On very short notice, I was privileged to be asked to be on the “Harnessing social media for citizens” panel during the Fresh Media Olympics conference at W2 Arts and Culture House yesterday. After an inspiring and creative costume changing keynote from Andy Miah (@andymiah), discussing the past, present and future of Olympic media, this was one of two parallel sessions, where my colleague Ana Adi (@ana_adi) joined Kris Krug (@kk) to discuss the changing Olympic media landscapes between Beijing and London.
Unsure about what to speak about, I chose to focus on my recent work using network analysis – a technique I’ve been exploring in order to make sense of what is happening on twitter during specific events. It was difficult, firstly because I didn’t have the chance to prepare any visuals (essential for reaffirming network analysis) and the layout of the room was in a circle – rather than a traditional speaker to audience (nothing new but unexpected).
Furthermore, three of the panel (and later the whole of the room) were giving examples where they had used social media in order to pursue social change (a biggy!) By the end of it, which ended up feeling more like a space to champion some passionate causes, rather than discuss and critique new media, I felt myself withdrawing more into my laptop and less into the discussion.
It is difficult to say if what I said was useful to those who chose to be part of that session, but for me, it has put in the position where I need to make a decision about how I communicate my thoughts and research about the topics emerging from my PhD work. There are couple of points which I wish to note:
1) Opinions are great – but need more than opinion in order to generate a more “sustainable” discussion.
The issue I have with unconferences is they tend to go in the direction of pure (and immediate) expression. I guess this is all very well, but in this case – despite the desire for inclusion of the audience, there are those who are better at dominating the discussion than others. I’m trying to get my head around ways in which to make this work for me, but judging the trajectory of the conversations, sometimes it is best not to express an opinion which may differ (slightly or greatly) from the majority of the room.
2) Know when to be technical and when to be theoretical
I think it is fair enough to want to know the technicalities and generate a better understanding towards all these new words and dialogues associated with social media. Unfortunately, I’ve been overexposed to such explanations and feel that it may be necessary to remove the technicalities and try to think about things without talking tech, hashtags and applications. Im sure it can be justified, like everything else, but I kind of get disappointed when I find myself having to explain how to sync twitter to facebook and why you would do that, instead of looking at something a bit more meatier and within different frameworks. Plus, everyone uses these online spaces differently and interact with their own networks, based on their own experiences. Any other day, hour or minute, beyond the space of a conference, I would be quite happy to explain and help people with technical queries – but maybe after the presentations and without reducing the audience questions into a bickering session about “official” hashtags.
(I’m sure there is plenty of room for this – but not when it almost cancels out the speakers and turns the conversations from “thought-provoking” discussion – to social media 101. Google is your friend.)
I have to admit, I was quite deflated by my experience on the panel. This was not because I felt that I could do more, or that it was of fault of anyone or the organisers (who were fantastic) – but more about the situation posed. It’s a dangerous space to operate where people are looking to you for answers, when you haven’t really got them yet, and if I did, they would be out width the expectations of the audience.
It’s crazy but it is probably easier to argue within or against a traditional institution about social media usage and its impact, than it is to discuss it within the context of an event which is very much like the Internet itself: decentralised to a point, many of opinions floating around, loads of attempts to influence. It’s much harder to be objective within this space. I can’t speak for everyone but I what I feel like is that I’m not only trying to control the words which come out of my mouth, but I’m battling for context online – at the same time. There are probably a set of key phrases that I could use to manipulate the audience to gain kudos – it wouldn’t mean it is really what I think. I could list hundreds of positive experiences I’ve had with social media and the Internet, but it doesn’t mean that it’s all going to come to a glorified end point. Consider this opinion a work in process.