Like Me? Follow Me.
So I went to my first social media cafe last week. Manchester's version of London's Tuttle Club has been running once a month since the end of 2008, but this was the first one I've actually been able to get to.
What I was hoping for was an event which would allow me to meet others doing similar work to what I do, or somehow working in the internet industry either professionally or as bloggers or people who actively use social media in weird and interesting ways discussing various creative uses of the online space and future developments.
I figured there would be a practical aspect - i.e. uses of this or that social media property for a certain type of activity such as, ways to promote your blog via Twitter; there might be a beginners track for people starting to get involved with social media, perhaps for work or even for aspiring bloggers; and I thought maybe there would be developers, entrepreneurs and others discussing social media on a more theoretical level as well talking about network theory, ways of blurring national boundaries and building new identities.
I was, however, expecting that the speakers would be professional, have reasonably well-thought-out presentations, and, erm, get their facts straight.
Sadly, I was wrong.
If you run an event, then run the event!
For starters, #smc_mcr normally runs at The Northern but had been relocated to the Contact Theatre for Futuresonic - in theory as part of the conference offerings. What this meant, however, is that most of the organisers were elsewhere doing other things and the setting was in the middle of the registration location - a noisy, crowded bar, so it was hard to hear anything. Considering that Futuresonic could have been a way to really generate publicity and increase attendance, they let themselves down by letting us all know that #smc_mcr was hardly a priority - after tweeting for a couple of weeks about how they were doing something special for the event!
They'd have been better off not billing it as a special night to fit in with the conference and just left things as usual to run at The Northern.
If you volunteer to speak at an event, be on time
Secondly, this meant that a couple of people, despite committing to turning up on time and running sessions, were over an hour late as they were at Futuresonic sessions. Frankly, if you commit to something, you should be there - it's very bad form. Some of us left work at the office to be there and were left standing around!
Make certain the speakers don't show you up with a lack of knowledge
Third, the sessions in question were not vetted, I am told this is because it is "the nature of a unconference event" and this would "spoil the spirit" - but frankly I can't see how having amateurs talking nonsensically about half-formed ideas that don't make sense enhances the event - or communication - in any way. In fact, in my mind, it goes against the whole idea of "social" media which is about communication - and there was certainly no communication going on, just mumbling.
Make sure there's something for everybody - at all levels of knowledge and experience
A couple of the sessions were of no interest as they involved a couple of people talking about ventures that have little to do with me and offer little in the way of what I needed (or wanted) to get out of the event - fair enough if others found it interesting, but I was hardly going to join those groups. A couple of the sessions, at least in the description, seemed far too basic to be worth my time - for example, as someone who has had a Flickr account since before it was bought by Yahoo, I didn't think I needed someone to tell me about the merits and uses of photo sharing online.
What was left were a couple of theoretical talks about the nature of the internet - which sounded intriguing in the description but were actually more akin to a couple of 6th form students rambling on about what crosses their minds at 3am after watching the latest Star Trek film.
In one instance there was a grad student talking about some theory that he'd come up with since the last #smc_mcr which was half formed, based around flawed logic and a wrongly defined word and who hadn't read 1/10 of the literature he should have read before presenting the idea to a group of strangers.
I was told that if I found a particular session poor I could have left midway through and gone to another one - but how can you join a discussion halfway in when you've missed the basis of the discussion - assuming that you don't look like a complete cretin for having stood up in the middle of someone's presentation when there's only 5 of you in order to walk off cause you're bored?
Use the resources available to you, not just whatever is easiest!
Manchester is full of internet professionals, bloggers and people with interesting ideas doing really great stuff online. It only takes a little searching via Twitter or through local blogs to find people talking about what they're doing and it would only take a little more effort for the organisers to actively approach people to run sessions who could produce a coherent and useful topic for discussion and then manage that discussion.
Establish the tone before turning things over to the masses
Simply making the event a free-for-all this early on in its life has meant that the tone has instead been set for future events to be amateurish, lacking in content and lacking in usefulness for the very audiences that #smc_mcr needs to attract to achieve any impact either for the industry or for the fostering of ideas and discussion.
Professionals such as myself will not see the point of sitting through badly constructed presentations presenting nonsensical ideas or presentations aimed at people just getting started using social media, which means that the students, the people using social media looking to turn it into a career, looking for funding for new ideas and hoping to learn something won't have the benefit of those of us with real practical knowledge (or that strong underpinning of theory, or even venture capital).
Use your power to destroy the misinformation and bad service prevalent in the industry
Ultimately, without somebody taking the whole idea by the horns and insisting that it become something more than what I experienced last week - something that provides a solid reason for professionals to turn up and contribute (and teach) and offer real knowledge both practical and theoretical to those people just starting out, it will flounder and die a death.
Or worse - in an industry which is full of untrained amateurs claiming to be "social media marketing" experts and offering services that may do more to harm businesses than help them and providing bad advice, what we don't need is a group claiming to be the place for people interested in and involved with social media to spread misinformation.
What we do need is a place where people who really understand social media and all its uses sharing ideas with each other and offering their expertise and guidance to people who want and need to learn.