Tag Archives: conferences

‘Our little group’? On being a nerd and being inclusive.

“This is a song about how little groups of people will make themselves into smaller groups of people in order to feel stronger …” — Peter Gabriel, “Not One of Us (Live)”

One of the drawbacks of today’s hypermarketed and ubertargeted and supersegmented society is the loss of inclusivity as people seek those people who think and feel and act just like they do. Of course, this is nothing new as high-school children have been walled off from “the cool kids” and separation by caste and/or class goes back ages. But as Peter Gabriel sagely points out or as former outcasts Nirvana sang about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song that arguably changed the course of music and pop culture — the idea of of “our little group has always been and always will” suffuses society. (And that the teen elitists that line was about would sing along was grand irony.)

Too much passion?

Years ago, the NHL and its broadcast partners attempted to help clueless fans like me by adding a blue dot where the puck was to make it easier to follow (and went a bit far by giving a red comet tail on a hard shot, but anyway). Some hockey fans and purists were aghast. The league sold it as a way to draw in casual fans, but that dreaded c-word just made it harder for traditionalists to take. Maybe if the league had sold it as being for older fans or those with poor eyesight, the reaction could have been better — it’s hard for anybody to despise accessibility measures on their merit. Maybe it still wouldn’t have worked, but who knows? (Happy to report we recently wrapped a Hockey 101 video meant to let students who aren’t hockey fans learn more about the game.)

A dirty little secret to many might be that I have become a big fan of professional wrestling. Yes, the winners are predetermined and it’s a soap opera for guys or whatever you want to say — but it also features a lot of amazing athleticism and great storytelling. (I could write a blog or presentation on the topic of “what professional wrestling has taught me about storytelling” but maybe another time.) I’ve done some writing and commentary on fan site Cageside Seats, which is generally full of great and supportive people who have respectful debates (which itself dispels one stereotype of wrestling fans) but it has its share of those with disdain for casual fans. “WWE is doing this for the casual fans,” the argument more or less goes on some booking decision or character, “when they should reward us smarks and hardcore fans.” (Smarks = smart marks, i.e. people sucked in by wrestling while acknowledging its staged nature.) These people would despise casual fans who tune into John Cena on “Good Morning America” but who didn’t earn their cred by watching indy shows in bingo halls, or something. They mean well, but they need to understand their brand of fandom isn’t everybody’s level of fandom.

With any sport or passion, the idea that people with a more casual interest than you are less worthy of enjoying your thing is silly. Without casual fans, you can’t grow hardcore fans. They don’t offend your fandom or passion. That would be like an advertising agency saying, “nobody will love this product as much as we do, so we shouldn’t even advertise it.”

Rise of the nerds

This topic comes to mind as I prepare to leave for HighEdWeb 2016 (#heweb16), a conference for those who work in higher education web communications, also affectionately known as “nerd camp.” Nerds and dorks and geeks and former outcasts find validation with others like us. Levar Burton is one of the keynotes, which tells you plenty.

fullsizerender-6We generally were the uncool kids in high school, or at least certainly not the cool kids. But a funny thing happened along the way — kids who went into computer science or math or other scientific pursuits started making money and driving the new economy. Nerdy became the new sexy, and while TV shows used to depict nerds as uncool and poorly dressed kids with big glasses who were the butt of comedy, today a show celebrating nerd culture like “The Big Bang Theory” can become a cultural sensation. “Freaks and Geeks” remains respected and loved despite not being a hit during its brief run. Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former #heweb keynoter, is respected and admired. Doctor Who has been a huge nerd, yet he is adored across the globe.

Whereas The Beatles exuded cool, acts like The Replacements embraced awkwardness and dressed like nerds and Nirvana’s uncool coolness turned the pop culture world on its head. It got to the point that even the some of cool kids in high school tried to rewrite their internal biographies to being the pariahs in high school.

And so, for a few days in Memphis at #heweb, the outcasts will become the incasts, we will salute the freak flags that fly and in general much awesome will take place.

My nerd is not your nerd

But I offer one request or caveat to #heweb16 attendees, and those in these situations in general. Not everybody is your level or kind of nerd. Not everybody has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Not everybody knows every corner of the Marvel universe. Not everybody has seen every obscure film that you can quote from memory. And that’s OK: My nerd is not your nerd. Remember this, and be inclusive. Being an outcast once doesn’t mean that you need to make others who don’t share your interests or ardor into outcasts. This isn’t a competition, it’s a conference.

Many times, I’ll probably have to nod my head and smile to something I don’t understand or, if I’m brave enough, simply say I don’t know what somebody’s talking about. And many times, people may not get my insider or obscure references. With any luck and grace, I’ll know to stop and explain something to include them in my strange world.

I was at a (non-#heweb) conference years ago, where some of us were singled out by organizers as “team Tweet” or “the cool kids.” I bristled. I am fortunate to have been going to these conferences long enough to know some awesome people, but I was once that person attending his first #heweb and knowing nobody and feeling like a complete loser because everybody seemed to know more than I did.

So while I’m so humbled and happy to be heading to “nerd camp” in Memphis, I hope I can be one of those pushing inclusivity. Many of us know each other already but, if you’re new, please don’t let that stop you from getting to know us. We were in your shoes too. And if you’re one of us who has been to many #heweb conferences, please do your best to help others into our circle and feel comfortable. Being a nerd is a badge of honor now, but not a license to put those who aren’t your type of nerd — or even not a nerd at all — in an outcast circle we once (or sometimes still) called home.

Be kind and be inclusive. It’s something any good nerd would do.

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#140cuse in review: talk about the passion.

If one word resonated across the inaugural edition of the fast-moving #140cuse conference, it was passion. Sure, the conference of mostly 10-minute presentations at Syracuse University focused on social media and the real-time web, but the passion of presenters and speakers for communicating, for connecting and for humanity came through loud and clear. Some examples:

  • George Couros, an education leader at the Parkland School Division in Alberta, discussed “140 Characters of Kindness,” including a heartbreaking story about how many people connected with him when his beloved dog died. Just as relationships are the foundation of good schools, he said, hashtags are the foundation of community on Twitter. “If you think the web’s just a place to ‘look up stuff,’ you’re missing the best part,” the connections, he noted.
  • Harrison Kratz, the community manager for the MBA program at the University of North Carolina, said things like the battle against SOPA, Occupy Wall Street and 2008 election provided examples of how to rally people behind causes they believe in. He noted that while leaders are important, without the passion of followers no change is possible.
  • Jeff Pulver, founder of the #140conf movement and VoIP pioneer, discussed “Being Vulnerable in the Era of the Real-Time Web.” Noting his passion for ham radio, he said connecting — not technology — is what drives social media. He believes listening, connecting, sharing and engaging are the four most important actions and that emotion is the medium’s truest currency.
  • And Amanda Hite of Talent Revolution closed the conference in style, urging attendees to pull together their most passionate advocates to do a one-day focused call to action. She discussed her 30-day lifestyle challenge via social media which picked up an amazing number of participants. She charged everyone at the conference to tweet something they wanted to accomplish with a #bethechange hashtag, and the results were wonderful.

Other topics included building community among cancer survivors, a few different sessions on connecting passionate sports fans, engaging citizens in scientific discovery, music fans across the web bonding over their first concert and how passionate social media users can make a difference any day.

Oh, and I did a session on our 24 Hours in Photos project, which was neat and I’m happy people responded positively to it. But the real news was learning about the amount of passion out there in social media just waiting to connect, and what awesome things are possible when it happens.

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top 2010 takeaway: be an information omnivore.

I learn a lot every year, but like to reflect on the biggest thing I took away from the previous 12 months. For 2010, that lesson would be the importance of being an information omnivore.

An information omnivore (in my definition) is someone who reads and consumes information from a wide variety of sources … books to microblogs, speakers to cultural events. Books remain a primary source of knowledge for me (coming from a family of librarians), and perhaps no book influenced my job as much as Susan Weinschenk’s Neuro Web Design — which helped set goals and tactics during our sitewide redesign. I’m currently reading Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, which is sparking more ideas. And Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food not only influenced my diet, but served up insights for the workplace.

Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook are excellent sustenance for information omnivores, dishing out a smorgasbord of articles and blog entries of interest, influence and ideas. I was blessed to make it to several conferences where I learned so much from some outstanding speakers, as well as from an awesome network of friends throughout higher ed. I think that every person I encounter — from world-famous speakers to my own students — have something to teach me if I’m smart enough to listen.

But my trumpeting of information omnivores also reflects a troubling trend: In an ideologically polarized time, more people seem to prefer less variety in their news and information diet. I’m not just talking about regular Fox News watchers, but those who choose to fill up on (depending on view) right-wing or left-wing blogs … they choose not to be informed but to have information that backs up their worldview, which they can defend in chatrooms, troll-filled online article comment sections or anywhere anyone deign have another opinion. It’s like we’re reverting to earlier days when any city of decent size had different papers for each political party. (And I can’t help but wonder, for example, what the publishers of the old Oswego Daily Palladium and Oswego Times, who savaged each other on the editorial pages, would think to know their bully pulpits merged into the Oswego Palladium-Times.)

At a time where more knowledge is at our fingertips than ever before, let’s explore it and open our minds to every avenue. Become an information omnivore — read, listen and let the treasures of learning enrich you.

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the eye-opening world of google in-page analytics.

To hear Avinash Kaushik, one of the world’s foremost analytics evangelists, speak — as I was fortunate enough to do at SIMTech10 — would make anyone with a pulse want to dive into researching more about their website traffic. The hitch, of course, is finding the time to do so. But with the recent rollout of Google’s In-Page Analytics Beta, you can get eye-popping measures on your key pages in an instant.

If you have Google Analytics linked to an account, you start by logging in, selecting View Report, clicking Content (upper left) then choosing In-Page Analytics [Beta]. It will then pull up your top page in a window with various traffic metrics as well as which links visitors clicked. Like so:

Screen capture of Oswego home pageOn some browsers, if you open up another tab within your analytics account (for me, anything on oswego.edu), pages will have in-page metrics superimposed … which means you can surf various areas of the site for a quick read on how users interacted.

Of course, this brings other contextual considerations:

1. All bounces are exits but not all exits are bounces. I want to say Hubspot‘s Kyle James made this summation at HighEdWeb10, the best definition of it: A bounce is when someone hits their first page on your site and next leaves your site, while an exit means they have visited one or more pages of your site before departing. If someone surfs a bunch of pages, finds what they are looking for and then leaves, then this exit is not necessarily unglorious. Generally, you’d wince at a high bounce rate — do you want people visiting just one page of your site? — although there can be mitigating factors … if your home page is the default in computer labs when a machine is turned on, you could expect a high bounce rate.

Where do you want a low bounce rate? For specific landing pages meant to steer people to find more information or take actions. Thus this page having a bounce rate of 0.0%, presuming it’s not an error, is outstanding:

I mean, about a week with 274 visits and every one passes along to either a desired action (apply, check out majors, schedule a tour, see costs and scholarships) or another navigational element — and none leave — is that even possible? I guess so, but it brings us to another key consideration:

2. Sample size. You want to see what works and what doesn’t, but a day or two does not a pattern make. Especially if any of those days is a weekend, when our traffic is decidedly lower, results may be atypical. But if you see patterns emerge on a well-trafficked page for a week or two, you can draw more reasonable conclusions. For instance, over the course of a week, I’ve seen that home-page news items listed as having video tend to draw 5 to 6 times more clicks than those without. That’s a fairly remarkable difference, though one next wonders if the content itself is more compelling, with or without the indication video is available.

3. Be prepared to be wrong. We all make assumptions about our websites all the time. “People often skip to our A-Z Index instead of navigation.” “Topic navigation is more useful than audience navigation.” “Users won’t scroll.” Wrong, wrong and wrong. Maybe it’s because we installed drop-down accordion menus on our home page (among others), but our A-Z Index generally draws less than 5 percent of traffic there, and much less throughout the site. Topical navigation sees much higher clickthroughs than A-Z, but audience navigation (especially Prospective Students, Current Students and Alumni) appears very strong in some areas. As for scrolling, long pages with good content get just as many clicks farther down as they do above. People will indeed scroll for content they want.

These are only a few thoughts and tips. I have to admit jumping into analytics — especially a tool as rich as In-Page Analytics — is a bit overwhelming, and certainly a learning process. But so far, I definitely think it’s worth it!

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hashtagged to death: will social media kill conferences?

Watching the stream of tweets from this week’s EduWeb Conference (hashtag: #eduweb) brought back a debate I see percolate from time to time in social media: When everyone live-tweets and blogs the details from a conference, does that take away the appeal of attending in person? Or do 140-character summations only provide a tiny peek at a bigger picture?

The debate gets downright heated sometimes, as some folks on Twitter and in the blogosphere have declared the live-tweeting of sessions foretell The End of Conferences. If you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars on travel, registration and hotel and still read the most important lessons, they argue, why go?

And while this is an acute observation, it’s a chicken-and-egg argument: If conferences ended, how could people live-tweet from them? Then how would new information be disseminated from experts and studies? And would that come free? Not likely. Sure, Webinars could still exist, but they come with a fee, and ultimately the collective cost could still mount to conference level.

I would also argue that not only do live-tweets fall short of telling the full story of any individual session, but they only represent one piece of the puzzle. Conferences are, as much as anything, a social function. Sure, we can network on Twitter, sharing ideas and commiserating, but only 140 characters at a time. Is tweeting back and forth with a friend the same as having dinner and a conversation with them? Absolutely not. Same goes with conferences: Meeting face to face with people in the same line of work, sharing questions, frustrations and solutions IRL and in real time makes even the best Twitter interactions pale by comparison.

While others may fret the end of the conference as we know it, I feel fine. I’ll go out on a not-so-fragile limb and declare that while conferences may evolve, they are not at all headed for the ashbin of history. I’ll book my calendar if you invite me to discuss a historical perspective on the Era of Conference Concern at any conference in 10 years. I’m confident the worrying over the end of conferences, as a meme, will pass. Conferences themselves will remain.

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