ll be banned? Or indeed, invited. One can never quite tell with this stuff. 😉

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A conference, but not as we now know it?

When I was on work placement during my degree, I made conferences. It wasn’t hard. Pick a popular subject, suck up to the usual suspects on the circuit and get them to speak, bang out details to a few mailing lists you’d bought, and watch the pennies roll in. Easy money. You didn’t really whip up a storm of “it’s unmissable!” hype – well, you couldn’t really. This was before email.

A few years later, in my local government era, I saw a bit of the “traditional conference” game from the other side. Timing was a factor – those glossy leaflets would usually fall onto the mat precisely at the time we were realising the training budget was a bit underspent – and timing of events themselves? Well, nothing after 4pm, naturally. In fact, keep it light after lunch (and don’t start until 10). We’re going all the way to London – it would be just wrong not to do a little shopping or sight-seeing at the same time. Might even be best to stay a night…

You get the picture.

Roll forwards to 2009 and have things changed? A subject like Digital Engagement seems like a good target to knock off. Get Martha, get Andrew, get Tom (oh, hang on – who’s the new Tom? Well, yeah, find one if you can, otherwise Tom will do) – that Helen Milner does a good turn, and chuck in a couple of suppliers. They might get everyone down a bit with their cheap suits, but they pay well to have a stand. Print the brochure. Mail it out. Knock up a website with the speaker bios and if we get a few big names, we’ll pull along some sponsors as well.

Take some big fat fees, give ’em a fat printed brochure pack (that they’ll stuff behind the first coffee table they can), lock ’em in, talk the talk, thank you and goodnight.

But it’s not like that any more. No, really, it’s not. And it’s never going to be like that again.

Mainly because you don’t lock ’em in and just get on with it. They talk. They interact. They take pictures. Before, during and after the event. They communicate, with thousands of people. Thousands of people are also ‘there’. Without being in the room. Just by following streams, hashtags, feeds, blogs… Crucially, without paying.

And they do strange things, like organise their own conferences. Calling them things like un-conference, or barcamp, or meet-up. Done for free, in loaned empty offices, or in pubs, or community centres, often on a Saturday. In their own time. Fuelled by pizzas: either self-funded, or through informal, peppercorn sponsorship from an outfit that really “gets it”. Amplified by social media experts (real ones, not the sort that call themselves “social media experts”) and supported by pretty sophisticated technology to really, well, digitally engage.

Bad news really. This changes the conference game significantly. And if you’re going for a subject like Digital Engagement, then by definition you’re dealing with people who really know about this shit. As well as some suppliers in bad suits.

So how did this one go? http://www.digitalengagementevent.com/

Well, it had a rocky start. Weeks before the event it got a panning on Twitter when word got round about a) the pricing (£895+VAT for ‘private sector’) and b) the direct approach tactics being used to potential attendees. I won’t comment on the latter in any detail, as I wasn’t approached myself, but notable bloggers from the government/social media crowd such as @the_anke and @dominiccampbell made their views clear: this was not being styled or sold in a way that reflected genuine values of digital engagement and good use of social media. Where was a SME, committed to working in this sector, really going to find the best part of a thousand quid for something like this?

UPDATE: Anke Holst’s excellent post on the subject is here. I see that Aisha from the conference production team, to her credit, did engage and comment on this blog.

Others had paid up (presumably at the lower ‘public sector’ rate of £195+VAT), taking a balanced view that it would be worth going to as there’d be good debate and an interesting, informed audience. Not unreasonable at all.

The twitterstorm was fast and furious; the organisers didn’t seem to have given much support to the operator of the @digiengagement twitter account who did the best that she could as the fur flew. I’ll pass over the various stumbles in handling the medium – we’ve all been there, and learned the hard way – but the salient fact that emerged after a couple of hours was that pretty much anyone who made a fuss, or a case to the organisers via email, would get in free. Not a thousand pounds’ worth of value now – free. All in open, visible communication of the sort that gives real-time social media its very special power.

Nice for those who had dug into their organisations’ budgets to pay up. Even nicer for those who might have dug into their own.

But I took the offer at face value, and got a free ticket. What happened next – at the event itself? That’s the next post. This one is quite long enough for one sitting.

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Big Chill fame at last…

I see one of my tweets has, allegedly, made it into a review of 2009 festivals. I think this is highly amusing. Context was the Thursday before the Big Chill – most people had dressed up as zombies for the filming of, erm, a zombie film. But not grumpy old me, oh no…


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