Do blogging conferences need to change?

On Saturday, along with a large group of other bloggers I attended Blogfest. The Mumsnet Blogging conference. 
It was held in a sparkling venue in central London. In my blogging career I’ve attended smaller Tots 100 blogsummits workshops, blogging conferences/seminars hosted by charities, and larger conferences; Cybher, Britmums and CyberMummy. As well as conferences on various issues in my working life.

The Blogfest format was a familiar one. The day began with a panel of experts discussing “the new wild west: what kind of internet do we want?” My heart sank slightly when Richard Bacon made reference to his fear of the Mumsnetters and the Forums. This was not his audience. His audience was a group of bloggers, tech savvy, social media wise, creative bloggers.

The panel made fascinating points, clearly experts in their field with a range of experience and knowledge. The debated focussed on twitter and how best to deal with the dark and hideous aspect of trolls hiding behind false identities.

The expectation was that the audience listened passively and asked questions in a few short minutes assigned at the end.

In my view, this is an audience that had fewer questions, more comments. This was an audience familiar with both the positives of social media and the dark side. An audience many of whom used anonymous twitter handles to protect their families and their identities.

Blogfest offered other sessions, some of which I found very valuable and from which I learnt and others from which I learnt less.

I sat through a session at Britmums in which the speaker explained how to set ones self up on a particular social media platform, a platform that almost all of the room where already established and long term users of. She clearly did not know her audience and many people left the session.

With minimal information on the schedule sometimes it is hard to make the right choice. At Blogfest, I attended a session which explained basics of a subject that, I suspect, much of the audience already knew. While the speaker was clearly talented and knowledgable, he didn’t understand my question and couldn’t answer it. Significantly members of the audience did and where able to give me useful information and pointers.

My point is, increasingly, the experts are less the panel at the front and more the audience.

Which leads me on to the final session “Can you be a mummy blogger sand still be a feminist”. Marked in capitals on the programme “KEYNOTE PANEL – ALL ATTEND”. An announcement from a tannoy reminded us it was all time. Staff shepherded delegates into the hall. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that delegates were forced to attend sessions. The lack of places to sit down in the main hall and shepherding by staff suggested the organisers knew best and we should all be passive listeners to a group of experts.

I think the title of the session was mis-judged and it was poorly chaired. What soon became apparent was that some members of the panel did not know their audience. I don’t doubt the feminist credentials of members of the panel, but one member stated that they had spent the last week reading blogs. This does not, in my view, make them an experts on blogging.

Behind the speakers there was a twitter wall. A flow of tweets with the # blogfest, uploaded in 140 characters by an opinionated, intelligent and witty audience.

I needed to charge my phone and plugged it into the nearest electrical socket. I sat down to listen to the experts. However, I soon became dismayed by some of their comments and felt the urge to add my own. Grabbing my phone from the socket, I tweeted, joining the other voices of the audience, who felt the need to be heard.

A member of the panel made a disparaging comment about the blogs she had been reading, in the last week. Along the lines of them being full of reviews for soda stream and holidays.

That is one aspect of blogging, it is certainly not all. I’ve been reading blogs for 3 years. I read blogs on mental health, campaigning blogs, parenting children with special needs blogs, the challenges of motherhood, motherhood in the current political climate and many other subjects beyond. Blogging isn’t all jam making and high heals.

I will add credit to Charlotte Raven, she of the soda stream comment, that she listened and she voiced that she had changed her mind.

The following tweet from Purple Ella appeared, which to me totally represented the creative and intelligent audience:

Screen shot 2013-11-11 at 13.34.45

 

The audience as much interested in the panel, as the twitter wall and what their peers had to say, responded with laughter.

The debate heated up, as did the tweets. The organisers decided the twitter wall was a distraction from the experts and it was removed. The audience groaned and gasped. For me, that was a turning point in the atmosphere of the debate. The room twitched in irritation. The audience had an alternative view to the panel and their voice was deemed less important. I tweeted:

 
26 re-tweets suggests I was not alone in my view.

My increasing issue with blog conferences is there is actually significant expertise in the audience. I started the session happy to listen to the panel and began tweeting when I realised some of them did not ‘get’ blogging. I am becoming less and less inclined to listen to an “expert panel” what I want to listen to is the bloggers in the room, they are the experts, a twitter wall gives me a voice and allows me to ‘hear’ the voices of others. To remove it suggestions the panel knows better. This is not always the case. Particularly, if the panel aren’t all bloggers or don’t read blogs.

With reference to panel member Sarah Ditum. I think Sarah Ditum was mis-understood, I think she mis-understood her challenger (I apologise if you weren’t there and this makes little sense).

My greater issue with Sarah Ditum was around her comment on the commercialisation of blogging and using our families as commodities. I think this is a particular area where the audience has more experience and knowledge. Women’s experiences aren’t simple, the commercial aspect of blogging is complex. It does offer an alternative marketing of products away from male dominated advertising ideals. From where I stand there are far more women are commercialising their content than are men. It is significantly bound up in women’s experience of access to the workplace and to affordable child care, which are feminist issues. Commercial content gives those bloggers, those women, greater economic freedom – a central pillar of feminism.

I am pleased feminism is being discussed, I have read intelligent and insightful posts following that session. I am disappointed to be reading posts that use that session to illustrate why they are not a feminist.

For me Jo Brand represented feminism in a much better form, I felt no need to challenge her comments or add my own. She ‘got’ her audience, she understood the power of blogging to amplify women’s voices, to give voice to women and how much that matters. She was hugely inspiring. A true expert.

My experience of Blogfest has left me questioning the format of conferences; a panel of experts and the expectation of a passive audience. The expectation that they re-tweet the words of experts with the conference hashtag. When, actually, the audience have valid experience, contributions and alternative opinions. Less do they need to ask questions “at the end”, more they have valuable comments to add to the debate. Am I left wondering – what is the alternative?

54 Comments

  1. liveotherwise

    You’re heading towards what I’ve been thinking since Saturday. Although there *were* experts from the floor – the technical panel was a great example. But presumably conferences need the names like Tanya Byron, Jo Brand and so on to sell the tickets and get the sponsors?

    Overall, I enjoyed my day, but I will readily admit that as I was in clinic and on a panel, I didn’t get to attend anything other than the beginning and end of the day, so I don’t know what the value of the rest of the day was. Feedback I saw on the writing panel with Lionel Shriver was overwhelmingly positive though – did you see that one?

    1. helloitsgemma

      thanks, I think most of the sessions were received very positively. I did learnt things, which is my aim in attending. I did attend part of the Lionel Shriver Writing sessions. It was good, however I was having a mid-afternoon slump, the act of passively listening didn’t seem to help that. I guess in an increasingly competitive market ‘names’ do help sell tickets or is that just what we have come to expect? Many of the speakers were certainly experts, many were made of of bloggers – for me there needs to be more balance between audience and panel.

  2. Sally

    I can’t comment on Blogfest as I didn’t attend – but I will say that feminism is a complex thing that means different things to different people, and given we all broadly have the same aims (equality of opportunity and choice, regardless of gender) it’s a shame to see people being dismissive of or distancing themselves from feminism because they disagreed with *a* feminist.

    In terms of our workshops (I’m not sure it’s a conference!), we encourage lots of butting in at BlogSummit – my view is that the speaker is there to facilitate a discussion, and take part in it – because the experiences of those in the room are certainly just as valid as those at the front of the room. We brief all our guest speakers to that effect. But any feedback is good and I’ll certainly be using this post next time we sit down to organise something.

    1. helloitsgemma

      Thank you Sally. I did try to differential BlogSummit by placing it before conferences/seminars. (I edited to make that clearer). I do think that the smaller format of blog summit and the general atmosphere encourage discussion and which illustrates alternatives exist.

      1. fritha

        I agree, found Blogsummit great in that it did feel like a small workshop and was very interactive. Something I’m not sure larger conferences would be able to re-create? I agree that we were made to feel passive in the keynote x

  3. Mummy Glitzer

    Another good post here. I found the day enjoyable as a whole, each of the sessions I attended there was ample time for questions but I was dismayed by the feminism discussion and the “experts” lack of awareness of their audience. Something that Jax quite rightly points out was not an issue in the Tech talk; the panel there clearly knew their audience and was largely (or possibly wholly) made up of bloggers themselves.

    My biggest issue with Sarah Ditum was her dislike of the commercialisation of blogs. For many, it’s pretty much a necessity and doesn’t equal boring posts!

    1. helloitsgemma

      Thanks for your comment. I’m pleased the day was positive for you. Commercial content is a necessity of many and an understanding and awareness of that and how it fits in is key.

  4. Dan

    A really interesting post. Something I’ll be considering next time I’m looking at conferences.

    I attended Blog On at the MOSI this year and was lucky enough to be asked to help run one of the sessions.

    I found the format to be very different to the usual fair though when it came to the different rooms. It was more a round table discussion in each room on set topics, with two or three people per room to make sure the discussions stayed at least mostly on topic. The feedback from that was largely positive, and certainly gave the audience a chance to share their views and ask the questions they wanted answering.

    Anyway.. thanks for the post Gemma.

    1. helloitsgemma

      Thanks Dan. Blog On is organised by a blogger who has attended various events and conferences and aims to pull the best stuff together. It’s a format I’ve been part of in a working capacity, I’d like to try it as a blogger.

  5. Mammasaurus

    I must admit I loved Laura Seatons BlogOn format the best because that is the only one I’ve been to to date that runs on what I considered a fair and productive format, round-table discussions with small groups of people.
    The main issue with blogging conferences now is that it’s impossible to cater for all abilities and blogging platforms so inevitably there are chunks of people feeling sessions can be irrelevant to them. Smaller and more niche conferences may be the way forward moving on in to the future.

    1. helloitsgemma

      It does seem that the whole market for conferences continues to grow and perhaps as the community both matures and grows – smaller niche maybe a good response. As you say, it’s difficult trying to cater for both end of the spectrum. I do think more round table discussions, or debate give a greater opportunity or both sharing and learning.

  6. Actually Mummy...

    This is a really good take on it all, and you’re right, many of the experts are delegates. I find most of the Blogfest sessions to be either inspirational, or not. I don’t go to learn about blogging. I go hear opinions, voice mine, and maybe to have my opinions changed, as happened to Charlotte. For this many sessions were brilliant, and others not so. But I don’t go to be talked at, other than by excellent keynote speakers who inspire me so much I’d never want to interrupt and stop listening to them.
    So actually, sessions with “expert” facilitators, with an objective of moving a debate forward, would be a welcome addition to conferences.

    1. helloitsgemma

      I think many people are in a similar position to you Helen. Certainly, I could have listened to Jo Brand all day, but the session before I wanted to hear much more from the audience.

  7. Molly

    It’s a really interesting point and you’re right, bloggers are an opinionated bunch and many of us had lots to say on Saturday. In terms of blogging conferences, I found BlogFest to be more about listening to the speakers than picking up practical skills to enhance my blog. That’s not to say I enjoyed it less because of it, but it made me realise that perhaps the answer lies in going to a couple of very different blog conferences a year in order to gain a range of experiences. I also like just hanging out with my blogging buddies to discuss things (and drink wine) which I’m pleased I got to do with you this weekend!

  8. susanna

    Hi Gemma,
    I think people go to conferences for a lot of different reasons – laugh, learn, love, network, find brands to work with, etc.
    A good discussion format has a strong moderator what uses the panel, as well as the audience, to glean insight. Though this is often easier said than done.
    We try to mark our sessions BEGINNER or ADVANCED to give a guide. Though this is subjective too.
    I am more concerned that you said the Twitter Wall was taken down and voices silenced. Really?

    1. helloitsgemma

      Yes, really to the twitter wall. there is Mumsnet response to why they took it down on Anya’s blog Older Single Mum.
      I agree, it is becoming harder to meet the varying needs of bloggers, who inhabit a fast-paced and ever developing digital space. And a good moderator is key in ensuring discussion is useful.

  9. Anya from Older Single Mum and The Healer

    This is fair comment throughout Gemma and you raise interesting questions. I think the fundamental crux here is that Mumsnet isn’t run by bloggers for bloggers in the way that Britmums and Tots are and it shows.

    I think it’s fairly patronising to be running conferences when they’re even newer to the game than I am, unless they’re going to employ very experienced bloggers to be doing it for them and engage them early on regarding every aspect and and give them due credit.

    And thereby the patronising continues with ‘expert panels’ and bloggers in the audience.

    I loved the Twitter feed – it added an extra, wonderful dimension to the day and was sorry it got taken down when I felt Mumsnet didn’t agree with what an increasingly frustrated and angry audience had to say, although when I’ve challenged them on it they have argued, besides other things, that, as you have said, that it was merely a distraction but I will be following this up.

    The ticket price in itself – £75 / £95 for one day, is indicative of being out of touch. Britmums can be bought for £50 ahead for two entire days and Blogcamp has always been free, I gather.

    I agree it’s not easy to cater for varying levels of blogging as it so rapidly evolves, but it’s not impossible. It seems the more experienced / advanced ones are there as much for the social aspect as anything (and I don’t consider myself part of that camp of bloggers, but it’s what swung it for me) – and they have become the teachers, as you so rightly point out. You could stick them together in a room for discussions as some of your other commenters have suggested and they’ll be happy.

    We all want to learn, but none of us wants to be patronised.

    1. helloitsgemma

      thanks for your views Anya – they reflect elements of mine.
      I think it is really key to place bloggers at the centre of conference development and while each panel did contain bloggers – I find it hard to believe that a blogger would have come up with the title “can you be a mummy blogger and a feminist” and certainly that the panel didn’t come up with that title has been reiterated elsewhere by members of the panel. Which again makes me wonder if rather than being briefed – the panel need to research/know their audience and have better a idea of where the discussion might go – rather than, as it seemed in this case, turning up with the idea that they would talk and we would listen – with that subject title that was never going to happen.

  10. Julie

    An excellent post that I think explains some of the reasons why I don’t attend conferences any more, and instead prefer smaller get-togethers. There are only so many times you can hear sessions on content/commercialisation/how to go self-hosted… That sounds slightly disparaging, which was not my intention- Of course there is still a place for such content, especially for , but personally for me the main value is networking with others, which can sometimes fall short in such large crowds. beginnersbeginners.

      1. helloitsgemma

        thanks, I think networking/social is becoming increasingly one of the main reasons why people attend and so perhaps the future is as you say, smaller, or more opportunity to do that, other than over a glass of wine.

  11. Midlife Singlemum

    The lament that the speakers didn’t know their audience and weren’t familiar with the nature of blogging is one I’ve heard time and time again after blog conferences. Maybe they should distinguish between guest speakers (the famous names to bring in the brands) on inspirational topics about writing and success, etc… and expert led workshops where the experts are bloggers with successful blogs. If there are enough workshops, which there should be as there are no shortage of expert bloggers who would be delighted to attend for free in return for running a workshop, then they can cover all the usual subjects (which new bloggers still need) and some more advanced topics for seasoned or more adventurous bloggers. I hope your post and the comments makes them re- think about it for next time.

    1. helloitsgemma

      thanks Rachel, really useful perspective.
      I think one of the challenges for conference organises is meeting all needs (as Susanna pointed out) I find that newer bloggers get up to speed increasingly quickly. It is a difficult balance but I think placing bloggers in the centre of the planning process of a conference programme is key.

  12. Ruth (geekmummy)

    Excellent post Gemma, and something I’ve been thinking for a while. I’m coming to the conclusion that those who get the most benefit from the blogging conferences are (generally) the newer, less experienced bloggers. Those who haven’t already heard the follow/nofollow debate or who don’t know what Pinterest is, for example. As a more experienced blogger I enjoy blogging events where I either get to participate with my fellow bloggers (like Blog Summit or Blog On) or where I can enjoy the social and networking aspects (which is what I got at BritMumsLive this year). Blogging conferences can’t be all things to all bloggers, and it’s great that we have a selection of different conferences to choose between.

    1. helloitsgemma

      Thanks Ruth, we have an ever increasing choice of conferences. I do think that many newer bloggers get up to speed to on things like pin-terest, follow/no-follow much quicker than maybe a year ago. The blogger community is growing, it’s commercial, it’s very savvy. Increasingly people start blogs with aims and goals. I think the increased interest in awards suggests it has become more competitive which also fuels a need to ‘be ahead of the game’. The difficulty, perhaps, for newer bloggers is choosing where to spend their money in terms of blogging conference and it is a lot of money (except blog summit of course which offers so much for free). I agree bloggers of a similar vintage as you and I! enjoy the opportunity to network and share.

  13. Emma

    Ooooh Gemma, very good points. I have come away from the last couple of conferences wondering what, if anything I have learned. I think I’d rather be able a chat in a small group and brain storm ideas together rather than listen to a presentation.

    Of course the inspirational speakers are always fantastic to listen to, but we need more than that don’t we? Despite that, I have come away from every conference I’ve been to feeling inspired to blog better, but I suspect that’s more down to the other lovely bloggers than anything else.

    xx

    1. helloitsgemma

      Lovely comment Emma. Bloggers do make the conferences don’t they. I did find Blogfest inspiring on some levels. However, the whole rumbling debate that has followed it has nulled out any feeling of inspiration for me. Which is a huge shame. At the moment, I feel annoyed at the damage one session has done to the community. Obviously, that will fade but it’s not something that I want to come away from a conference with.

  14. Avril Keys

    Really enjoyed reading this Gemma – thank you for writing it. I was unable (because of cost) to attend though I didn’t mind too much as I had felt ‘blog-event’ overload having attended MN last year and also having gone to Britmums in June.
    I think the benefit of these events is in the round table, sharing of ideas between bloggers so I would welcome more of this in future events. I learned more from other bloggers than I did from speakers at both events, the two exceptions being the Legal and SEO sessions at Britmums, which were really useful because the speakers were actual technical experts in their fields. More technical stuff, practical advice and useful tools please!

  15. Kirsty Rice

    Hi Gemma,

    I flew over from Qatar for Blogfest and was really surprised by the event. I think I was expecting to be blown away by the technical knowledge and advice but as you’ve indicated in this post there were many times that I felt the panel/presenter wasn’t exactly sure of what the blogger was asking. I loved the Think Bomb content (although is really had nothing to do with blogging) and I really enjoyed Jo Brand. For me it was great to connect with other bloggers (including yourself) but I’d love to see a conference where bloggers united together to talk openly about rates, stats, and advertising. I thought it was interesting that throughout the panel on monetising your blog, the agency rep (sorry I’ve forgotten her name) talked of transparency but never once mentioned how much a sponsored post was worth. I’m interested in your thoughts, which conference in the UK do you think offers the most value?

    1. helloitsgemma

      I wasn’t in that session on making money – that’s a very interesting point! I have found that bloggers are increasingly using FB groups to share info, particularly about rates vs. page rank etc – which helps with transparency among the community.
      I have listened to some wonderful inspirational speakers at various conferences and I do think there is a place for that.
      Personally, I like blog summit, it’s small the focus is technical rather than celeb speaker there is opportunity for discussion due to the size and it’s free. I’ve been to 3 and I always feel I’ve learnt something. I love Britmums it has a great community atmosphere, it has bloggers at it’s heart, it ends on the crowd sourced reading, which is bloggers reading best posts from the year and I come away on a high, inspired by my peers. It is fabulously social and I do end up missing sessions because I am hung over or socialising! I do learn but I also learn a lot from my peers. Often the session I’ve got the most from are the ones in which the audience sort of took over! As I’ve said in this post, I think there is increasingly a demand for more crowd sourced sharing, it needs a good moderator though.

  16. older mum in a muddle

    A great summary of the event Gemma, and I think Annie made a very important point about conferences becoming more niche and the format being different to the whole panel discussion thing – which can be a set up for ‘we’ the panel are the ‘expert’s while ‘you’ the audience are the ‘novice’. As Blogfest illustrated many of the women in the audience were experts in their field, and to bring in panel guests who (a) had only read blogs for a week (!) and (b) talked disparagingly and without any understanding of the nature of reviews and sponsored posts, clearly lacked knowledge of their audience. It’s great though, that there are so many conferences to chose from, and to the above commentator I would suggest that Britmums offers the best value for money in all aspects.

  17. fritha

    you articulate is much better but I also felt Sarah was misunderstood in that area but my main issue like you was her comment on the ‘commercialisation of blogging and using our families as commodities’. I wish we had been able to discuss this a bit more x

  18. Sonya Cisco

    I guess it all depends on what you are looking to gain from conferences. I dont have a wide experience of them- having only attended Britmums and Blogfest once each, but for me personally I don’t tend to go to the more technical sessions- I am merrily illiterate on most of those things, and have no urge to change that – but quite agree they should be offered, and that they need to be run by people who know more than the crowd rather than less!
    I go for the inspiration and intellectual stimulation provided by the sessions at that end of the spectrum, and in that sense found both conferences provided good value. I also go for the social aspect, so lovely to actually be able to meet the people that i communicate with almost daily online. And to that end the eating and drinking bits are important too- please can someone let us sit down with our lunch!!

    1. helloitsgemma

      Lunch time needs to be improved! I’ve heard that comment many times. It’s a key social element of the day and feeds the, at that time, starving masses – lunch time needs to be better!
      I think there were some great inspirational speakers at blogfest – Tim Dowling, Jo Brand, the Think Bomb session (although I missed it) and the writing session although I was having a post-lunch slump and left early. Social is key, hanging out matters !

  19. Circus Queen

    Thanks for linking to my post and calling it insightful! 🙂 I completely agree with this: “With reference to panel member Sarah Ditum. I think Sarah Ditum was mis-understood, I think she mis-understood her challenger (I apologise if you weren’t there and this makes little sense).” That bit made me want to bang my head on the chair in front and groan: “Nobody’s listening.” And yes, Jo Brand sums it all up for me, perfectly. That woman is so at ease with herself.

    1. helloitsgemma

      I am assuming the session made you want to bang your head on the chair, not my post?? The room was lost by that point and both the audience and the panel where failing to listen to each other. It seemed to just go further down hill from there. 🙁
      Thank goodness for Jo Brand! however, the whole debate on the feminist panel seems to have over shadowed all the positives. A shame.

    1. helloitsgemma

      Thank you Liska. The session quickly picked up speed, I think there where a number of opening remarks that challenged the room and hence we took to our devices to tweet or in your case record.

  20. Miss Thrifty

    I think Blogfest is a funny one, though: the emphasis seems to be so much on fame and names and personalities, far more than it is on blogging. That’s why I didn’t go this year or last year: it’s a long way to travel and a lot to pay, if you aren’t going to have much to take away with which to improve your own blog. If I want that kind of inspiration, I’ll read the Guardian or watch a TED talk.

    Although in other ways, I am sad to have missed it. Sounds like there were some fireworks… 😉

    1. helloitsgemma

      thanks for comment – top tip. Must watch more TED talks. My fave bit of the day was meeting my 2nd fave Guardian writer.
      It was one of those sessions that will probably become weirdly legendary! And I guess I will be able to say I was there!

  21. Ben

    Having been to a few conferences now I’ve come to the conclusion I’d rather take my ticket money and use it to buy a nice meal and a few beers. Arrange an event like that for bloggers and I think we may well learn more and have an awesome social 🙂

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