The 6:07 Accela to Providence just vaporized a skunk at 150 mph …

…. and the first class car is dying.

The dowagers next to me have stopped yakking about real estate prices and are fanning themselves with magazines. The guy in front of me has taken advantage of the olefactory disaster to sneak in a truly paint peeler of an audible fart which makes for my own personal hell on earth. I wonder what the engineer is doing. He’s been tooting the horn for the last five minutes.

A time for forums, a place for blogs …

This week’s theme seems to be developing into the metrics of “engagement” and the rules of thumbs to describe participants, lurkers, and fanatics. Since opening my first Blogger blog in the spring of 2002 (which quickly went dark as I tended to run my mouth off and was horrified one of my reserved Swiss employers would freak out if they read it), I’ve been looking at the differences between blogs and forums and the impact they have on that fuzzy liberal-tinged buzzword: “community.”

Community, for those of you born after 1998, was the power word of the first web revolution. It always conjured up images of community gardens, Morris Dancing festivals, church bake sales and youth soccer tournaments, but I digress.

Community was theoretically engagement in the form of a dialogue between the reader and the publisher and readers and other readers. I got into it as an operator in 1995 when Thorne Sparkman and I decided to launch an online magazine for saltwater fly fishing called Reel-Time. Thorne found an email list archival tool called HyperMail and had it hacked to serve as a crude threaded discussion platform. One of those discussions was named “BBS5” and it was very popular. I won’t go over the whole tale of Reel-Time — it’s over ten years old, has tons of traffic, is ranked first in Google for its key terms, and has a devoted “community” of people obsessed with saltwater fly fishing. There was an article written about one of our attempts to get people to meet face to face — on a beach in the middle of the night in October — that is pretty funny. You can find it here.

Reel-Time embodied a threaded forum, or BBS (bulletin board service, a hang-over term from the days of dial-up community when someone would run a community on a PC and people would dial into it one at a time). This is the format made infamous by USENET newgroups, and the basis for such legendary communities as the W.E.L.L., The Source, CompuServe, etc.

The interesting thing about a threaded forum is that it is a Maoist construct where everyone is on equal ground. Sure, contemporary software can grant different levels of power to different classes of users, but the content is pooled as opposed to “pulpited.” Meaning, anyone can start a thread or discussion, anyone can contribute, and no one’s postings is given prominence in terms of display or prioritization.

The first threaded community constructs were completely classless — the tools lacked any semblance of moderation capabilities, so me, as the “moderator” had to manually go in and surgically delete offensive remarks with no powers to ban members of the tin-foil hat league. Trying to run a community with no “god” powers was like trying to run a Vermont commune full of peaceful hippies with a few Charles Manson’s mixed in. BBS-5 eventually collapsed under the weight of anonymous flamers, forged identities, and general mayhem. So we migrated to another commercial platform which royally sucked and drove most of the committed posters to another site, where the same issues reemerged.

Eventually, thanks to Mark Cahill at Vario Design, we moved to a php system, VBulletin, and everything has been good ever since. We designated about ten “super” users as moderators, giving them some administrative powers so they can move spam posts into a rogue’s gallery, and keep the garden, as J.P. Rangaswami refers to it from the Chris Locke days (Reel-Time was born out of a project I collaborated with Chris, aka RageBoy, back in 1994 at InternetMCI).

Here’s the money graf: blogs are not communities. While there are comments and trackbacks they are not the place to build communities of engaged participants for the simple reason that the blogger, not the commenter, owns the pulpit. While there are group blogs where multiple writers share the same space (Boing-boing is the model there) there are no massive group blogs where 10,000 users vy for attention. In fact, the snake-display model of a blog — with comments hidden until one clicks through the headline to the permalink — is totally opposed to the thread and post model of a forum.

I write this as I:

a) look at forum technologies for a corporate project

b) think hard about Reel-Time and our fail efforts in offering our most active participants blogs (which we called Flogs — for Fishing Logs).

c) wish there was a better format for displaying comments in line or at least more visible in the context of the master post. (there is, I am too stupid to implement it.)

Digital conferences that don’t allow digital devices

So here I am at OgilvyOne’s Verge Digital Summit on digital media and interactive marketing and a non-Ogilvy, Time-Warner center usher-goon tells me to turn off my laptop which I am using to take notes and blog. What’s up with that irony … or is it a paradox? A room full of marketers getting preached to about social media, engagement, and nary a blogger in sight.

Nor permitted apparently. I’m not blaming Ogilvy. My hosts were bewildered too. I guess I go to too many conferences where backchannel ICQ chats are projected and everyone on the house has a laptop in front of them ….
Sheesh. I can see the staff getting nervous during a live performance if I whipped out an iRiver and a set of microphones, or a video camera during the premier of Borat. This entire bloggable/unbloggable conference thing got rolling last week when BuzzMetrics asked attendees to a client meeting not to blog it. I can see the reasoning there — clients trading notes don’t want those notes published.
update from the lounge because I skipped dessert:

  1. Morning session hosted by Michael Wolff — he of Burn Rate and Vanity Fair. Stewart Butterfield from Flickr, Shawn Gold from MySpace, the founder of Heavy.com and someone from Gather.com. Wolff tried to be contentious and play Mr. Mainstream “where’s the money” but the discussion begged more questions than it answered.
  2. zeFrank was intense. I’m not worthy.
  3. Dennis Kneale moderated the “I See Dead People” panel represented by NBC, AOL, Economist.com and weirdly, the chairman of Technorati. That was particularly infuriating. Lots of buzzword bingo and old/new media people groping for their butts with both hands.

I’ll be more reasonable on the train since I’m still royally pissed I can’t use my laptop and being sour.

update on the train

Good conference all in all. Ogilvy people who presented in the afternoon were in many ways the highlights. More on that in a second.

Back to the morning. I’ve been predisposed to not like Michael Wolff due to my dislike of any Boswellian figure, and his panel was a bit of a buzzfest with “engagement” and “informed” and “ROI” and “Web 2.0” getting tossed around with abandon. The guest lineup was a tad too eclectic — I’d have rearranged the deck chairs. Butterfield was great. Gold from MySpace was great. Gerace from Gather.com and Assad from Heavy were lesser lights.

The Kneale panel had a buddy from Ogilvy and me rolling our eyes. Kneale doesn’t like blogs — indeed, no one really took the time to explain that a blog is nothing more than a cheap CMS and like any tool will not solve the garbage-in/garbage-out factor. Anderson’s Long-Tail spiel shook the crowd when he presented a Technorati influence chart mapping big media against bloggers and demonstrated that Boing-Boing, Daily Kos, et all kick the stuffing out of the sad, beleaguered newspapers and networks.

In general there was too much of the rhethoric about interactive croaking established media. The discussion should have been on the death of the old page view model and the emergence of conversational/engagement marketing. A few brushes with the topic were pretty satisfying, but there was way too much time expended on the pace and immensity of the transition that to my thinking has already gone down. There was literally no discussion of subscription models or registration walls — which would have dominated this conference five years ago.
Shelly Lazarus, Chairman and CEO of Ogilvy opened up after lunch. High light was Dove commercial, “Evolution”.

Ogilvy showed a short film on digital media habits in eight countries. Good stuff to scare marketing people with.

Chris Wall, Ogilvy’s co-chief creative officer, came out and gave a brilliant presentation on episodic marketing and brand journalism. He struck me as scary smart.

Chad Hurley from YouTube was excellent and delivered the line of the day when an audience member asked him YouTube planned on improving its search capabilities: “I hear Google is pretty good at search.”

Don Tapscott from New Paradigm was excellent. Brian Fetherstonhaugh, the CEO of OgilvyOne was my hero when he showed the gap between online usage at 20% of media consumption while online ad spending was 6% of overall media spends.

I stayed for a TV commercial panel that was okay and showed some cool tv spot customization and targeting technologies from SpotRunner and Visible World.

Then I bailed for the train.

Key Takeaways:

1. Buzzword Bingo players would have been happy.

2. Trying to blog a conference, after the fact, from handwritten notes that look like they were written by the victim of a head injury is useless.
3. Advertising and media shifts are not the issues. The old 4 P’s are irrelevant. The trenchant points are co-creation and customer innovation, conversational marketing, reputation management, integrity and transparency, and optimization.

4. The Ogilvy people were the smartest people in the room and I sensed they are desperate for clients who can take advantage of that.

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