Northern Voice 2013, Part 3: Tools of the Trade

A couple of talks about social media used not to change your life or tell stories, but for more specific purposes.

A couple of talks about social media used not to change your life or tell stories, but for more specific purposes.

Darren Barefoot: Living the Quantified Life

Darren started out with a personal anecdote, about having a box of his old comics stolen from his storage locker. Fortunately he’d made an obsessively detailed spreadsheet of every comic he had, so insurance was not a problem. Came out really well! That was one early reward the quantified life.

Using technology to monitor and share your input, life and performance has become possible thanks to smaller sensors, computers you can carry with you, omnipresent social media, and the cloud for aggregating and storing. Darren made the distinction between self-documentation such as blogging, and self-quantification, which is more about numbers and the aggregates thereof. There’s also passive vs. active. For example, the Nike Fuel Band (should I add a ™?) monitors your heart rate and steps taken without any input from you. Just wear it and away you go.

Why would you do this? Well, there’s the old saying: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Measuring your current status and your progress can be a powerful motivator to change some things about your life, and focus on what’s needed. On the other hand, you could be missing the forest for the trees, either looking at the wrong things, or spending so much time measuring and aggregating that you never get around to doing.

It all comes down to what’s best for you. Personally, I use two tools: a fitness app that conveniently lets me record my weight, workouts and food intake (including calories and protein); and Toggl, which lets me record my time.

Brad Ovenell-Carter: Twitter As A Note Taking Tool

Brad Ovenell-Carter spoke about his project to use Twitter as a note-taking and collaborative communication tool in his Grade 11 Philosophy class. Students get to communicate with each other and the teacher during or outside of class (using a particular hashtag to define the class’s online space), but unlike e.g. Facebook, all their conversations are 100% public. Since other adults are part of the digital space, they get to model good online behaviour.

In addition to Twitter, Ovenell-Carter’s class is divided into small discussion groups where students rotate through specific roles: note-takers take notes (obviously), researchers find answers to specific questions (if I remember right, they are the only ones who get to use the wider WWW during class), and so on. Students help each other out, which leaves the teacher free to do more one-on-one coaching. A win all around, it seems.

An important point is that students tweet under their own names: not only is this to keep them accountable, but they’re already building their online brands!

Now, this is a Philosophy class in a private school. Not all subjects are so discussion-heavy vs. information-heavy, so Twitter might not be so useful. Furthermore, the question of access to technology is an important one: not all public school students have a computer that’s all their own and that they can use for Twitter. All important questions, to be sure. Still, it’s a fascinating look at how education will change in the coming years and decades.

Northern Voice 2013, Part 2: Bigger on the Inside

No, this post isn’t about TARDISes, but about stories and the art of storytelling. Neil Gaiman wrote (in Sandman, I think) that everybody has worlds of stories in them, no matter how mundane and small they seem on the outside.

No, this post isn’t about TARDISes, but about stories and the art of storytelling. Neil Gaiman wrote (in Sandman, I think) that everybody has worlds of stories in them, no matter how mundane and small they seem on the outside.

Theresa Lalonde: #story

Theresa Lalonde loves stories. Listening to other people’s struggles and how they’re navigating this difficult world, creates a sense of connection and gets her own creative juices going.

The real gift of a good storyteller is to respect the people whose stories you’re sharing. You have to make them feel that they’ve’ve been heard. Her motto is “Everybody else is more interesting than me”. Which sparked a bit of discussion—no, it shouldn’t be taken literally to mean you’re the least interesting person on the planet. A good storyteller has to be an interesting person, to properly reflect other people. But when you’re in storytelling mode, you’re not supposed to take centre stage yourself. Let other people be the stars.

There are stories everywhere, it’s just a question of watching out for them. Theresa told the of Fraserview Cemetery, where the paupers’ graves hold three people deep, and are recycled every 40 years. But the names are still there, and you can find out their stories.

(She might have told the story of one such pauper, but I don’t have it in my notes. The mention of cemetery names might have got me thinking about this amazing Vlogbrothers video, which led to this even more amazing video, and if that’s not the perfect illustration of Theresa’s point, I don’t know what is.)

She also dispensed some more practical advice: use the “zoom-in” factor, to focus on small details of a story thereby making it more immediate and personal. Also, need to overcome the fear of the blank canvas? Dirty it up, scrawl some doodles and/or nonsense words, that’ll dirty it up and get you ready for the real work.


Friday afternoon was the photowalk, hosted by Vivian McMaster. For some reason this was the first ever photowalk I’ve been on. I think last year the weather was too bad, and in previous years… I guess there were interesting talks going on at the same time.

Anyway, Vivienne took a bunch of us around Vanier Park, offering a few tips on thinking outside the box: trying different angles, different perspectives, wave your camera around and capture the motion blurs. I took a number of photos and I’ve decided to post them all, even the out-of-focus ones, even the repetitive ones, without any self-censorship. It’s liberating, and intriguing. There are actually some nice shots in there… And here they are.

Near the end a couple of us were chatting and I mentioned how I’m a very left-brain person, and how sometimes I doodle to work out my right brain. They suggested doodling with my off hand to really give my right hemisphere a workout. Sounds like a good idea!

Dave Olson: Vancouver: The Untold Stories

What can you say about DaveO that hasn’t already been said? He’s smart, hilarious, and insightful as hell. I won’t go into too much detail his talk because (a) I couldn’t do it justice, and (b) I wasn’t taking notes at all (more on that below). Partly it was about the roots of today’s social media in much older technologies (home-printed zines, CB radio—a recurring theme, he talked about that one in a previous NV), the history of Vancouver’s music scene (complete with tickets and posters), and tips on finding stories.

Basically: get out of your comfort zone, and find weird things. And you don’t even have to look that hard, either. The weirdness is all around, from a street in North Vancouver named after one of the Group of Seven who lived in Kits for a bit and kick-started Vancouver’s art scene, to anecdotes of bands playing in long-gone clubs, every block in the city is crammed with stories that just need a little digging.

DaveO did some of the work for us, too. He had a couple of large envelopes from which the audience could pick out cards with names to start from. I picked Frederick Varley (the aforementioned Group of Seven artist). I was a bit relieved, since it seemed easier than digging up dirt about old Gastown clubs and whatnot, but maybe not. Who knows what this’ll lead to?

One last point about the talk: at the start Dave invited a few audience members to come up on stage and handle some of the props (posters, records) while he sat in his comfy chair and babbled on. So I went up, sat by the fire and put a couple old records on.

A friend told me afterwards that I was brave for going on stage. Brave? Maybe, I don’t know. I’m not usually one for the spotlight and yes, there was a little part of me that hesitated, but I made the leap without trying too hard. I guess bravery is in the eye of the beholder. Going up to talk to a cute guy? Really hard. Being on stage in front of a few hundred people, at least when I’m not the centre of attention? Apparently not that hard. Go figure.

Northern Voice 2013, Part 1: We’re on a Journey

Another amazing Northern Voice conference, this time at the HR MacMillan Space Centre. An excellent venue, and conference-goers got to visit the Museum of Vancouver for free! As a bonus, a really cool avant-garde play, which I will totally be blogging about.

Just like last year I’m writing several Northern Voice posts, each grouping related talks together.

Another amazing Northern Voice conference, this time at the HR MacMillan Space Centre. An excellent venue, and conference-goers got to visit the Museum of Vancouver for free! As a bonus, a really cool avant-garde play, which I will totally be blogging about.

Just like last year I’m writing several Northern Voice posts, each grouping related talks together.

Mark Blevis and Bob Goyetche: Podcasters Across Borders

The morning keynote speech by Mark Blevis and Bob Goyetche, recounted the history of Podcasters Across Borders from its first year in 2006, until they chose to close it down in 2012.

It was a fascinating story. I’d never heard of PAB before, not knowing anything about the podcasting scene, but I could see the parallels between it and Northern Voice. The first few years—aka the “Podeozoic Era” were apparently focused on the technology. Producing audio, editing, all the nitty-gritty details. 2009 was the transition year, named the “Jowisic Era” after Jowi Taylor, creator of the Six String Nation guitar; from then on (the “Creatious Era”, 2010–2012) the focus was much more on creativity and building community. (I’ve noticed this trend in NV as well.)

It was a great look at two very passionate people who created “a conference about journeys”, and the lessons they learned along the way:

  • About values: you must have values and be committed to them. They’re much more than goals; goals will tell you what you’re trying to achieve, but not why, nor how you got to where you are in the first place.
  • How to nurture creative spaces: for instance, having only a single track, to strengthen bonds between attendees. And they experimented with room layouts, to make the talks a bit more intimate. In 2010 they moved the conference to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from Kingston, which apparently gave the creatives the upper hand and scared off all the marketing people.
  • Choose to grow. “Look beyond the fishbowl” and don’t be afraid to experiment. You may lose attendees who expect the same things year after year, but you’ll pick up others who will grow with you.
  • Trust yourself, your instinct and your passions. A strong and safe creative space needs curators, and this was something you couldn’t organise by committee. Apparently in any arguments they had, whoever was most passionate won.

And then PAB ended, because they wanted to move forward to other projects; to do that, they had to close that chapter of their lives.

Mike Vardy: Life Changing Blogging

Okay, so this is the second slot, and already another talk about journeys? I’m sensing a theme…

Not that I’m complaining. I love listening to Mike Vardy, his nerdy shout-outs, the inspirational story of his life. From Costco employee out east, to Costco employee in PoCo, to comic, podcaster, writer and productivyist, which is totally a word now.

My take-aways:

  • You have to do, not try. Yes, I know Yoda said if first, but it bears repeating. If you’re going to go for something, you have to really commit to it, not just half-ass it and tell yourself that was good enough when/if it fails.
  • You have to work to live, not live to work. The much more laid-back West Coast lifestyle was a bit of a culture shock to him, where employees would call in sick because the weather was too nice to work. Your job is there to let you lead a fulfilling life.
  • Sometimes you have to move on. See the PAB story above. There were some projects he had to let go, in order to start something else. Because there’s no such thing as multitasking. The important thing for creatives is to be open to these kinds of shifts.
  • But if you focus, you can achieve amazing things.
  • You have to keep your integrity and care about your reputation. He doesn’t do infomercials, doesn’t shill, and in the past he quit a lifehacking site (I forget which) because his boss wanted him to write about recipes. Something about how to arrange the lettuce and the buns in a hamburger? It sounded pretty inane, anyway.

John Biehler: How Blogging Changed My Life

This is the story of John Biehler’s adventures in the last couple years since he blogged for the 2010 Olympics and then the Paralympics: he took 6 weeks off work and blogged the hell out the events. Then got invited up to the Yukon. Then Chevy offered him an electric car to drive to SXSW in; then, a trip to Alaska

The focus here was different than Mike’s speech. It’s not so much about a lifelong journey from here to there, but more about choices that changed his life very quickly.

The main take-away for me is: seize the day. I haven’t done enough of that so far, and I need to step up my game. And also, that personal integrity doesn’t have to stop you from having fun.

Last take-away: 3D printing is fucking awesome. That’s his latest interest, and he brought a couple of his creations for us to gawk at. The future is here!

Northern Voice 2012, Part 4: And The Rest

Last but not least, a bunch of talks that didn’t easily fit together:

Last but not least, a bunch of talks that didn’t easily fit together:

On Friday Martha Rans of Artists Legal Outreach gave us a brief overview of copyright law in Canada, the why and the how. I learned a few interesting things, such as that you can copyright lighting techniques in photography. Subjects like the Eiffel Tower can’t be copyrighted, but composition and lighting can—in Martha’s words, copyright is not about ideas, it’s about expression of ideas.

And there’s the basics, which still bear repeating: the Web is not public domain. You don’t get to use stuff without attribution or permission. And money is not the issue. Most artists and creators would be perfectly happy with a “This is great! Can I use it if I attribute to you / link back / whatever?” Likewise, creators need to make it easy for people to do this. A “If you like my work, get in touch with me!” message on your blog may prevent people from just lifting your stuff.

This was followed by Jon Newton talking about the defamation case against his old site,, about which more here. It wasn’t a long talk; Newton isn’t a public speaker, and the merits of the decision were so blindingly self-evident that there wasn’t much point to a Q&A period.

Next, Photocamp! John Biehler gave a little demonstration of light painting (well, not an actual demonstration, though he did have the gizmo in question with him).

Ariane Colebrander gave us some tips on accessories: not lenses or tripods or such, but the bags and packs that you lug it all around in.

Morten Rand-Hendriksen taught us (1) how to shake hands like the Vikings of old, and (2) a few techniques to efficiently blog your photos and publicize them on social networks. He demoed a cool plugin (whose name I forget) that allows you to post your photos on Facebook at the same time as you’re posting them to your blog. Choose the featured image for your post, and it’ll show in the preview in your timeline. You can tag your friends or other pages. Probably lots of other nifty features. This wasn’t directly useful to me since I post my photos on Flickr. Still, a little more SEO wouldn’t hurt…

Syx Langemann gave us a brief tutorial on portrait photography: how to watch out for visual noise, how to use lighting, and most of all that you should respect your subject. “We owe it to the person in front of the camera to create a beautiful & powerful photo.” The story of his great-uncle was especially moving and memorable.

And I don’t remember if it was Morten or Syx who gave us the addresses of a couple of photography blogs. Nevertheless, here they are:

Vivian Meier, a stupendously talented photographer who never showed her work to anyone and only became famous after her death.

yowayowa camera, the blog of a Japanese girl who does “levitation” photography. It’s strange, a little eerie, and absolutely brilliant.

Kemp Edmonds talked to us about lifelong learning. This is about the point that my laptop died, but fortunately I jotted down a few notes on my phone. Very incomplete, but better than nothing, especially since the link I have to his presentation doesn’t seem to work.

Anyway: the key to self-directed lifelong learning is in 6 steps:

  1. Decide what you wat to learn (it has to be something you’ll be passionate about)
  2. Discover your tools: podcasts, videos,, Google Scholar, TED, were some of the ideas thrown out by the audience. I loved that Kemp actively encouraged audience participation; in fact, near the beginning of his talk he said something something about looking forward to learning from us. Great attitude!
  3. Find, filter and evaluate all those tools
  4. Who will you learn from? (My notes here mention “the hierarchy of contagiousness”)
  5. Select your method of experimentation. For example, to be a better photographer, post to Flickr and solicit feedback. For me, that would be blogging to hone my voice, and develop themes and plugins to share
  6. Who will you teach? Everybody knows one of the best ways to learn is to teach!

Quote of the day: “You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know that you don’t know everything.”

So, there you go, that was Northern Voice 2012. The quality of speakers was top-notch, I had a great time and learned a lot! Can’t wait for next year!

Northern Voice 2012, Part 3: Voices, Brands and Authenticity

Steffani Cameron dealt with writer’s block for six years ending when a head injury forced her to write to keep her brain active. She was here to tell us about Ripping the Bandaid Off and other tips to find your voice.

Steffani Cameron dealt with writer’s block for six years ending when a head injury forced her to write to keep her brain active. She was here to tell us about Ripping the Bandaid Off and other tips to find your voice. One tool to get your brain started in the morning is writing about what you’re having for breakfast. Or, the “ideas box” where you store your ideas and revisit them when you have the time.

But really, there’s no magic formula. You don’t just sit down and get good, you need to write something every day. But what you shouldn’t do is publish something every day! Be relevant, be researched, be interesting.

It’s a constant struggle, but if you want to get personal, you rip that fucking bandaid off and you keep ripping and digging. Hey, that’s what Shane said too, so you know it’s good advice!

Quote of the day: “The hardest thing in life is to be yourself.”

Getting personal can be hard for other reasons, as Georgia Gaden Jones explains Are you for real? Struggling with blogger authenticity in a time of personal brands and monetization. Georgia is not a blogger herself, though she is an avid reader of blogs and interested in the blogging experience from an academic standpoint. In most academic circles, using your personal voice is frowned upon, though it seems blogging is more and more being seen as inherently collaborative and empowering, especially in feminist academia. As well, until recently, employers were twitchy about bloggers, due to all the (potential) airing companies’ dirty laundry and hanging out with the nerds in IT.

As for authenticity, the real key is independence. Readers have to know that a blogger is speaking for themselves and not their department or manager, or sponsors. According to one focus group Georgia mentioned, the suspicion of commercialisation and selling out is a big worry. Are you upfront about the freebies you receive? Are your product reviews honest or are you being nice for fear of not getting more free stuff? Are you doing product product placement when you shouldn’t be?

More generally, there’s the question of how your personal voice fits with your personal “brand”. A brand needs consistency to be authentic, but people are not consistent. People are messy and self-contradictory sometimes. On the one hand, you don’t want to reveal every single sordid detail of your life. But on the other hand, you can’t lie by omission. And on the third hand, what if your brand has taken control of your blogging life? Georgia mentioned a rep from Mom Central Canada, an outfit that seems to match “mom bloggers” with products to hawk. The catch is that blogger’s brand has to fit with the product’s brand. And once you’re matched, you must apparently “ensure your brand does not conflict with ads on your blog”. Which raises the question: are bloggers just “brands” now, to be matched with other brands? And another question: who really controls the content on your blog, you or your sponsors?

Where’s the authenticity then? Or can we think of authenticity as a commodity, a quality you need for (commercial) success? By creating careful descriptions of a flawed individual that still fits with commercial values?

Troubling questions, for sure, and Georgia is right to be concerned. This isn’t the first time we’ve addressed them at Northern Voice, though. Just last year Morten Rand-Hendriksen discussed his Code of Ethics, which is very journalism-focused—with its emphasis on trustworthiness, separating opinion from fact, and being mindful of your sources—but really applies to any kind of content creation. And let’s be clear, making money—even making a living—from blogging is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you’re upfront about it.

Quote of the day #2 (I couldn’t find anywhere else to put it): Blogging is not just an extension of yourself, but a construction of yourself, through your connections and your interests.

Northern Voice 2012, Part 2: In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night

Part 2 of my NV12 recaps: productivity, voice, and comics

Mike Vardy‘s talk on Saturday dealt with Better Blogging Productivity. He offered some commonsense tips such as:

  • Be realistic (or in his words, “get real!”): get clear about what you can and can’t do in the windows of time available to you. If you only have a little bit of time, do simple things like catch up on email or collect ideas. Save the really creative work for when you can focus on it
  • Build a schedule. In Mike’s words, blog proficiently not prolifically. Start small, get used to a blogging routine, and build up from there.
  • Avoid distractions (as opposed to disruptions). Distractions are messages, email notifications, anything nonurgent and avoidable.

Commonsense, sure, but this is stuff I definitely need to work on. I don’t have a blogging routine, and as often as not I’ll check my email when that little red circle appears over the icon. Hey, at least I turned off the sound notifications!

Then Mike offered a number of tools to help with this productivity: tasks managers like 30/30, email filters like AwayFind, forced discipline apps like Freedom (on the Mac).

But the kicker to me was when he said, “discipline is not enough. You need willpower.” Mike told the audience that he wears a Green Lantern ring when blogging as a physical focus. Green Lanterns, as everyone knows, are powered by will. And who is Green Lantern’s arch-nemesis, he asked? “Sinestro,” I replied from the front row. And what does Sinestro run on? “Fear,” I replied again, thus outing myself as a big nerd. Bottom line, then: fear impedes willpower.

And you know what? I totally get it. My take on the discipline vs. willpower dichotomy is that the former is going through the motions, tools and habits that you need to internalise until they’re second nature. Willpower, on the other hand, is the clarity of hearing that little voice pushing you to create and excel. Fears, doubts and insecurities definitely get in the way of hearing that voice.

(Incidentally, Mike and I chatted over lunch for a bit, and I learned about the Green Lantern animated series. I watched the entire first season the day after the conference, and I’m here to tell you it’s awesome. I didn’t think I’d be crazy about the CGI animation, but the technology’s come a long way, and the story, characters and action are all fantastic. Any series that stars Atrocitus, Mogo and Saint Walker is tops in my book.)

After lunch, Shane Birley‘s keynote The Evolution of the Blogger’s Voice took us on a whirlwind sci-fi trip through his blogging history. There was no real plot, just a collection of vignettes from 1998 to the present day: his time in Victoria, meeting Allyson, getting laid off from Cayenta, starting Left Right Minds, and the million other projects he’s currently got going.

Some of his posts (especially the early ones) were about looking for vindication, feeling grumpy, feeling tied down, and looking for his voice. And then his voice came, though sometimes it didn’t feel that way. The moral is: you already have a voice, you just have to find it. It may not be through plain text blogs. Try podcasts, vlogs? Keep digging, and you’ll find it.

And here’s what I’m taking from this talk. I’m not sure if this was really Shane’s point, but here goes, my interpretation:

The thing is, discipline will keep your world ordered, and willpower will keep you putting one foot in front of the other, but you need to see where you’re going, or at least hope that the tied-down-ness and the grumpiness will pass, and you will find your voice one day. All will be well.

My personal view is that Fear has many opposites, not just Willpower. Another is Hope. That’s in the comics too, by the way. Blue Lanterns (powered by hope) by themselves are apparently the weakest of the emotional spectrum (I guess reflecting the fact that hope alone is passive and kind of useless). But team them up with a Green Lantern and they boost each other’s power so as to be nigh-unstoppable. Hope and Willpower together are the greatest force in the universe.

Northern Voice 2012, Part 1: The Future And How To Get There

Northern Voice, the blogging and social media conference which I’ve been attending for two years running, happened again. This time in June instead of May, and at SFU Woodward’s instead of UBC. It’s a great venue, and suited me better, commute-wise.

I had an amazing time again this year, and of course I’m going to recap the hell out of it. Some of the talks complemented each other nicely, so I’ve decided to cover them together. Let’s start with the two morning keynotes:

Reilly Yeo of Open Media kicked the conference off on Friday with her keynote Using the Internet to Save the Internet. From Slacktivism to Interactivism. Open Media has led a number of campaigns, including, fighting the push by telecom companies to implement metered net use. That petition got over 500,000 signatures, made national news, and the decision-makers responded. More recently, their campaign to stop Bill C-30, the online spying bill made more national news, exposed yet again the raving paranoia of the Harper government in general and Safety Minister Vic Toews in particular. Again, the government blinked.

The moral of these stories? Online petitions do work! Online activism can make a difference! The term “slacktivism” is easy to throw around; and signing online petitions is just about the least you can do to call yourself an activist, but there’s a lot more going on than that. First, half a million “slacktivists” can’t be dismissed so easily.

Second, don’t knock petitions. Darren Barefoot said so way back in Northern Voice 2010: there are many ways to do good online, simple and complex, and it’s important to have a low barrier of entry to do-gooding.

Third, they (well, some, at least) are not just putting in a token ten seconds of effort, they’re getting informed, getting connected with like-minded people, and coming up with hilarious memes. The decision-making process is suddenly a little more human, a little closer to home. Netizens move away from passive consumption of lolcats and Justin Bieber, and towards responsible, mindful involvement.

Not that there’s anything wrong with lolcats, of course. Lolcats are awesome. But lols mixed with politics? Well, that’s best of all.

Second moral, BTW: the Harper government, for all its majority, isn’t quite the juggernaut it would like to be.

So maybe, Yeo argues, “slacktivism” isn’t the right term after all. She suggests “interactivism”: a new kind of activism, highly connected and savvy, with massive potential, and open to anyone.

But what is interactivism saving the internet for, though? Let’s ask Blaine Cook. In his Saturday keynote, The Wild Future (not to be confused with The Future is Wild, which I have on DVD and is totally awesome), Cook argues for the preservation of a “wild” internet, a net free to evolve organically, where difference is a good thing, multiple cultures can arise, coexist and enrich each other.

Let’s talk about Babel for a moment. Cook introduced it as a metaphor for the frustration we feel that we can’t accomplish the things we want, because we can’t work on things together. That’s one interpretation I’ve never heard before! And it’s true, we get more done when we work together. But when we work as one, we get the same things done, over and over. We put up the same towers, over and over. But one size does not fit all.

Case in point: UBC’s Buchanan Building is a fine example of Brutalist architecture, apparently modeled on a building in San Diego. The windows in that building relied on being set deep enough that direct sunlight wasn’t a problem. Problem is, they transplanted the exact same design 2,000 km north, where the sun is much lower in the sky, and apparently the building is an oven.

Brutalism’s been around for a long time. Many cities have a few examples, as office buildings or low-income housing, like the UK housing estates. Some worked, some became slums and got torn down. The lesson is: attempting to design urban utopias with a single, narrow vision leads to monocultures. “Machines for living in” don’t inspire community or organic cultural growth.

Seguing into the online world, Blaine drew a parallel between, on one hand, Brutalist architecture and on the other, the iPhone and social networks like Facebook. The iPhone, you say? (or at least, I said) This pretty, pretty thing with all the wonderful software, how is it anything like those giant ugly-ass buildings? Well, it’s controlled from the top down by a single corporation, and has built-in pesticides to limit the diversity of its software ecosystem. By contrast, the Android system is a much wilder place. Facebook likewise is pretty bland, omnipresent, and controlled by a corporation who calls the shots on your privacy.

Mind you, Facebook did have Cow Clicker, so it wasn’t all bad.

And let’s face it, sometimes you want the bland and the safe. It’s a push-and-pull thing, I guess. Humans settle, we make the wild places not-wild. For comfort, for support, for community. That’s not a bad thing. Not everybody can be a pioneer. But we need to be able to fork cultures, we need the space to create new spaces and ways to express ourselves, and this is something the Web enables like nothing else. As long as it’s not bled dry by big telecoms, strangled or spied on by a paranoid government, censored by churches, or turned into bland consumer networks by greedy corporations.

That is our wild future. The future of collaborative writing using Git, of open source software like Drupal, Firefox and Linux, of a hundred phone OS’s and Pinterest clones, of freely shared knowledge thanks to Wikipedia and others.

The world is so malleable, and we get to find the answers together by building them.

A bunch of photos: Northern Voice, Slutwalk, walking in the West End

Last week I attended Northern Voice 2011. Much fun was had by all.

Last week I attended Northern Voice 2011. Much fun was had by all.

LSC Atrium


Life Sciences Atrium

Also last week, I attended Slutwalk Vancouver.

Consent is never implied

Sluts. Or women with signs.

And in the last week, I’ve been able to organise my morning routine so that I can walk to/from the North Van bus, instead of connecting twice. I tell you, there’s nothing like a morning walk in the West End, in the warm sunlight, surrounded by joggers and the smell of fresh cut grass. Likewise, walking from the Skytrain along the Seawall.

Bute Street

Glowing Leaves

Foot of Davie Street

Burrard Bridge and Setting Sun

Northern Voice 2011

And it’s that time of year again. Time to hob-nob with all sorts of bloggers and assorted geeks in UBC’s lovely Life Sciences Centre, with its gorgeous atriums filled with natural light.

And it’s that time of year again. Time to hob-nob with all sorts of bloggers and assorted geeks in UBC’s lovely Life Sciences Centre, with its gorgeous atriums filled with natural light.

Friday Keynote: April Smith

This was different. Both previous keynotes dealt with high-level politics, how social media intersects with mainstream media and corporate power. But April Smith brought us down to earth for a moment with her stories of living in the Downtown Eastside. We learned about her work as a citizen journalist empowering the residents with access to technology—Nokia handphones, specifically. I forget the exact model, and I’ll forgive the constant product placement, especially if it turns out that they’re as easy to use as she claims. Those phones were donated by some Nokia rep, and it’s a hard reminder that this shit ain’t free, and every social movement must depend on the kindness of sicher strangers.

April was clearly nervous and reading from prepared notes—she admitted to being uncomfortable speaking in front of people—but that didn’t matter. Her stories were raw, straight from the heart, and powerfully moving. The short clip of the man whose cat was thrown out of his 5th storey apartment during a breakin. The simple brief connection that stopped a man from killing himself, just because she showed him a bit of kindness and let him see his own photo. If April hadn’t been there, with her phone, that man would now be dead.

That’s what social media means, in the Downtown Eastside. It’s about connecting with people, telling your story, and changing lives for the better.

Drawing on Walls

Okay, that was kind of a bust. I don’t think I got anything out of it, except yet a reminder that my drawing skills suck. I chose this session just to go a little outside the box (and because none of the other ones really appealed to me), but an hour-long workshop wasn’t going to give me any super-creative power. Ah, well. Live and learn.

Your Blog Is Boring and Your Photos Suck

Syx Langemann and Morten Rand-Hendriksen teamed up to give the audience some tools to make their photos suck less and their blogs less boring. Somewhat disappointingly, they mostly covered the technical aspects (Syx: aperture, shutter speed, ISO; Morten: ALT tags, meta tags, SEO, and WordPress-specific tidbits) but not so much ways to make things less boring or sucky. I guess that part is up to each of us. But I did love the sample photos Syx showed us; nothing like the portfolio of a talented photographer to get you inspired!

The Naked Truth: Canadian Science Blogging Scene

A panel consisting of Rosie Redfield, Beth Snow, Eric Michael Johnson and Maryse de la Giroday discussed science, blogging, and all related issues. Does blogging impact your credibility as an academic and researcher? What are the pros and cons of pay-to-read vs. pay-to-publish journals? What place do non-peer-reviewed blogs have in science education and research? What incentive do researchers have to blog about their work if it means the risk of competitors scooping them out (and their funding)? Why would a researcher blog?

Dr. Redfield (who did most of the talking) answered that last question: she likes the idea of a non-scientist stumbling on her writing, it clarified her thinking, serves as a memory aid, and helps her write. Also, it allows her to critique science in the media.

Good stuff, for sure.

Incidentally, I found it interesting that 3 out of the 4 panelists were women. I wouldn’t have expected that kind of breakdown for science bloggers and academics, but there you go.

Also: the following day at lunchtime, Dr. Redfield took a few of us on a short tour of the labs in the building. Behold the power of social media: there was no big announcement, no signs put up, just a couple of calls retweeted back and forth.

MooseCamp: Five Card Flickr

Five Card Flickr is fun. Our small group spent the hour with Alan Levine getting to know the game, choosing pictures, and coming up with a story. Didn’t go anywhere and it had no plot, but man was it fun. I haven’t taken part in this kind of collective storytelling since… what, my D&D days? Ooo, and check out Pecha Flickr.

Communities That Rock

How do you create kick-ass online communities? Arieanna Schweber and Raul Pacheco-Varga give us the lowdown. Some of their advice applied for blogs, others for forums and community sites, but the bottom line is pretty much the same: engage with your audience, have everything (tweets, photos, videos) point back to a single site, have proper internal linking, know how to tell a story. Pretty common-sense stuff, right? Maybe, but it has to be said. Also, keep in mind that this is hard work, and community building doesn’t happen overnight. Finally, avoid becoming isolated. It’s good to be active both offline and online.

Saturday Keynote: Chris Wilson

Chris Wilson took us on a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about NCSA Mosaic (which I also remember fondly from my early days on the WWW), his early work on Web standards—apparently he’s responsible for overlapping <B> and <I> tags—and adventures in social media. Of course, they didn’t call it that. But games like Nethack (through other people’s ghosts) and other applications allowed connections and interaction between people, mediated by technology. And isn’t that what this conference is about?

Wilson cautioned us: There are people that need to learn how to play well with others. What voice should you use? How much should you share? Sharing feels good. It makes you vulnerable, but you create lots of real connections. I guess it’s up to each of us to choose how far to take it. He closed off with a quote from the late, great Douglas Adams

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be

A Code of Ethics For The Social Web

Morten R-H again, this time discussing our responsibility, as bloggers, to the truth. This applies much more to journalism-style blogging, and reviewers, but everyone can benefit. Really, it boils down to a few simple principles: be honest with yourself and your audience; admit when you may be biased (e.g.: when you get freebies in exchange for reviews), be critical of your own biases and opinions. It is important to have such a code of ethics, and hold each other accountable, because anyone with a big enough audience has a big influence.

Trust relationships—brought up by an audience member who disagreed with Morten’s basic thesis—will only take you so far. It’s all very well to personally be critical of the blogs you follow and if you find they’re unreliable, well, to just stop following them, but (a) that does nothing to discourage unreliable bloggers, and (b) it doesn’t help people who don’t have working bullshit filters. If the Tea Party, 9/11 Truthers and the Huffington Post* have taught us anything, it’s that popularity has very little to do with truth.

(*Seriously, early on in the talk he lumped all three together. Awesome)

And here’s his code of blogging ethics

Looking Through The Lens

Alan Levine again, taking us through some of the ins-and-outs of taking good photos, both from a technical and creative standpoint. It was great stuff, but hard to summarise.

Stop Apologising For Your Online Life

Alexandra Samuel asks: is online life any less real than IRL? Are those three letters themselves a dead giveaway? She argues that no, life online is just as interesting and meaningful as offline. She proposed a new 3-letter term: RLT, meaning Real Life Too. Kinda catchy, though I’m not really feeling it. Still, who knows? It just might catch on.

Online art is just as valid and meaningful as offline art, just because you can’t hang it on a wall or show it off in a gallery. There is amazing stuff being done online, like the It Gets Better Project (and indeed, for a lot of queer youth, online is the only way to connect with other queer people); I’ll just add Pogo’s fantastic remixes.

But you also have a responsibility to your online life, as much as your offline one. Don’t be passive, invest real attention; give back, and commit to creating something real. Likewise, don’t just friend any Tom, Dick and Harry on Facebook. Friendship means something, online as well as off-. Only connect with people you feel a relationship with, not just faces that’ll increase your friend count.


I left early on Saturday, because I was still feeling a bit under the weather, but I’m so glad I went. Looking forward to next year’s Moose!

Northern Voice 2010

So, Northern Voice: the annual blogging and social media conference, held this year at UBC’s beautiful Life Sciences Centre. It was my first time; in fact I only heard about this event a few weeks ago. It sounded like a great time, and it truly was: two days of learning, nerdery and camaradery! I met some amazing people, attended talks and workshops for all tastes, from the technical to the social to the political to the academic, and overall basked in the presence of my fellow bloggers.


So, Northern Voice: the annual blogging and social media conference, held this year at UBC’s beautiful Life Sciences Centre. It was my first time; in fact I only heard about this event a few weeks ago. It sounded like a great time, and it truly was: two days of learning, nerdery and camaradery! I met some amazing people, attended talks and workshops for all tastes, from the technical to the social to the political to the academic, and overall basked in the presence of my fellow bloggers.

And that was the biggest thrill of all. No blogger is an island, but the fact is I have been pretty isolated, since day one. Sure, I’ve followed a lot of blogs, read a few books and so on, and they’ve taught me all I know. But the flow has always been one-way. I wasn’t interacting with the authors online, let alone in person. But here I was, not just learning but dialoguing and connecting.

And it took me out of my comfort zone, in other ways: I knew very few people there, which was uncomfortable since I’m not the most outgoing guy around (more on that later). However, I did meet up with a couple of people I knew on Twitter, so that was all right. And even by myself, I could dip into the Twitter stream, drink in everybody else’s posts, and once in a while see one of mine retweeted.

Here are some of my thoughts on the talks I attended.

Day One Keynote Speaker: Bryan Alexander

And we’re off! I found this speech kind of rambly, as it meandered back and forth between storytelling, mystery, and how social media are misrepresented in mainstream media. That’s okay, though, because Bryan Alexander is a fantastic speaker, engaging and funny, working the crowd without any PowerPoint slides. A great way to start the conference!

Gov 2.0: Social Media in Canadian Government

How involved is government in social media? The answer, at least at the federal and provincial level, seems to be: not much. Politicians are generally terrified of any risk of “gotcha” journalism, and civil servants are usually set in their ways and don’t want to use newfangled tools. And citizens are left out in the cold, unable to more efficiently engage with the people representing them. Vancouver, however, is a lot more open with its data. The speakers also made the excellent point that it’s not about the tools, but the process. Really using social media means more than just slapping a wiki here or a twitter account there, it means a fundamental rethinking of the entire process of governing and decision-making.

Good Science: It Takes An (Online) Village

Kids today know more about Pokémon than biodiversity. What’s the solution? If you said, “how about a science-based trading card game, to both educate and entertain?” then David Ng is way ahead of you. Behold, Phylo! What an awesome idea!

Finding Your Voice

What do you write about? And how do you write it? That’s something I’m still struggling with, even after years of blogging. Could Monica Hamburg show me the way? Well, sort of. Her main point was, simply “be yourself.” The hard part about that is I to know the self that I’m being. Also that it’s okay to suck at first, and to be unknown. It gives you freedom to experiment. Good stuff, and encouraging to someone who still feels like a beginner at this whole writing thing.

The nuts and bolts of SEO

Kind of interesting, but mostly focused on commercial blogs. Alexandre Brabant gave some numbers on ideal post length and keyword seeding which I’ve forgotten now, and don’t really apply to this here personal blog. On the other hand, they may be useful for other projects I’ve got going on…

Overcoming Social Anxiety

Kimli rocks! Oh, I could totally tell how nervous she was during her talk, but then I would be too. She was powerfully frank about her social anxiety, how it used to cripple her life, and gave some tips on how to deal with it. Basically: events like Northern Voice are pretty good for introverts, since the attention will be on the speakers and not yourself; don’t be intimidated by Big Name Bloggers, since none of us are cooler than others, no matter how many hits we get on our blogs or how many times we’ve been interviewed by the CBC.

She had a few more pieces of advice (you can see her slides here), but that’s mostly what I took out of her talk. I’m still working on the whole no-intimidation thing. And on most of the other stuff, to be honest.

Incidentally: those Justin Bieber masks in her slides are CREEPY with a capital CREEP.

Social Media Buffet

As the name implies, this is a half-dozen little parallel workshops on various technical issues. None of the day’s remaining talks really appealed to me, so I hung out in the atrium and got a bit of free web design and WordPress advice.

Day 2 Keynote Speaker: Chris Messina

Chris is a long-time open web and open source advocate; also, the inventor of the Twitter hash tag. That makes him okay in my book. His speech (also done without PowerPoint!) was focused on the future of the Web, or at least a possible, dark future: with more and more consumer products like the iPad or WebTV discouraging use of the address bar, and with corporations always trying to clamp down on content, people will simply surf in the channels chosen for them. This will lead to a fractured, bland Web. It’s a sobering but not depressing speech; that future doesn’t have to happen, if people like Chris (and you and me) can work to avoid it.

How To Do Good on the Web

Mahatma Gandhi said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” But what does that mean? What is good? And how do you do “good” online? Darren Barefoot, in this funny and inspiring talk, gives a few answers. Doing good on the Web, he says, can be as simple as clicking “Like” on something your really like on Facebook, or as complex as setting up something like Kiva.

He gave us a few practical ideas for doing good, such as, which I’ve signed up for, and Procrasdonate, which I’ve installed on my browser. Should be interesting.

(Also, I think it’s during this talk that I installed Evernote, which totally rocks.)

Coping With Social Media

It’s addictive, isn’t it? There’s so much good stuff out there, a constant stream of tweets and posts and lovely information, that twenty-four hours aren’t enough to sample it all! How does one cope? Well, Alexandra Samuel argues, social media doesn’t have to be the problem. There are ways to make it work as a coping mechanism. For example, cleaning out your inbox can seem overwhelming, but it actually forces you to sort through your contacts, establish filters and rules, and make some hard decisions about what you let in. Tough, but it’s transformative!

Location sharing sites

What’s interesting is that the producers of location-sharing services like Gowalla, Foursquare, etc… don’t have any idea what they’re really for. And apparently, neither do users. Are they games? Are they a way to mark your travels? Connect with other people? They can be all that and more.

Sometimes a lot more. Last month a 54-year old North Vancouver man was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year old boy who he apparently tracked down through Grindr. This just goes to show the risks inherent in letting other people know your past or present whereabouts. Issues of privacy and personal risk will probably multiply now that Facebook is about to roll out geolocation.

Art and Social Media

I’m not an artist, but I loved the four speakers’ stories of using social media to find, and connect with, their audience. Mainly, it involves taking people behind the scenes, see part of the creative process, etc… That sort of thing is apparently very popular, and I see why. You get to connect with artists as people, not just producers of art. And who doesn’t love a good behind-the-scenes documentary?

I wonder if I could do something similar, for my occasional graphics design work. Who know, it might put me in a different mental space, and help the creative process. Gawd knows I could use some help with that, when it comes to graphics.

If Machiavelli and Montaigne Grew Mushrooms

And what better way to end the conference than with some high-falutin’ abstract talks on the principles of social media?

Dave Cormier started us out by connecting Socrates, Machiavelli and Montaigne, how they related to books, and how this can teach us about books and social media today. Now, Socrates hated books (which I guess were still kinda new in the 5th century BCE), because to him, the only real way to develop and communicate philosophical ideas was through personal discourse. Books not only froze ideas, but broke the entire discussion process. Machiavelli, however, loved his books. He wrote something to the effect that in his library, he could commune with the Ancients. Maybe Socrates was amongst those Ancients; if so, I don’t think he would have appreciated the irony. Montaigne also loved his books and went one step further by scribbling notes in them, actively dialoguing with the authors. Was it vandalism, or 16th century blogging? Montaigne saw that books were instruments of communication that were meant to be used, not venerated on a pedestal.

Steampunk Tyranny

Tyranny of the moment… and the past. Future technology imagined in terms of the present. A lovely steampunk moment.

Thing is, Socrates was right. As necessary as books are, they do have their own tyranny. What can social media do about that? What sets them apart from traditional media is not the content, but the connection between bits of content, and between reader and author. This is the metaphor of the rhizome, connected shoots that have no centre, like knowledge spreading out in all directions.

Though, not to be pedantic, I don’t think mushrooms fit the metaphor. Unless they all grow rhizomes. But whatever, the alliteration’s nice.

Jon Beasley-Murray’s talk, “Knowledge 3.0”, was depressing and frustrating. He saw a drop in the level of critical thinking and quality of education offered by universities and newspapers, and essentially blamed social media for it. Okay, I’m putting words in his mouth, I know. He never actually said anything more than social media being “complicit” in this process, but he never discussed any other factors. The democratisation and physical scattering of knowledge and education is a complex thing, and may cause problems of its own, but I’m convinced that social media is not to blame for sloppy education and news. Correllation is not causation.

So that was a bit of a sour note. But everything else was gold. I can’t wait for next year!