The Oxford Social Media Conference

The Oxford Social Media Conference, held on Friday 18 September 2009 at Said Business Centre, University of Oxford, was one of the few events I’ve attended this year in which I haven’t spoken at. And it came at the end of a very busy two weeks, having facilitated workshops and given talks at the ALT-C, ALPSP and Techshare conferences and the Silos of the LAMs briefing event.

But despite not being on the programme, these days attendance at many conferences can provide opportunities for more active participation than was the case in the past, through use of Twitter and other ways in which Social Media can be used to engage with the audience (both local and remote) and facilitate informal discussions amongst the participants.

I have already described how the failure to announce a conference hashtag in advance led to participants being unable to meet up in advance (I’m sure I wasn’t the only participant to arrive the night before – and I was fortunate in spotting a colleague in my Twitter network who was also travelling to the conference). But what of use of Social Media at the conference itself?

Use of Social Media at the Event

The summary for the event began “With corporations, governments, newspapers and universities embracing blogs and Twitter feeds as key elements in their communication strategies, social media have finally come of age” and promised to “look back at the evolution of blogs and other social media to give a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which such tools have or have not made a difference at the social, political or economic level“.

Although the event did not have a technical focus, I expected it to embrace use of various aspects of Social Media as the opening statement suggested universities are doing. I was pleased, therefore, when it became clear that the panelists in the opening session were using Twitter to observe what the participants were discussing. And, following a Twitter response from Bill Thompson to a my tweet in which I linked to a screenshot of an Augmented Reality view of twitterers in the nearby locality, I took the opportunity ask (slightly tongue in cheek) whether such engagement by the panel with the audience’s ‘backchannel’ wasn’t a somewhat worrying appropriation by those in a position of power (the speakers) of what may be regarded as a democratising tool. I went on to ask whether the expected spamming of the event’s hashtag (which happened) provided an example of the inevitable commercialisation of the Social Web. We were naive in 1993 and 1994, I suggested to Bill (whom I first met at the first WWW conference in Geneva in 1994) when we described that conference as the “Woodstock of the 1990s” and predicted that what we might now refer to as ‘Web 1.0″ would bring about a radical democratisation of society. Aren’t we being equally naive to suggest that the Social Web will bring about this change?

The response was, not unexpectedly, uncertain, with the panelists pointing out that it is difficult to predict the future and that the Social Web is likely to develop in unexpected ways, and what may be regarded by some as spam (I gave an example of advertising from a taxi firm at the end of the Techshare conference) could equally be felt to be useful information by others.

For me this opening session established a lack of experts in Social Media and would be followed by more open discussions – and would avoid the lengthy responses to questions made by each member of the panel. But what happened throughout the rest of the day was a repetition of the opening panel session: talks from each of the panelists, with the occasional question or comment being made by the chairperson. I felt like I was a member of the audience at a Radio 4 programme.

So for a conference on Social Media the event was missing on the ‘social’ aspect, with little opportunity for participants to engage with the discussions. There was also little ‘media’ at the conference, with none of the speakers using any visual aids. For me meant the day was very repetitious, with little visual stimulation. It was also at odds with a comment made in the final session that “itโ€™s all about video, video, video. There will be screens EVERYWHERE very soon“.

Now perhaps I’m being unfair. I have to admit my recent intensive spate of travelling meant that I was probably suffering from an overdose of conferences – and the enjoyable lunch provided did mean that I wasn’t paying full attention to the sessions after lunch. And an early departure meant that I missed the panel session on corporate blogging which was described asby far the most entertaining and informative of the day, mostly dealing with the politics of setting corporate blog tone and complaint/query response rate“.

Final Thoughts

I’ve described how the description for the conference suggested that “With corporations, governments, newspapers and universities embracing blogs and Twitter feeds as key elements in their communication strategies, social media have finally come of age“.

For me many of the events I now attend make use of technologies such as Twitter, blogs and video streaming as a key part of the ‘amplification’ of the event – and this amplification takes place before, during and after the event. For an event about Social Media such expectations do not seem unreasonable. It is pleasing, therefore, to note that a number of blog posts about the conference have already been published including:

The first of these links, from The Guardian, concludes: “PS: To find more detailed bits about the conference, look up the hashtag #oxsmc09 on twitter“. However as I have described previously, content posted to twitter becomes unavailable via Twitter’s search interface after about 10 days. Since media organisations such as The Guardian are likely to ensure that such evidence does not disappear, I have created a copy of the #oxsmc09 tweets which should make subsequent analysis of the discussions easier to carry out. And looking at the HTML version of the archive there is a noticeable lack of tweets by the conference organisers – unlike, say, the recent ALT C and Techshare conferences, both of which used Twitter during and after the event.