Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Making Connections at Mesh Conference

Today is the fifth anniversary of Mesh, Canada’s web conference. After four years attending, I can spot perennial patterns. The location is the same – Mars, a centre for innovation in downtown Toronto. As I hoped, Red Bull is there again providing ample fuel for making it through the hours of listening. Rightsleeve had a new batch of fun and offbeat swag. Many of the attendees' faces are the same – as one of the conference speakers stated Mesh was integral to helping form the digital media and tech community in Toronto and clearly this community is loyal to Mesh. I have, however, also met more people this time from across Canada, which is great. The structure of sessions is the same with internationally-prominent keynote speakers in the mornings and panel discussions or workshops in the afternoon. The speakers represent a good cross-section of local and American or British people working in or studying the area.

The first session of the day was at the untenable hour of nine (insane for this type of conference). I did make it to the subsequent keynote by Joseph Menn. A great storyteller, Menn managed to shake me out of my complacency towards online security. According to Menn, over half of our computers are comprised by hackers (largely organized by the Russian mob). He advises not to ever bank online and to only shop at a few of the biggest online stores. He attributes this dire situation to foreign governments unwilling to crack down on cyber-crime, public apathy, and insufficient government and private-sector action. In his dystopian future, he predicts a return to the much-maligned walled garden approach of AOL as the only way to ensure security online. His prophecy particularly frightened me as my computer inexplicably started acting weird (really slow) a few weeks ago and I fear I have already joined the evil bot army.

The afternoon sessions presented a more hopeful vision of the positive role the Internet and mobile devices can play in media, culture, and society.

Well, maybe not that hopeful as the first panel session I attended on Government 2.0 revealed the potential that the Internet has and how other countries are achieving this already, but not Canada (see my prior post). There was a representative from the federal government who mentioned that the feds are using new media innovatively for internal projects. But when it comes to external projects they are more risk-averse and resistant to change. The developer of, Michael Mulley, (a website highlighting and aggregating the statements and votes of Canadian members of parliament) acknowledged that in some ways it is easier for citizens such as himself to build these types of projects. Citizens don't have the same red-tape, policy handcuffs, or official scrutiny. However, in Mulley's experience the government was making it much harder than it needed to through their legendary bureaucracy and inertia. The session focused on open government, that is the sharing of data both to aid innovation and to increase transparency. I would have liked some discussion on how e-government can improve direct democracy, but they were enough hurdles to address to improve the sharing of information, let alone the co-creation.

The second panel session I attended was “The Effect of Real-Time on Content”. It focused on how Twitter and mobile devices are changing the role and our conceptions of journalism. With breaking news events, it is these media that are the first to publish and transmit the details. Now anyone in the midst of a news event – or frankly with an opinion – can become a prominent source for information, as happened with citizens covering events such as the Haiti earthquake or protests in Iran. A problem with this, identified by journalism professor Jay Rosen, is that we don’t have a reputation system that accompanies such citizen real-time coverage. So discerning the authenticity of the source and the credibility of the information becomes difficult. Jennifer Preston, a NY Times editor, noted that news organizations need to learn from technology companies and embrace the idea of iteration: post, add, revise…. A reporter, Joanna Smith, shared how she uses Twitter with and the real-time feedback from followers to guide her coverage of a story. In covering H1N1 a follower tweeted her an important consideration for a vulnerable group that Smith then fielded to a health official in her subsequent interview. This type of citizen-reporter collaboration represents to me the paragon of digital media - it uniquely combines the strengths of both the expanded perspective of citizens with the expertise of journalists to deliver better news.

My final session on “The Effect of Real-Time on Content” began as a commercial for an iPad (it worked, I’m dying to get one!) but then broadened to discuss the influence e-readers, tablets, and mobile devices will have upon news, books, and creative writing. Media consultant Jason Fry had insights into how user experience is still a limitation for online publishing. The problem with reading online compared to print magazines, he stated, is that magazines are not only more attractive and tactile, but they are finite - “With the Web you never actually finish, you just run out of time”. So he felt these new technologies might excel by offering finite writing forms. Fry also noted that the reason why iPhone applications were so much more popular than mobile-optimized webpages is due iPhone's dismal browser experience (which I can attest is also completely true of BlackBerry). This comment reminded me of a discussion I recently had on how some people are claiming these technologies are going to kill the print book and how if Dickens was alive he wouldn’t write a book, he’d build an app. Cynthia Good an academic with Humber’s Creative Book Publishing Program did suggest that these technologies might augur a return to old forms of storytelling such as the serial – or it might result in entirely new forms such as interactive, geospatially-responsive stories delivered via mobiles.

I keep going to Mesh as it is consistently delivers. My only disappointment of the day was with my BlackBerry. I was looking forward to conference backchannel conversations via Twitter. Last year tweeting during the conference was as much fun as passing notes in highschool was – and it offered extra insight and a way to actively participate. I couldn’t connect to either my cell network (Bell – no coverage in the basement rooms of Mars!) or Mars’ free Wi-Fi. I spent half an hour reading my BB manual trying to get it to even detect the Wi-Fi network to no avail. But the lack of tweeting did help me pay better attention, so I was better able to recall the many pearls of wisdom to recount here in such extended detail!

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