Thursday, June 18, 2009

2 days in a bunker with 140 characters

On March 23, Jeff Pulver put out the call: "Seeking creative, out-of-the-box explore the future." Must twitter.

He was trying to put together, in less than three months, an industry gathering of not just tech geeks, but "all kinds of people and the only thing they have in common is that they speak Twitter" ... something as diverse as the bar scene from the first Star Wars movie, he told The Observer.

IMHO, he succeeded. Of course, there were appearances by regulars on the twitter circuit like the ebullient (and ever mesmerizing) Gary Vaynerchuk who has turned his enthusiasm for running his family's wine business into a personal brand with 530,000 followers. Chris Brogan, social media magilla. Robert Scoble , blogger and professional digital taste-tester. Tim O'Reilly, using twitter mania to build a media empire. Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame and Brian Solis, writer and beloved social media philosopher.

There were also rarer opportunities to hear from others at the twitter forefont. Like Jack Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder who traced the roots of the platform to own his obsessive musings about infrastructures in high school. Ann Curry, anchor on the Today Show (and the darling of the conference, see why here.Moeed Ahmad, from Al Jazeera who shared how twitter is helping his journalists reach farflung sources and audiences. David Saranga consul for media at NY's Israeli Consulate: "there's no hiding behind institutions anymore". Fred Wilson, VC at Union Square Ventures (one of Twitter's main backers) who posited that links and retweets are the currency of the internet and will turn into actual money at the end of the day. (Which day, he didn't speculate.) 

Pulver observed throughout: "It's not about old media replacing new media, but the fusion of the two." Which set a generous tone and in part perhaps because of this, there was a refreshing lack of snark that pervades gatherings of digerati. Many of whom didn't seem to consider themselves digerati, but regular folks using the web as a tool to make their way in the world. 

In 20 minute strictly- timed "sets", (transgressors were threatened with the soundtrack from Exodus) fashionistas, filmmakers, mommy bloggers, musicians and jilted lovers took the stage, to the chagrin of some in the audience whose speaking proposals had been turned down.

There were reps of big brands like Kodak and Marriott and Macmillan and of one man brands and Adweek editor Brian Morrissey who compared seeing the social ineptness of most brands to "watching Dad dance--it feels awkward and creepy."

There was talk of inanimate tweeters like the Tower of London. A laundromat in Oberlin, Ohio that tweets when its wash cycle in over. Plants that twitter urgently to say they need water, according to Kevin Slayvin of Area/Code.

Female scientists stripteased off labcoats to demonstrate that science can be appealing.

We Mad Men served twittertinis (martinis in Dixie cups) to induce audience to stick around for our 6 PM panel at which Frank Adman was outed and Pete Campbell was revealed to be a woman. 

About that time, Twitter went down--not the usual brief fail whale, but extended routine maintenance that is usually performed during the wee hours. Turns out that the State Department had asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown out of concern for Iranians using the service during the election protests.

The fact that the microblogging platform which obsessed the hundreds of us in attendance was now acknowledged by the White House to wield the power to influence government--served to fuel the camaraderie, a feeling of being distinct from the madding crowds...which was intensifed by the bunker-like location: three stories underground where internet was ornery and cell service nil. This has been roundly complained of by a panelist. But, in truth, the online interruptions were intermittent, as you can see by the number of #140conf tweets: 17,698. The real problem was lack of power outlets. It was as if the site had been built for the Amish.

Despite the tech challenges, and the annoying lack of handheld agendas which would have made it easier to follow the fifty or so panels a day, I found the gathering enormously worthwhile. (Videos of all sessions viewable here.) I liked that it wasn't about branding or metrics or marketing or communication. It was about all of those things-- and almost any other subject you could possibly think of. Which is the essential value of twitter. Allowing you to connect with people out of your customary orbit, people passionate about subjects you'd like to know more about. Being there was like attending a two-day long cocktail party. With fascinating strangers. And friends of friends you'd long wanted to meet. In a secret bunker. BYO power plug.

Mad Men Panel photo courtesy @EmilySPearl (thanks, Emily)


Max said...

Great post...sounds like an amazing event. So: this is what happened, but what did you learn? Anything that that will change the way you Tweet?

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Great question, Max. And perhaps addressed better in a separate blog post (thanks for the idea.) One thing that came clear is the incredibly varied landscape that the twitterverse has become, and how "getting" twitter means such different things to different people. One practical takeaway I got was about tweet timing. Esp. important to consider as following counts escalate. There was dissension about best time to twitter, but many thought hours for best exposure between 12-4 EST.

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