Northern Voice 2010: The Great, the Meh and the Ugly

Posted on May 10, 2010 in Blather | 25 comments

Northern Voice image

Northern Voice, by Reilly Lievers (CC by-nd licensed)

I didn’t much enjoy attending the Northern Voice personal blogging conference last year, but I decided to give it another go this year, for several reasons. First and foremost, in the last fifteen months I’ve met a lot of local bloggers. So I was more comfortable in the community than I was last year, and I knew I wouldn’t be compelled to stand in a corner feeling shy and confused. On top of that, I decided to pitch a talk. My talk was rejected, but I was asked to sit on a panel instead. So I felt like I got a cookie, even though I actually wasn’t too jazzed about the panel concept (I just said “jazzed”. Why? I have no idea). More on that later.

So.

The Great

Northern Voice is ostensibly about personal blogging, not about blogging for business, and many of the sessions were very much about the personal. Two, in particular, really hit that nail on its head. Kimli Welsh‘s talk on Overcoming Social Anxiety, or “How to Win Friends and Influence People (in 140 characters or less)” was outstanding, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend. Her talk was great because she told her own story, and she told it with honesty and with humour. The full room laughed with her and nodded as they related to her stories about being so anxious about socializing that she’d bail on plans more than half the time. The “how to” part was about how she started to overcome her anxiety by changing the way she thought about socializing, and about how she used social media in ways that helped her achieve that. Nothing technical, all social.

The second nail-hitting talk was Steffani Cameron‘s on How To Screw Up Your Personal Blog. Again with the honesty and the humour, and this time also with some tears. How did Steff screw up her personal blog? She went through some serious personal shit, that’s how, and she did it publicly, and then she made some bad choices when it came to the basics of blogging (she changed her URL without redirecting, and stuff like that). There was no how-to at all in her talk, yet I think it was one of the most valuable and educational off all the ones I attended.

One of the themes of the conference (no, I don’t actually think the organizers ever actually said the conference had a theme) was about finding your voice. Kimli and Steff certainly reiterated what I hear was said during Monica Hamburg‘s and Dave Olsen‘s session called, ba-dum-bum, Finding Your Voice. I missed that session because I made the regrettable decision to attend the Copyright and Online Expression talk instead (more later on how bad a decision that was). The chatter on Twitter, however, indicated the voice session was very much loved and adored.

I spent a significant part of the first day of the conference in what Zak Greant likes to call “the corridor track” (or something to that effect). I wasn’t interested in some of the topics and I was very much into catching up with people, so I did a lot of chatting and catching up.

After lunch (oh my, the food was yummy) I went to David Ng‘s talk on Good Science: It Takes An (Online) Village. He talked about science and culture! Hallelujah! It was a great presentation, and the project he’s heading up, Phylo, is awesome. David was also all over Twitter, starting conversations with people both in tweets and in person. He shot me a tweet after our Fibre Arts Online panel asking if I’d want to chat about possible science projects, like knitted human organs or crocheted animals. He’s about to go on sabbatical, but I’ve made a note in my calendar a few months from now to drop him a line to see if we can’t cook up some crafty science projects.

I was more of a joiner the second day of the conference. I hopped from session to session happily, despite being painfully overtired (thank you, Cleo, for waking me up at 5:30 that morning). Chris Messina‘s keynote address was perfect. It was to the point and smart and well-delivered and thought-provoking. And, unlike the first day’s keynote which I couldn’t understand because of the insane echo in the room, I could hear Chris loud and clear. It was a very good start to the day. In fact, I believe I stood up after his talk and mumbled for a while about how I wish the overall level of discourse about blogging would raise up to the level Chris started us out at.

Then, the sessions, starting with How (Should) Journalists Use Social Media. This was a paired session, which is a format I’m going to complain about in the next part of this post. But half of it was great, and that was the half presented by Lisa Johnson, who’s a reporter with the CBC. Lisa’s a great speaker, and her presentation was informative and useful. It was useful because the way she uses social media as a reporter is relevant to personal bloggers. Both because she really gets it, and we can all learn from people who really get it, and also because she looks for stories and leads and information from the people she follows. And the people she follows are, you know, people.

Then there was the sex panel. Northern Voice 2010 will mark that point in time after which I’ve hung out with sex bloggers. And hanging out with sex bloggers has severely fucked with the very natural and well-considered boundaries I keep when it comes to what I talk about publicly online. The reason it’s fucking with me so severely is that in private, I talk about lots and lots of things I never talk about online, using language the likes of which might shock you despite my using the word fuck three times in this paragraph. And talking about these things and in that manner with other people who spend as much time online as I do may end up shifting my boundaries a little. Only time will tell.

Anyway, the panel, A Four-Letter Word Called Sex, was good. Steff reiterated a point that blew me away from her solo talk the first day, which is that when we share our fears and insecurities with each other, it makes it easier for everyone. Nobody’s a freak when we’re all freaks. And dude, we’re all freaks.

Our panel on Fibre Arts followed the sex talk, in the same room, which was really maybe not the best of scheduling decisions. It was like a television station leading into Mr. Rogers with Deadwood. But anyway, I had a really good time doing the panel, and I think Felicia Lo and Mandy Moore did, too. People asked lots of great questions, and I had some fun chats with folks afterward, too. And hey, check out the totally wicked visualization Rachel Smith did of our session!

Fibre Arts Session, visualization

Fibre Arts and Social Media, by Rachel Smith (CC A-NC licensed)

I was in the right mindset after our panel to attend the one on Art and Social Media (in a different room; see my above note on television programming). It was a good panel. I love hearing about how artists and performers use social media, and how publicists use it to benefit all. It wasn’t so much a personal blogging session.

Tod Maffin podcasting cartoon, by Rob Cottingham

Tod Maffin podcasting cartoon, by Rob Cottingham (CC A-NC-SA licensed). Click for a larger version

Last, the session I found most valuable of all, Tod Maffin‘s on Awesome-izing Your Podcast: Secrets from Radio. Radio is my favourite medium and always has been. And though I’ve dabbled in podcasting, I’ve been stuck on exactly the thing Tod focused on in his talk: podcasting is different from broadcast radio, but most podcasters treat it exactly like radio. Podcasting is far more personal, even though radio can be very intimate. My brain expanded as he highlighted qualities of outstanding radio shows and explained how those qualities make for good podcasts. He’s a great speaker and a fabulous presenter, and in my opinion this session alone was worth the cost of admission (admittedly, as a speaker my admission fee was waived. Whatever).

And finally, a note on moderated panels. All moderated panels should be moderated by Darren Barefoot. Every one. Even if we have to clone him. Darren does the following when he moderates: he introduces the topic; he introduces the panelists; he sets out the rules for Q&A; he keeps the discussion moving at a good clip; he works some serious browser magic to bring up relevant websites, pages and information so it shows up on the big screen while the panelists are talking. Darren didn’t moderate our panel, and that makes me sad.

The Meh

The venue wasn’t great. It was gorgeous and friendly and open and fun to be in, but the sizes of the rooms weren’t well distributed (two of the four rooms always seemed to be over-capacity and therefore either uncomfortable or inaccessible), and the atrium used as an auditorium for the keynote speeches has terrible acoustics.

Speaking of acoustics, I’m going to weigh in on the child-friendliness of the conference by saying one thing only: Being child-friendly does not mean being disruption-friendly. I couldn’t understand whole swaths of what Chris Messina said because an adorable baby was cooing loudly on the other side of the echo chamber. Yeah, I’m also that cranky ass in a movie theatre who gives the evil eye to the people with the screaming baby who chose to ruin a movie for dozens of people instead of hiring a babysitter. Parents who bring kids to grown-up gatherings are responsible both for the joy people find because of it, and also for ensuring their experience isn’t disrupted.

Ok, enough of that. Let’s talk about panels. As I said, panels moderated by Darren Barefoot are amazing. Our panel wasn’t moderated by Darren, and I felt like we were kind of tossed to the wolves. So we moderated it ourselves, but it would have been great not to have had to do that. Especially because, since our panel was fabricated by the organizers and not based on a pitch, we were pretty much counting on them to frame the topic. For example, at one point I said, “I’m not sure if it was intentional, but a lot of speakers have mentioned the importance of finding your voice, and that’s just as important in crafts blogging,” and the moderator said, “Yes, it was intentional.” Good thing I’d been able to attend the entire conference to that point to get the right impression.

Good vs. not-good moderation aside, and going back to what I said way back in the first paragraph, here’s why I wasn’t jazzed about our topic to begin with: Knit blogging ain’t a new phenomenon, and nobody who’s not a yarn freak knows or cares much about “fibre arts”. I would absolutely LOVE to attend or participate in a panel on hobbies. Everyone’s got a hobby. And every hobby has a place online. Everyone’s got some niche interest even if it’s not a hobby, and every niche interest has a place online. That, in my opinion, is a far juicier topic for a personal blogging conference. It’s one that has the potential to appeal to every attendee, not just the few who know something about a given niche.

Why, you might ask, didn’t I suggest that to begin with? Mostly because of two things. First, it seemed to me this topic was a sealed deal; if I chose to pass on it they’d find someone else. Second, I don’t know the organizers and I don’t know the culture of the committee. I don’t know how flexible they are or how fluid their ideas might be. If I had it to do over again, I might have suggested we talk about the topic further, and talk about ways to make it relevant to any conference themes and to as many attendees as possible. In my opinion, our session should have either been about hobbies online and hobby blogging, or about how aspects of the online yarn community and blogging practices might be appropriated or adapted by other hobbyists (things like craft-alongs, the Ravelry community and database, the online community surrounding yarn bombing, the brilliant #craftsocial Twitter events, etc.). The latter isn’t suited to a panel, but rather to a presentation.

I also think it would be great (though time-consuming, yes) for a conference organizer to meet with a fabricated panel before the conference, or at least before the session. I should have suggested this before our panel but I didn’t think to, this being the first conference panel I’ve been on. We three panelists got together a few weeks ago, but then we realized we didn’t really know what to plan for. So we enjoyed our coffee and cobbled together some topics we thought would be interesting to cover. We ended up just doing a Q&A-style talk, which worked great because the attendees were so chatty and great. If we’d had a shy group, it would have been awkward and possibly full of stinking suckituge.

Don’t get me wrong – I love that I was able to participate in Northern Voice as a presenter. Since my previous experience I’ve come around to see the great value in this conference and I was proud to be a small part of it. I’m aware that my bellyaching might not exactly endear myself to the committee that will choose speakers next year, but I’d rather give what I hope is constructive feedback and not be invited to speak again than to sit on my hands.

Enough about that. Let’s move to the other half of the journalism panel. As I said, Lisa was awesome in the way she made her presentation relevant to a conference on personal blogging. Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of The Vancouver Sun – not so much. His shpiel about print not being dead is relevant, but not the way he talked about it in the context of Northern Voice (or, more specifically, he didn’t talk about it in the context of Northern Voice) (unrelated, nihilism doesn’t mean what he seemed to think it means).

Now, Kirk’s splendid smack-down of Vancouver Observer editor Linda Solomon, while entertaining, did highlight a topic I think would be perfect for a conference like Northern Voice: how bloggers and traditional media (should) do their special dance. It’s not an original topic, but I’d love to see it done well.

It seems I can’t put off that copyright talk any longer. It was awful. I deliberately missed a session I’d been interviewed for (Monica had asked me and others a bunch of questions about how we found our voice) so I could go to a session on my favourite topic. Bad decision. The copyright talk was terribly organized (no topic sentence, no stated point), the collage films they showed were great but weren’t shown with any copyright-related commentary, and the law talk was boring. Note to Northern Voice organizers: Please revisit this fascinating, confusing topic again! And soon!

Finally, some further wee notes directed more to organizers than anyone else:

  • Themes tying the talks together – please be open and specific about them.
  • Themes in general – please decide on some before the call for pitches is announced. As a speaker, I’d love know what the focus is on so I can come up with a brilliant idea for a pitch.
  • Paired sessions. It’s great to get two-for-the-price-of-one, but it would be even better if those two people planned a joint talk rather than splitting things up.
  • Please allow time for people to move to a new room between sessions. Three minutes, even, would be a godsend. Oh, make it five and we’d have time to pee!
  • Yes, I’m more than willing to put my time and any relevant skills where my mouth is as I sit here making demands.

The Ugly

Huge thanks to Kimli for including some Mighty Ugly dolls in her swag bags. I had a very good time talking with people about the Mighty Ugly project, and it was very cool that my interview with Sheryl MacKay on North by Northwest (mp3) aired the morning of the second day of the conference. In fact, as it was airing, I got a tweet from Cathy Browne saying she was listening and wanted to meet me, and I replied asking if she’d be at Northern Voice (not knowing she’d actually be presenting, too). And then she ended up having dinner at my house with a fabulous bunch of other people, which was the best end to that Twitter story, EVAR.

And oh, that dinner. I made new friends, got to know old ones better, and I very much enjoyed decompressing in the most absurd of ways at the end of a conference I definitely plan to attend next year.

Hi Cynthia!, by Mike Browne (CC by-nc-sa licensed)

  • Ianiv

    “I couldn’t understand whole swaths of what Chris Messina said because an adorable baby was cooing loudly on the other side of the echo chamber”

    Now, now… don't exaggerate. We were asked to leave the room pretty soon after he cooed a few times so you couldn't have missed “whole swaths” of the talk because of the baby.

    Honestly I don't think he was making that much noise, and if he had I would've taken him outside immediately. I think everyone understands “kid/family friendly conference” a little different and I was hoping for some more tolerance. Maybe NV is now too big to really be kid friendly in that way. And the acoustics of that room really sucked too.

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    I see your point. I think much of the problem really was the terrible
    acoustics. I was far on the other side of the room from where I think you
    were. I was bugged for a good chunk of time, though I believe you didn't
    think he was making that much noise. Probably, again, due to the acoustics.

  • http://www.monniblog.com Monica (aka monnibo)

    Wow! I have many comments so point form it is. I agree with you on a bunch of things:

    - I agree that as gorgeous as the Life Sciences Centre was, the accoustics weren't very good, especially if you weren't sitting near the speaker, or they didn't speak directly into the mic.

    - Regarding “Themes in general”, being on the back-end of a festival/conference, the thing about themes is they're great, but you don't want to limit the possibilities by announcing a “theme” up front. Ones that come out organically are great.

    - The person who was supposed to be “moderating” your panel couldn't spell crochet-along or Ravelry properly. Lauren, who organized your panel (and wasn't supposed to be moderating), ended up taking over the computer-screen-hookup.

    - I liked the Fibre Arts panel and attended even though I had no questions or anything like that.

    - I think that a HOBBY panel would be brilliant! You should suggest it next year.

    - As someone who has babysat a number of kids and eventually wants to have kids one day, I don't think conferences are the right place for kids. Sorry.

    - Darren was fantastic at moderating the Arts & Social Media panel. I would have loved to listen to an hour with even more speakers.

    - Regarding split talks that the Journalism panel experienced.. there was a similar problem with Finding Your Voice. Monica Hamburg was BRILLIANT but Dave Olsen just submitted a video because he couldn't come. If I wanted to watch videos about social media, I would troll YouTube.

    - Off Topic: What WP plugin do you have that makes those little symbols beside your links? Me want! Me want!

  • http://hummingbird604.com Raul

    Sorry Kim, but clearly the conference organizers said “this is a child friendly conference”. And the first deterrent to having great sound was NOT Aiden. It was really bad sound management.

  • lisasj

    Interesting analysis – thanks for the shout out about my talk.

    I also found the copyright panel lacking, though I think each of the people had interesting stuff to say about the topic. It felt like it needed what we call in my work a “producer.” Someone who decides the focus, what's in, what's out, and guides.

    I've been on a few panels now in conferences with different sizes and shapes, and experienced the disconnect between speakers before. I've never met with other panel members beforehand, but good on you for doing that. It takes time, though, and sometimes people are in different locations.

    I think it would help if someone (the “producer,” who could be on the panel or a conference organizer) set out a question or three to be answered by each person. So you had not just a topic but a focus to work with. We tried this to some extent, but could have done better.

    The good thing about questions is they can be emailed around…before the week before…whereas planning a whole talk together would take more meeting time than many of us can handle for this kind of project.

  • attendee

    didn't attend keynote so not sure about that specific situation, but I'd rather northern voice be adult friendly than kid friendly. ie I want to hear speaker not baby. focus on needs of hundreds vs one mom and baby.

    agree about breaks between session they had it before didn't this year.

    but overall really great conference, really enjoyed it

  • http://www.darrenbarefoot.com dbarefoot

    Thanks for your kind words. I think I have my theatre degree to thank for any moderation skills I acquired.

    Yeah, the big sunny box full of hard surfaces turned out to be more trouble than we anticipated. We had confidence in our audio tech, but that turned out to be fairly misbegotten.

    The irony is that, given that the keynotes were probably only attended by about 300 people, we could have held them in the bigger theatre. But, unfortunately, there's no way to know that before the event.

    It's a symptom of trying to find a venue that can accommodate 500 people and still offer a series of acceptably-sized breakout rooms. I don't know what we'll decide, but we'll definitely consider changing venues again or shrinking the conference back down to a size that could avoid talks in the atrium.

  • http://twitter.com/AngelaCrocker Angela Crocker

    Great post, Kim. I wish we'd met during the ebb & flow of Northern Voice.

    As for the issue of children at conferences, I see both sides. As a WAHM to a busy preschooler, I juggle all the time to find childcare when needed. I'm fortunate that my husband has very different interests and a job with flex days. For me conferences are usually an escape to focus on sharing, learning & connecting. I don't think conference organizers should take on the liability of offering childcare. There are too many risks. However, those of us with kids could look at sharing a babysitter. Think nannypool instead of carpool.

    If you pursue the hobbyist panel idea, please let me know. I don't blog about it but I am an avid papercrafter who's been lurking on scrapbooking & card making forums/blogs/social networks since 1996 or so. I'm fascinated that e-extroverts like me (and I'm not alone) can still be lurkers in some places. Worth exploring?

    [sidebar] Darren – excellent use of your theatre degree!

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    Thanks so much for your notes, Monica! I hear you on the potential for
    themes being limiting. When I was editing the magazine I used to avoid issue
    themes for exactly that reason – I wanted people to submit their ideas
    without preemptive limitation.

    I'll do my best to remember to pitch a hobby panel next year.

    The plugin I'm using is Apture – http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/apture/

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    I love the idea of child-friendly conferences. I don't think it's unfriendly
    to people who bring children to let them know their children are expected
    not to be disruptive just like adults are expected not to be disruptive. I'd
    have been equally frustrated if adults were talking during the keynote and
    the bad acoustics amplified their chatter.

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    I agree, Lisa. We quickly realized when we met that we couldn't plan a talk
    – and anyway, panels are best when unscripted. I've sat on panels before in
    non-conference settings – I think the difference for me is that those other
    panels were a part of a far more specific event, so the context was pretty
    firm going into it. I have a lot more to think about regarding more general
    conference panels. Overall, I think it's a great format, and witnessing
    Darren's moderation was a huge eye-opener for me. I learned as much from his
    technique as I did from the panelists' perspectives and knowledge.

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    I thought a lot about the size/audience factor before I wrote this –
    obviously I didn't come up with any suggestions. I don't envy your task! But
    man, that space was gorgeous to spend time in.

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    Thanks for your comments, Angela.

    I totally appreciate the many sides of the childcare and conferences issue.
    A nannypool is a great idea.

    And I *love* your point about extroverts as lurkers. I'm often one, too.
    What a fascinating topic that might be to explore, whether in a
    hobby-focused panel or not. I mean, lurking vs. piping up is a central issue
    to participating in a blog community. You should pitch that topic! :)

  • http://blogs.ubc.ca/brian Brian

    I sincerely regret that you did not get the degree of moderator attention that would have made you feel better about your presentation.

    For what it's worth, I enjoyed your Fibre Arts session and every other attendee I spoke to did as well. Thanks for the energy you brought to the event, and I hope you can speak at Northern Voice again.

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    Thanks so much, Brian. I intended no disrespect and was certainly
    experiencing our panel in the haze of delight I took from the one Darren
    moderated just before it. :)

  • http://www.darrenbarefoot.com dbarefoot

    If you keep talking me up like this, I'm going to quit my life here in the city and wander the roads of America as the Littlest Moderator for Hire.

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  • Lauren

    I'm sorry the moderation wasn't good enough. I had had the impression your group knew what you wanted to say and didn't need or want heavy moderation. Guess I got that wrong.

    As for the theme – each one of the organisers would have their own way of saying what NorthernVoice is about. It's always been about personal blogging/social media/photo sharing, using whatever technologies are available. We've had talks about finding your voice and sharing your story since the beginning; I wouldn't call it “this year's theme” as much as “always a theme”. We don't fix a more detailed theme for each year – if there is one, it comes out organically from what people choose to talk about.

  • Lauren

    I'm sorry the moderation wasn't good enough. I had had the impression your group knew what you wanted to say and didn't need or want heavy moderation. Guess I got that wrong.

    As for the theme – each one of the organisers would have their own way of saying what NorthernVoice is about. It's always been about personal blogging/social media/photo sharing, using whatever technologies are available. We've had talks about finding your voice and sharing your story since the beginning; I wouldn't call it “this year's theme” as much as “always a theme”. We don't fix a more detailed theme for each year – if there is one, it comes out organically from what people choose to talk about.

  • http://blondechicken.blogspot.com blondechicken

    “Nobody’s a freak when we’re all freaks. And dude, we’re all freaks.”
    Indeed!
    Just keeping that in mind…and that my own brand of freak-hood will make it easier for future freaks, keeps pushing me towards a more personal kind of blogging/writing/tweeting.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    Thanks for your comment, Lauren.

    I intended no insult. I realized as I was reflecting, and I hope this was clear in my post, that I guess I really wasn't all that sure about a bunch of things and I didn't really realize it. I'm sorry my own confusion gave you the impression I wasn't confused! If that makes sense. I'm really *very* happy to have been on that panel, and I think folks really did enjoy it (I did, too!). I enjoyed meeting you, too!

    For themes, maybe next year when they emerge from people's pitches (I think my source of confusion might be that our topic didn't come from a pitch, so I had the impression it was fabricated to fit into a hole), the speakers can be brought into the loop about the them. We're lucky that lots of speakers live right here in the area, but this could even just be done via email or chat.

  • Lauren

    I enjoyed your panel too, and I actually like the chatty panels that are not so formal and officious. One of my fears as Northern Voice grows is that we end up being more formal, and less open, which would lead to us also being less welcoming, and less accepting of people and their foibles. There aren't many conferences around where you can be as open about fears and worries, as well as joys and successes, and that to me is a large part of the value.

    Your topic wasn't fabricated to fit a hole as much as “there's this whole world of people out there where the internet has changed how they interact – let's get some of them to talk about that.” Within that broad, broad framework, you were free to do what you wanted. One thing I've learned from this for next year is to be a bit more pushy about planning discussions so I can help answer these sorts of questions in advance.

  • http://www.kimwerker.com Kim Werker

    Pushy would be great!

    And certainly the things I loved most about the conference this year were
    exactly the types of sessions you mention – the ones during which the
    speakers really shared a part of themselves and allowed the audience to
    connect with them in their vulnerability and strength. It was powerful and
    special and inspiring.

  • http://seetheorun.wordpress.com harriet

    My only interest in the conference is personal and that's why I went and I must sau, I really enjoyed it. Smart but accessible. I just sent in my survey to NV and mentioned both Kimli & Steff's as my faves of the conference. Bare bones, honest, low tech. Tod's as well because he's a pro and he loves radio (sigh). Agree. Darren has the art of moderation down and his talk was great as well. I loved Bryan's keynote but couldn't hear half of it (that was a bummer). I have a kid but would never bring him to the conference – he's a little hmmm… high energy for that. Plus I like my adult time. That said, totally appropriate to have kids at the confernece just not in the sessions.

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  • http://www.robcottingham.ca Rob Cottingham

    Hey, thanks for including my notes from Tod's session – it really was terrific!

  • http://www.robcottingham.ca Rob Cottingham

    Hey, thanks for including my notes from Tod's session – it really was terrific!

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