Attendees at yesterday’s Charlotte WordCamp -- you could tell it was a new media thing by how they took the space out of “WordCamp” -- generally fell into two categories. There were the experienced bloggers looking to refine their skills and improve their social networking by actually meeting real people, and there were those like me, real (but old) people who had heard of blobs and inner-nets and wanted to get into this online action while we still lived and breathed. It was the twitterers and the twits. The avatars and the ava-tards.
The event was sponsored by The Charlotte Observer, respectfully called the “mature” media by symposium leaders who probably refer to it as the Observersaurus in private. I learned about it while reading an article in the paper a few months ago that promised an opportunity for new bloggers like me to learn the ropes. Publicizing the affair in the local section of the paper, right next to the article about Billy Graham “celebrating” his 90th birthday, apparently garnered little notice, and registration was wide open when I went online to sign up. When word finally made it out to the blogosphere a few weeks later, the location planned for 50 participants now had to hold in excess of a hundred.
I arrived early Saturday to make sure I could get an outlet for my laptop’s power cord. Going through the lobby and up to the third floor of the Observer building, it was painfully evident that such a long-respected bricks-and-mortar newspaper operation was on the wane. The faded paint, the tattered flooring, the creaking elevator that failed later in the morning, trapping its inhabitant into the identity of “Elevator Guy” for the rest of the day, all served to reinforce the transition now taking place in the media world. We signed in at the registration desk, wrote our names onto nametags in marker ink that soaked through two levels of clothing as it made you high, and headed into the conference room to begin the session.
It was pretty evident right from the beginning about the dichotomy we’d be struggling with all day. Mostly middle-aged representatives of the Observer stood around the edge of the room, studying the participants like we were lowland gorillas. Their sponsorship was obviously aimed at figuring out how to get in on this young demographic and turn them into eyeballs they could charge 37½ cents a piece each day. Sharing their background if not their status among the employed were about a third of the participants. As we learned during brief self-introductions, these folks had opted for a “midlife career change”, “early retirement” or “freelance writing” that all looked suspiciously like being laid off. The other two-thirds, including the people at the front who’d be doing the presenting, may or may not have had jobs and didn’t really seem to care one way or the other. They had Twitter, and that’s all they had time for anyway.
After the introductions, the first item on the agenda was a meet-and-greet for non-beginners and a general Q&A session for the rest of us. The meet-and-greet would take place in an adjacent room, so the non-beginners were told adjourn for about 30 minutes while the newbies remained behind to ask their stupid questions. I probably had enough experience to go either way but the prospect of climbing through all those wires and aisles convinced me to stay behind, though it did occur to me that perhaps we were being separated like the concentration camp victims told to stay behind for the showers.
I don’t know what went on the other room (I suspect there was a fair amount of snickering and cootie vaccines) but my group took the opportunity to ask variations on the same question for the better part of the session. What was a tag and what was a category? How are they different? How are they the same? What’s a tag again? What do you mean by category? A tag cloud, what the hell is that? Should I have brought a laptop?
After a break, we were again allowed to commingle with the veteran bloggers. There was a technical and design panel that gave ideas on how to make your blog stand out from the 700 billion blogs out there. We were told how to steal a theme, copy a graphic and plug in a plug-in. Most of these tips were delivered in reverse top-ten formats, a la David Letterman, which I’m guessing was supposed to make the aged among us feel like we had taken a long afternoon nap and stayed up past 11 for the first time since college. The nap came in handy, as the discussion turned to FTP, future-proofing, subdomains, RSS and microblogging, and I turned to my version of the Internet to avoid boredom. I had AOL open for about five minutes before I realized this was probably the most embarrassing site choice anyone in the room could possibly make.
After a lunch break for pizza (exactly what I thought bloggers ate), we began the afternoon session with the topic of content development. Not surprisingly, a recurring suggestion from all five presenters was that a blog should actually have some amount of content, which may not have occurred to about half the room who were waiting for the part about downloading reliable cash streams. Content was described as “king”, “queen” and, ultimately, the “ten of spades”. We were told we’d need dynamic content to attract readers but probably wouldn’t have any readers to appreciate it in the beginning, unless you worked for the Observer or developed wide social networks in places like FaceBook, MySpace and the bulletin board at Goodwill.
Some of the ideas for good content seemed to be exactly what I was already doing. One slide read “picture = 1000 words”, which I initially took to mean that the picture of the perfect web posting was something that ran to a thousand words in length. Unfortunately, what this actually referred to was the assertion that you could put photos and other graphics on your blog. My thousand-long-word essays now seem to be serious overkill compared to many of the blogs we were shown, where perhaps as few as fifty words were needed as long as several of them were “tweet”, “Obama” or “my naked girlfriend.” Apparently you can also put video on your blog, and I plan to do that as soon as I can find the port on my laptop that accepts VHS tapes.
Of course, no seminar like this is complete without the inspirational speaker offering his formula for success. Right before the keynote address, we were told that promoting your site was as simple as (now write this down) “create” plus “serve” times “community” equals “wealth”. This was about the most useless formula I had heard at one of these things since a corporate development trainer had advised me that ambition divided by talent minus honesty to the third power is greater than or equal to the cosine of success. Nobody wrote anything down, primarily because pens and papers are such primitive technology that only the older folks even brought them, and most of us were back in the lunchroom by now trying to snag a few more Chips Ahoy. Among those who remained, I did hear some tap-tap-tapping followed by a long pause as they looked for the “equal” key.
At the end, we collected our decidedly low-tech T-shirts (not at all virtual or digital, like I was hoping), said our goodbyes to the new contacts we had made, and hoped that someone somewhere in the room would be visiting our blogs.