Now in its fifth year, Northern Voice 2009 came to the UBC campus as strong as ever. The two-day personal blogging and social media conference sold out in three days, which started the organizers thinking of ways to make it bigger for next year. Admittedly, bigger is going to have to come with a way of preserving the sense of community that makes Northern Voice such a success year after year. Indeed, most of the attendees remarked that what keeps them coming back is the chance to connect with their online community in a distinctly analog way. For myself, it was the first time being in attendance, so although I can’t compare to the experience of past years, I can speak to first impressions and memorable moments.
Over the span of the conference, keynote speakers would kick off the start to each day. Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield was the first one up on Friday: he reminded us that what the Internet did was make computing relationship-based. In an age when most CPU cycles are spent on talking to people, participating in the online world is no longer considered abnormal. On the contrary, the online environment is becoming an increasingly important avenue through which identity is shaped – with blogging and social media at that forefront. With Butterfield reminding us of why he loves the Internet, the cheery mood of the morning then led to assigning sessions for the crowd-sourced ‘unconference’ track of the conference. Sticking with Northern Voice tradition, any attendee could pitch an idea for a session that they would then lead, leaving room for the spontaneous amidst the planned. The unconference sessions were diverse, and included discussions about mobile hacking, environmental awareness, and whether Barack Obama used social media to win. Between all that was going on, it was at hard to decide which sessions to attend, and I ended up having to choose quickly between a variety of excellent presentation topics. I found myself at a graphic representation and iconography workshop, where I traded in my laptop for markers and paper. I also listened to a great discussion about gender, and how it manifests online. In the afternoon, I learned about responsibly navigating the sea of confusion that surrounds borrowed content. The day left me full of food for thought, with Saturday promising to be just as stimulating.
Saturday started off with CBC’s Nora Young, who delivered a brilliant keynote address that focused on the ways in which technology affects the ‘ecology of information’. Young made salient points about how the power of the Internet has changed our relationships with business, consumption, and media. These changes also influence social organization, and while we are just seeing the beginnings of these shifts, they are already becoming important for bringing about a more participatory culture. After her, Rob Cottingham had the audience laughing with a speech called Teh Funny (watch it here), in which he discussed all the things that make social media unintentionally amusing. Since what falls under the rubric of ‘social media’ is in many ways still in its infancy, its milestones often end up being instances of ‘continuous arguable improvement’. It is out of this notion of progress that much humor emerges, which Cottingham captured beautifully in his speech. Energized by the morning, the day moved quickly – I listened to a marketer’s perspective of social media, to bloggers talking about their online lives, and to an exploration of why profound art is hard to come by on the Internet. The post-conference wrap-up served as a well-deserved thank you to the group of volunteers who make this event a reality, and with it a humbling sense of community.
My experience at Northern Voice wouldn’t be what it was without all the spontaneous talks, connections, and moments that manifested during coffee breaks and in between sessions. After one particularly stimulating session that discussed the intersections between virtual and physical spaces, the facilitators invited us to dance. It was that moment of letting go and being that reminded me of the fact that expression – whether through words, code, or bodies – is a human need, and that Northern Voice is a way to explore that need in a creative, mixed-media way.