What I think happened at #wmtm (We Make the Media conference)


I’ve started and aborted several posts on my experience at We Make the Media conference in Portland on Saturday. All my former attempts ended in a sense of futility. We’ll see if I make it through this time… First, the disclaimer: nothing I say here is any reflection on my employer, nobody has seen or considered my post, it was written on my own time, etc.

I was among those who observed and felt the divide in the room at the We Make the Media conference in Portland on November 21, 2009.

Here’s what I think is behind it.

I believe that much of the discontent with mainstream media — and in the #wmtm room — has more to do with disrupting longstanding social order and traditional ways of handling information than it does with journalism standards, tools, digital formats, etc. What the internet and social media in particular make possible is taking control away from the powers that have had control for so long.

That’s what the planners and keynote speaker and panelists seemed not to understand, and I think why there was so much resistance bubbling in the room.

The fact that the conference did not begin by announcing: “Here’s how to use the wifi here” or “we’re using this hashtag” and not being streamed or even videotaped was shocking to me and invited a questioning stance. Some of those things still happened, of course, but in a completely underground channel. Why was it underground and what does that have to do with power and control?

When the conference opened, other clues emerged. The old way of designating power is through academic degrees, awards won, years in the biz, etc. Because the day began with speakers being introduced that way, the tone was set identifying with the legacy way of assigning authority, power, and so forth. Users of social media are much more impressed by the quality of one’s content, rather than the length of one’s resume. Relying on resume recitations as a way of granting authority casts an event immediately on the side of the old power structure for many, including me. It doesn’t mean the person is not wise or doesn’t have something very important to say, it just signals to me that I am expected to be deferential and more than likely expected to be impressed into silence and passivity.

The fact that the keynote speaker referred to content aggregators on the web as thieves reinforced that perception for me. That kind of statement implies to me that the speaker is defending keeping power and ownership and control in the hands of a few, with no real understanding of or appreciation for how much traffic those aggregators drive to their content, how the aggregators might actually be contributing to a greater understanding of things and making people much more informed, and so forth. They’re just dismissed as thieves in a single sentence. My skepticism that had already begun rose to another level.

Referring to bloggers as digital ranters added further reinforcement.

The fact that he said content of mainstream media has never been and is not a problem put another tally in that column.

The fact that one of the pre-selected breakout sessions was assigned to discuss planning a cable tv show was another.

The fact that the moderator had never heard the term copyleft? Yet another.

Raising the issue of micropayments. Still another. And so it went…

In other words, even though I think the conference planners intended to begin an open conversation about the future of journalism that might go far beyond traditional boundaries, the format/content/speakers/topics suggested that we had to begin from the point of view of command and control. There were just too many clues to ignore, and those of us who welcome the disrupting influence of web and social media tools couldn’t help but ask WTF?

Though we know it brings noise, utter crap, falsehoods, snark and other messiness, many of us believe we that something closer to the “truth” and more trustworthy emerges at the end of a messy process that includes those things than what comes from information that is issued from a command and control system that has the voices of only a few. And I don’t think the powers that be get that yet.

Maybe I’m alone, but it feel like this explains part of the reason for the divide in the room.

10 responses

  1. Um, no, you are not alone. Now, see if they ask for feedback and then point them to this post. This is exactly the kind of list of issues they need to understand. You and I are old dogs who have learned new tricks, so they can too.

  2. Spot on! Yes, it was structured very much like a traditional old-school business. Power in hands of a few, direction given, feedback accepted in selected doses. The good news is that all THAT produced a huge discussion that is rapidly becoming a #NewNetwork.

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  4. I’m incredibly surprised and disappointed to hear that the keynoter used their opportunity to speak to fall back on name-calling and misinformation.

    Too bad. Were there opportunities to question this approach, or the accuracy of the keynoter?



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