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.


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)