SAN FRANCISCO — Despite my initial reaction to BloggerCon as being a room full of bloggers talking about blogging, the topics of discussion on the first day actually went beyond just blogging. The technical discussions touched on web standards and podcasting, and at one point someone even complained that the technology discussed didn’t relate directly to blogs.
For one session on Day 1, “Users in Charge,” Chris Pirillo, who runs the technology site Lockergnome, asked people to talk about how their technology experience could be improved. What customer service horror stories did people have to share? What features do they want in their computer software?
Perhaps now that BloggerCon is in version IV, there’s a lot more to talk about than simple text blogs. There’s Web 2.0 technology, there’s podcasting, there’s video blogs. Rather than ignore these important new advances, BloggerCon has embraced them and tried to go beyond the rudimentary arguments of bloggers vs. journalists or even just defining who a blogger is.
And beyond just the tools and technology around blogging, one of the more interesting sessions in Day 1 was called “Emotional Life,” looking at the personal issues around blogging. Media consultant and blogger Terry Heaton talked about how he processed his wife’s sudden death through his blog and found incredible support from the blog community. Here is part of what he said:
On April 25, I found my wife dead on the bathroom floor. She was 41 in perfect health, and the first couple hours were a rush of things…Nothing in life prepares you for that. I was frightened beyond anything you can imagine. I got back to the hospital and went to my computer and made a blog entry saying what happened.
I knew of nothing to do but write about it. What happened next was stunning. That entry had 256 comments on it, and I got at least that many emails from people. The community really held me up. I tell the media [who write about blogs] that the thing you’re missing is the social phenomenon of blogging. My writing about Allie after she died hasn’t gone over that well with certain members of her family. Her brother doesn’t understand, he’s not a writer, and he thinks I’m violating her privacy and that’s something I have to deal with.
I don’t know what I would have done without the immediate support from readers of my blog and how the word got around. I hope people learn from it, because I think that’s overlooked in all the discussions about the blogosphere.
Other folks talked about how blogging about their personal life could come back to hurt them. One man uploaded a video about breaking up with his girlfriend onto YouTube and then was swamped by the notoriety. So be careful what happens when you open yourself up online.
Lisa Williams (pictured here on the mike), who led the session, said she goes by two rules: 1) Only blog what you own; 2) only blog about topics that you would be OK telling a friendly stranger. Otherwise you could be asking for trouble. There was a push and pull in the discussion, with people talking about the joys of blogging about their personal life — and the dangers of doing that, from upsetting spouses or possibly losing their jobs.
On Day 2 of the convention, subjects included female bloggers and how to make money blogging. In the afternoon, a session focused on the U.S. elections in 2008 looked at the potential of blogs and technology to transform politics as usual. Many people were worried that blogs were just being absorbed into the political machine, looked at as just another “channel” or mass medium to reach voters with the same messages — often turning to mudslinging in the waning days of campaigns.
Lance Knobel (pictured here), editor in chief at Q Network, led the politics session and wondered what worked right for Howard Dean in 2004. “He proved that you could use the Net to raise money,” Knobel said. “That’s important. He also proved that it doesn’t deliver votes. That’s the conventional wisdom among operatives.”
Ramin Firoozye, who volunteered for the Dean campaign, said that political operations need to be ready for all the help they might get online.
“The attention [Dean received] got ahead of the machinery in dealing with the interest in the campaign,” Firoozye said. “You might be more successful than you can handle. So there’s a disconnect in delivering votes. Most campaigns are in the same situation. They see the blogs and stuff as a giant ATM but they don’t have the infrastructure to handle it. The main concern about candidates actually blogging is that it would take the candidate away from face-to-face meetings with voters.”
While a lot of discussion ensued about whether politicians should blog or not blog, Dave Winer wondered whether we should turn the question around to ask whether bloggers should run for office. Robert Cox said that one blogger in Greensboro, N.C., Jeff Thigpen, actually did get elected for office after gaining notoriety as a blogger.
One person mentioned that Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has been doing a video blog of sorts, and even answers people’s questions on it. At that point, Ryan Montoya spoke up to say that he worked for Edwards, and was here at BloggerCon to find out what works for people and what they are looking for from politicians.
Knobel asked what people could do to engage Edwards in some meaningful way.
“You can send him a video message and he’ll respond directly,” Montoya said. “You can call into our audio line, and he’ll respond directly in his audio talk. Everytime we have a podcast we ask for questions from people. He does write his own stuff. Mrs. Edwards goes directly to the blog and posts. There’s a lot we can be doing and I’d like to hear about it.”
The room was divided on whether Edwards should be spending his valuable time responding to video bloggers or not. Michael Arrington, who writes the TechCrunch blog, mentioned his personal experience with Edwards.
“I met [Edwards] at a session in Palo Alto,” Arrington said. “I don’t share many political views with him, but just from meeting him, I think he’ll be a great vice presidential candidate. I’m concerned because I don’t want him responding to video blogs, he should be more busy than that. I’d rather him write in the blog. The idea of having a ghost writer won’t help him win. If he does have his voice in it, he has a chance of being successful.”
Later in the day, a discussion about video blogs centered around production values, and how low production values were OK and very punk rock. The final session on “core values” included people getting red in the face over “trolls” or people who deface blogs with obscene and unseemly comments including death threats to the blogger. Should a blogger retaliate? Try to call the troll on the phone? Tolerate them?
“If you can be a bigger person, and let the anger of the trolls roll over you, that’s good,” said medical blogger Enoch Choi. “If you don’t like it, then delete them. Otherwise try to work it out offline. If you can resolve it peacefully, then that’s the best course of action.”
Final Thoughts on the Unconference
Now that BloggerCon IV is over, I thought it might be a good idea to sum up the scene and what I got out of the gathering. It’s true that this was the ultimate gathering of insiders covering each other. At one point, I asked Dan Farber how I should credit his photo, and he pulled up his blog on his laptop and there was a picture of me talking at the conference. Too funny.
I thought the strength of the conference was its “unconference” format, with more involved discussions than just people talking at you as an attendee. In fact, you’re not allowed to call yourself an attendee at BloggerCon; you are a participant. That’s good, and the strength of the people in the room made it even better. It’s always great to meet people in person with whom I’ve only spoken on the phone or emailed with, or linked to on a blog.
The missing element was action items taken from the gathering. While I had my criticisms of the We Media forum, I will give them credit for creating initiatives that could live beyond the conference. BloggerCon ended abruptly without that type of effort that could live on. In fact, organizer Dave Winer mentioned that he would stop blogging and the question was in the air as to what the next BloggerCon might look like.
One good suggestion for a future BloggerCon was to have younger bloggers join in the discussion to talk about their issues. Perhaps it could take place simultaneously in five college towns. As BloggerCon turns five, getting some new faces in the room isn’t a bad idea.