Northern Voice conference notes

I feel at this point like I should have blogged a lot more from Northern Voice than I had the chance to. Predominantly this is because I did my usual thing of starting up a SubEthaEdit document for collaborative note taking and put my efforts during the sessions into that rather than live blogging. The results are up on the Northern Voice website, but I shall reproduce and elaborate on the the notes from the sessions that I was actually in as and when I get the chance.

The conference itself was really enjoyable. It was very well organised by Darren, Boris, Roland, Cyprien, Brian and Lauren – congratulations to them for putting together such a fascinating set of speakers and running the day so smoothly. The audience seemed to be a mix of beginner bloggers and more experienced people, but the streams easily catered for different levels of expertise by providing some basic ‘how to’ sessions and some more conceptual session.

Opening keynote was from Tim Bray of Sun Microsystems, who provided a very good introduction to blogging. He gave beginners a good overview of the sorts of things you need to think about when you start blogging, and more experience people got a reminder of the things that should be important to them.

One particularly good point was:

Private blogs aren’t private, and the internet never forgets – something you write today will be dredged up in a very embarrassing scenario in 2028.

I have to agree wholeheartedly with this. I’ve been bitten on the bum by something I’d written in a fit of frustration six months beforehand, so I’ve learnt my lesson, but it’s one that is going to become more important as more people put more personal information online.

Second keynote was Robert Scoble who made an attempt to explain how he manages to keep abreast of 1000 RSS feeds a day. In short, this appears to be by using an RSS reader, skimming headlines and the body of a post for keywords and ditching anything that doesn’t immediately catch his eye. He ditches any RSS feed that doesn’t include the full body of the post, any feed that turns sexist or racist, and any feed that gets boring.

Marc Canter: How do you read 1000 blogs?

Scoble: I poke at them. If it’s interesting to me I read them in depth. If I find it very interesting I’ll drag it over to my ‘blog this’ folder.

I think Scoble’s ability to stay on top, even roughly on top of 1000 blogs must be at least slightly a personality thing. I can’t skim posts, I always end up reading them. Scoble, on the other hand, looks for trends in keywords and links – if five people are talking about the same thing then he’ll pay attention.

Third up was Tod Maffin, who gave my favourite talk of the day about audioblogging and podcasting. A great mix of practical tips and conceptual gems, presented in an entertaining and amusing way.

Last year I spent a week audioblogging, but I didn’t really ever feel that comfortable with it, and the feedback I got was mixed, to say the least. Tod made some great points though about what sort of thing you should audioblog:

What are you passionate about? What interests you? […] At the beginning podcasts were about podcasts, now they should be about fishing or whatever. Don’t have a show about nothing – it worked for Seinfeld but they had NBC behind them.

Adam Curry was one of the first podcasters, and it’s a technology show about podcasting (fair enough – he invented it), but one thing that was interesting and helped him gain audience share is that he moved from the Netherlands to England and he talked about the problems he had getting high speed internet access.

Radio is a powerful medium. Radio is the most visual medium out there because there are no limits to what you see in your head. Let us know about your life, if you’re having problems moving house, then say so. There are far too many DJs, but you don’t know anything about who they are. The most interesting people are the ones that let you into their personality and life.

The panel discussion that I was on with fellow bloggers Jeremy Wright, Chris Pirillo and Derek Miller, about how to increase your traffic, was great fun. We each had five minutes to introduce ourselves and briefly discuss a tactic we thought was important, then we opened to questions from the floor for an hour and a half.

I had prepared for the session by creating a mindmap of the various things you can do to promote your blog and things to keep in mind whilst you’re doing so, but most of that material wasn’t used. The questions from the floor were much more varied than I expected, but it was fun to have to think on my feet (not that I was standing up at the time, but forgive me that minor discrepancy).

One topic that seemed to be important to people was stats. How do you find out what your traffic stats are and what do you do if you get a big spike in traffic. My answers were, in short:

– traffic counters/server stats, although they aren’t reliable so don’t take them as gospel, and be careful how you interpret them

– talk to your hosting company as soon as you’re aware that a spike might happen, and mirror your site or big files

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that people are interested in such questions more than they want to know which tools to use to create such traffic. It seems to me to be part of the blogging life-cycle. When you start out, each hit is precious, each referral is exciting. The more you blog, the more you stop looking at individual hits or referrals and start looking at trends and anomalies.

I want to see an upward trend in my stats rather than obsess about the exact figure (particularly as javascript counters are notorious for under-reporting, sometimes by 75% compared to server stats for the same blog). I’m also interested in spikes, what causes them and their shape, for example my recent Instapundit mention caused a huge, one-day spike with no retention aftewards, but a link from Kuro5hin had a four day upward climb and a six day fall-off with a good retention rate afterwards.

Which one is more valuable? Well, the Instapundit spike was bigger, but the Kuro5hin one spread my link more widely and persisted longer, with more people sticking around on the blog afterwards. Much of this is down to the format of the two blogs. You fall off the front page of Instapundit quickly, whereas the Kuro5hin articles hang around longer and are more easily found by latecomers.

Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be an analysis of linkylove, although I should undoubtedly write such a piece when I get a moment (along with the gazillion other blog post I have sloshing round in my head).

Obviously I couldn’t do my demon-typist note-taking trick in my own session (I’m notorious for taking notes almost verbatim in real time), but Rob Cottingham has taken some great notes of the session. It’s far harder to take notes in a discussion than in a keynote, because you have more people to track, but he’s done a very good job. More links on the Northern Voice wiki, including an audio recording of the whole session on Blogosphere Radio (note: site’s down at this precise moment – hope it will come back soon as I’ve not heard this yet).

This was actually the first time I’ve spoken in public, but it was great fun. Maybe it’s because I’m a blog-obsessive so I felt comfortable with the subject matter, but I didn’t get any of the nerves I thought I’d get. And I did the whole day, til midnight, on no more than four hours sleep (damn the jetlag!). Caffeine is such a wonderful substance.

Other sessions I saw were the Introduction to Videoblogging and Blogger as Citizen Journalist. Saw some of the Lightening Tool Talks, but by then I was sustained only by the hurried edamame I’d had at lunch and my energy levels were waning.

Dinner saw me wind up with Brian Lamb and Michael Tippett of NowPublic, and a couple of people whose names, I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember. Excellent conversation about bloggers, journalists and the way that the media is going to need to adapt to blogging. I wish I had an eidetic memory because there was lots of good stuff to plunder for next week’s LSE debate, but not enough room on the table for me to get my laptop out and start taking notes.

Then on to the after-conf party where there were more great conversations. I truly expected to fall asleep at some point in the evening, but I managed to stay fairly perky.

Anyway, thanks to everyone in Vancouver for such an enjoyable and stimulating day. Northern Voice has set a high bar that other conferences are going to have a hard time surpassing.

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