Where’s the we in WeMedia?

I spent two days this week at the WeMedia conference, organised by The Media Center, the BBC and Reuters. I started this blog post yesterday, but couldn’t find time to finish it. I should probably post a health warning on it, though, for those of a sensitive disposition: this is an account of my experience and opinions. Others may have had more fun than me.

Day One

Held at BBC’s Television Centre, in (apparently) the same studio they used for Top of the Pops, it was a highly stage-managed event with cameras everywhere, men with head-sets and BBC people all over the place.

As I had feared, it was a complete waste of time. I’m sorry, I’m never normally this critical of a conference – particularly as I know first hand how much damned hard work it takes to put one on – but it was unexpurgated garbage. I had thought it might turn into ‘MeTooMedia’, but it went one step further than that and became ‘TheyMedia’. Instead of progressing the conversation, or even bringing it up to date, the BBC managed to thrust us into a timewarp and take us back at least two, maybe three years.

Bearing in mind, this was a conference basically about big media and its relationship to ‘citizen journalism’, (a term I am coming to loathe – I’ve started calling it ‘participatory media’ which is a bit of a mouthful but, I think, more accurate), but there was only one blogger on stage, and no podcasters, vidbloggers, or photojournalists. Instead, the speakers were almost entirely from the mainstream media, primarily the BBC, Reuters and the Media Center, all sitting on stage talking as if they know what is going on.

I’ve news for you, guys. You don’t. You don’t have a clue.

There were two entirely separate conferences happening – the one that went on onstage and amongst the big media attendees, and one that happened in the backchannel and in the coffee breaks amongst the more clueful attendees. And never the twain shall meet. They should have, because there were three ‘online curators’ – including myself – who were gathering questions and commentary from chat and the blogs. In the morning, the conference allowed one of the curators to actually speak up at the end of each session, but the moderators frequently cut him off, and he hardly had any time to flesh out the points that were being made, or encourage more discussion from the floor.

The choice of moderators was not always good, either. In particular, the BBC’s Nik Gowing was entirely unsuitable for the role. Used to dealing with media-trained professionals, he didn’t have any respect for the audience at all, was patronising and rude, and was far too enamoured of the ‘important people’ on the stage. That particular panel included Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, and was entitled The Leaders’ Forum. Gowing took that L-word just a bit too seriously, repeatedly reminding us that we were listening to the leaders.

Leaders of what, exactly? A game of buzzword bingo?

The level of defensiveness that oozed from the stage when bloggers either managed to get a word in edgeways or were brought up as a topic of conversation, was astonishing. Old chestnuts such as subjectivity vs. objectivity, the accuracy of bloggers, and fact-checking were brought up by the media representatives, the same issues that I was trying to get beyond two years ago, and which were vexing people like Tom Coates far earlier than that.

The lack of understanding of blogs, bloggers and participatory media shown was astonishing, and the false dichotomy of journalists vs. bloggers was emphasised by the speakers throughout the day. It was very disappointing indeed, because I had hoped that we had moved beyond these sorts of non-issues and into the real substance of when, why and how you begin participatory media projects.

All in all, the day was very insular and introspective, with a lot of people appearing to think that they are doing very well, thankyouverymuch, without the input of anyone who knows what they’re talking about. By the end of the day, I was beyond my usual state of British reserve and just about ready to spit feathers. I’m used to people not getting it, remember – I do this stuff for a living so I have plenty of experience of people talking out of their arse. But this conference brought me to a new level of frustration.

And a new level of embarrassment. Halfway through the day, the BBC trotted out 25 ‘digital assassins’, primarily young people (I think to show that they were hip wiv da yoof) who were brought in to talk to the attendees and give them the opportunity to interact with a real live blogger. Oh, please. Could that have been any more condescending.

It reminded me of a story a friend of mine told me about a comedy show that he went to once in Chicago, where one of the comedians asked the audience, ‘Who’s never met a gay man before?’ and then went up and introduced himself to whomever raised their hand. It felt a bit like the BBC were saying ‘Who’s never met a blogger before?’ and then helpfully provided some specimens for attendees to look at. Cringeworthy.

Live radio from a conference – a missed opportunity

So the final hour of the day was given over to Africa Have Your Say, an ‘interactive radio’ show broadcast nightly on the BBC World Service and the African edition of World Have Your Say. Now, Kevin, my partner and co-author here, works on this programme, so I’ve had a fair bit of exposure to it. Doing an hour’s radio from a conference, though, is a challenge. The murmur level in the back of the room really rose during the programme because suddenly the presenter started talking about things – such as bloodshed in Iraq – that were nothing to do with the conference. Now, for the listeners, that makes sense, but for the attendees it was a bit of a weird one.

I didn’t really feel that the WHYS team really made the most of the opportunity. I have listened to their show before, and it works best when they allow their callers to talk to each other, to have a real discussion about the issues. They need to allow people time and space to breathe, to talk, to get to the nuances of the issues they are discussing. Instead, and sadly because I think it did the show a disservice, they turned it into a full-on phone-in. There was just a string of people commenting, there was no conversation. A shame.

What I think they should have done was to be a little less rapid-fire, and a bit more considered. Pick your topic, then get people from the conference to discuss the issue with someone who’s called in. The presenter kept telling people in the conference to raise their hand, but never actually directed any questions at us, so it was hard to know when to put your hand up because it was hard to know what they were going to start talking about next.

I actually had my hand up for ages (and I had an inside line – being an online curator I got one of my colleagues to tell them I wanted to say something). The VIPs from Reuters got to speak before the lowly blogger, but I eventually got to make my point about the BBC/Reuters/Media Center trust survey, saying that asking people if they trust ‘bloggers’ is not a valid question because ‘bloggers’ are all different, so some people will trust some bloggers but not others. Crowing that people trust the BBC but not ‘bloggers’ is really arrogant and out of order.

I got a round of applause for that from the crowd, so I think I wasn’t the only one to feel like the survey that was released at this conference was flawed. I’m not going to rip that apart now though, I’m going to do that some other time when I’m feeling strong and able to deal with the bullshit.

The WeMedia Fringe

The price tag for We Media was $795, which is far too expensive for most people to afford, and it put the conference firmly in the ‘professional jolly’ bracket (although it wasn’t a very jolly jolly).

Because of this, Robin Hamman put together a fringe event, at which I spoke. By the time I got there I was feeling rather ill – not enough food at the BBC, too much stress, and creeping exhaustion.

(By the way, wtf is it with conference catering? Are the BBC too tight to serve a decent lunch? I couldn’t even eat most of it. Good job I had prawn sandwiches to back it up.)

I’m not going to blog about what I said, other than to say that I took my lovingly prepared talk and threw it out the window, preferring instead to do an off the cuff talk which I entitled, ‘Why WeMedia Sucked’. You can watch it, thanks to James Cox.

Day 2

OK, so yesterday we were at Reuters, at Canary Wharf. I was fairly tired even before i got there. Didn’t stay long at the Fringe, and didn’t get home late, but spending a day getting increasingly wound up took it out of me.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get off to a good start. I got told off by one of the other curators for recommending that people wanting to chat in real time about the conference should use IRC. The day before, we’d been trying to use Mapable, a browser-based chat service who were sponsoring the event. Sadly, Mapable couldn’t hack it – the UI was awkward, the site behaved bizarrely with regards to minor things like log-ins, and then in the afternoon it all went horribly wrong with the chat splitting into two (like a netsplit on IRC). It proved incredibly difficult to reconcile to two because even when you logged out, restarted your browser and then logged back in again, it logged you in to the second chat. The service was up and down more times than a whore’s knickers, and it was a very frustrating experience for all. It’s no wonder that people wanted an alternative.

The content of day two was better, it has to be said, but the communications amongst those who were there with a role to fulfil was awful. No one told us that Global VoicesRachel Rawlins and Rebecca MacKinnon would be taking the online curator role for their four sessions. It made perfect sense, and they did it very well, so it wasn’t the fact of it that I minded, it was that no one bothered to tell us other online curators.

Meantime, power problems and aggressiveness from the ushers and Media Center staff continued to rile me. By lunchtime I was ready to walk out. I felt very much like I was being seen as a ‘whiny blogger’ because I had fed back on problems with the chat, issues with power, and people’s feeling that this conference was not giving enough of a voice to the people in the audience and online, some of whom were more expert than those on stage.

By the time that I was asked to take the mic for the feedback session for the Middle East session, I declined. I was in such a bad mood, and felt so disillusioned and disengaged that it would have been an error for me to take the mic.

A long lunch, missing one session, and talking at length to some of the other attendees put me back on an even keel, though. Thank you to those who helped me chill out a bit amidst a sea of frustration.

More missed opportunities

I can’t really comment on the validity of the Global Voices sessions, but they seemed a lot better than the previous day’s rubbish. I’m not expert in the use of technology and social media in the developing world, but the impression I got was that Rebecca and Rachel did a very good job within a limited time-frame of addressing some of the issues and telling some of the stories that are illustrative of what’s going on.

But for a conference about the media and how it relates to the public, WeMedia missed tricks left, right and centre. In the audience for day two was the very man who brought us We The Media, Dan Gillmor. Dan was originally listed as a speaker, but he never took the the stage. He wouldn’t be drawn on why that was, and I respect his discretion, but I feel we lost out because we didn’t get to hear about his experiences.

Also present but unable to give us the benefit of his knowledge was Michael Tippett, who started the participatory media project NowPublic. Michael’s site was launched at Northern Voice two years ago, and in the intervening time it has grown and developed and become very successful. I would have loved for Michael to be able to talk about his successes and failures, and to talk about the way the people who use Now Public feel about it.

Others I would have liked to have heard from include Ben Hammersley and Neil McIntosh, and the Comment Is Free team. The Guardian have been pushing away at the boundaries of what big media does with social software, and I would love to hear more about what they struggled with, and what was easy. I wish more than anything that Hugh Mcleod had been there. He would have punctured a few bubbles, no problem.

I would also have liked to have heard Rebecca and Rachel talking about Global Voices itself – what problems and triumphs have they had? How does it all work? What about at the nuts and bolts level?

When I started to mention this to one of the Media Center guys afterwards, he just snapped my head off saying ‘This wasn’t about citizen journalism’. Well, that’s kinda funny because a lot of people I was speaking to there thought it was.

The only really good voices in this conference were Rachel North, who had a lucky escape from the 7/7 bombings and then became a blogger (and got picked up by the media); and Dave Sifry from Technorati, who provided a breath of fresh air in the ‘monetisation’ session. It’s a real shame that in two days, there were only two people who really stood out. Maybe I’ve been spoilt by some really high quality conferences where nearly every session has been stellar (Future of Web Apps springs to mind).

I could continue

I really could continue. The flaws in this conference were so numerous. But you know what the biggest problem is now?

The people in the media who need to be thinking about what just happened aren’t. They believe that I am just a whining blogger. If they even read this, they’ll say that I should get over myself, that I don’t understand what their aims were and that I am hostile on principle. Worse than that, they believe that I’m anti-media. I’m not. I worked for two years as a music journalist, and I have a column in Linux User now, so why on earth would I be anti-media? Why would I be against the people who contribute to my income? It just doesn’t make sense.

One of my friends suggested to me yesterday that I was so wound up because I cared too much. And maybe he was right. But why should I care that the big media players at this conference didn’t get to hear about what’s really happening? Why should I care that all they heard were meaningless platitudes? Why should I care whether or not they get an insight into how participatory media works?

I care because I am actually pro-media. Having a fit and healthy media industry is really important to having a fit and healthy democracy. Having information flow easily increases levels of understanding amongst the public, the government, the industry, and everyone in between and that improves our society. Participatory media can be, I believe, a transformative force, and the media could help create projects that could bring real value to the participants.

But hell, if they wanna keep their eyes shut, there’s nothing I can do about that. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.