Distarcted at social media week London

This post has lurked in the drafts folder of MarsEdit for the last couple of weeks because, well, my current state of under-employment is making me more nervous than normal of offending people. But if there’s one thing the last six weeks or so has taught me, there’s no point in trying to suppress who I am and what I believe just for the sake of a job*.

So, here’s some things I noted during the course of Social Media Week London, from attending events, to talking to people who attended events, and from watching the hashtag streams roll past:

1. This is just beginning

A common theme at several sessions, including the Like Minds one on brand communications is that we’re still just in the early stages of what the internet will bring us and how it will change our world. And I think that’s accurate. The more I step back from my particular bubble world of journalism, the more I see how profoundly online communications and data pools are changing all sorts of industries. You’d better get used to change, because there’s plenty of it still to come.

However, I’m amazed by how many self-proclaimed social media types don’t seem to understand that. There’s a distinct sub-class of social media “experts” that are familiar with Twitter and Facebook, and seem to be threatened by or – worsebe dismissive of any new form of social platform that emerges. They remind me of the way many “new media” types reacted to the emergence of social media: dismissal and hostility. And I suppose it is threatening if you’re invested in a limited subset of tools that you’ve learned about second hand from others.

There’s an advantage to this if you’re in the market for social media expertise, though:  it gives you a quick way of spotting the good people.They’re the ones open to experimentation, change and new possibilities. And that’s what you need in this era.

2. Practical advice is thin on the ground

There were some genuine social media superstars talking at events during Social Media Week London. But I’m amazed by the number of people popping up on panels with only a couple of years’ experience (and the degree to which they overlap with the people I talked about in the last point…). They’re able to talk in a limited way about an equally limited subset of situations. They’re much more comfortable talking theory than they are hard, practical experience. And many people attending these panels want to leave having learnt something they can apply directly. There was much disgruntlement at the night-time drinkies during social media week (and in coffee meetings afterwards) about the value of the content in many of the events.

Part of this is the nature of some of the panels: big name agencies want to sell their own services and flatter their clients. Fair enough. But I’m not sure they’re doing themselves much good by providing weak, platitudinous speakers, though. If I was feeling cruel, I might suggest that Snake Oil is easier to sell than real medicine, because it tastes better – but does you a lot less good. But I’m not, so I won’t. 😉

Oh, and Google? People attending social media week have played with Google+. They don’t need one of your engineers to demo it for them.

I suspect that panel organisers need to balance inexperienced but prominent people from big name companies with more experienced, but lower-ranking folks, even if they don’t work for such big names, if they want their attendees to go away with the sense that they’ve actually learnt something.

3. Beware the noise

There was an interesting comment at the Like Minds event about events (metaevent?): “all you need is someone with an iPhone and a brain…” And that might be true now. But it won’t be true for much longer. As social platforms grow, it gets harder and harder to attract attention – look at how hard it is to build an audience for a new launch on a mature social platform like blogging, for example. The more people creating content live at events, the more you need skilled practitioners to help cut through the noise and achieve the amplification you’re looking for. It’s easy to get attention when few people are doing something. It’s so much harder when everyone’s doing it. The bandwagon feels great, when there’s five of you on it. It’s a bit less fun when there’s five hundred.

4. There’s lots of work left to do on curation

I don’t think anybody has really solved the problem of linking together related content on a topic. We’ve been trying since the days of Trackbacks and Pingbacks, which have all but vanished thanks to the sterling efforts of the spammers (thanks, guys). But the idea of a cycle of buzz-building before something occurs, live-coverage as it occurs, followed by curation of that live coverage through to analysis and discussion is compelling, and useful from everything from the events business to news coverage. And the tools for curation still feel like the weak spot to me.

While I can see, and appreciate, the use of Storify, Bundlret al, they make me a little nervous. What happens to that curation of information if, say, they’re bought by Facebook and shut down? It feels like they need to evolve into the sort of tool that we can have confidence in, even if the mothership goes away. Centralised platforms are always a vulnerability. I can understand why The Guardian has been working so hard on its own liveblogging/curation tool.

5. Events are the new media

There’s plenty of evidence that we’re moving towards a world where online and print media are ways of connecting and maintaining the relationships deepened and developed at face-to-face events. For all traditional media’s sneering comments about “virtual friends”, online communities seem more keen on meeting face to face than pretty much any other form of community, expect possibly swingers. Tweetups, unconferences, theme weeks, blogmeets (remember them?) et al have been a consistent theme throughout the growth of online media. That’s steadily shifting onto a more commercial footing with media businesses moving into events in a big way (stand up UBM), while events businesses are slowly realising that they need good content resources to build momentum before an event and sustain it afterwards. The printed magazine was a great way of maintaining a form of community – an illusion of community, perhaps – but the mix of events and social media is such a powerful way of connecting people who have a mutual interest in a topic that I’m sure we’ll see this cycle of face-to-face events and linking media as a major theme of all community-centric publishing over the next decade.

But people have been saying this for a little while, haven’t they?

*If I’m broke, homeless and divorced in a year’s time, you have full permission to quote this at me and laugh, in exchange for sparing some money for a cup of coffee…