I’m probably not the right person to review the Cultural Conversations event held on Friday afternoon at The Round Foundry. Emma insisted I write a disclaimer, declaring my interest in the event. So, here goes me disclaiming . . . I thought the event was a great idea (Emma’s, not mine) and I volunteered to help out however I could. The extent of my assistance was thus: hauled two Ikea bags full of glassware from the office to the Joiners Bar; removed some bent and battered Heras fencing from the bar to the bike shed; informed Temple Works Security that the planned afternoon event had moved to The Round Foundry; wittered merrily all afternoon along with a bunch of really interesting people; shifted a couple of bottles of gin and washed the odd bowl back at Temple Works; failed to fix the signage to the railings (four sheets of A4; and it was windy, very, very windy!) avoided helping out with the raffle, citing general incompetence and all round practical hopelessness; devoured five of the marvelous Sunshine Bakery cakes, thus securing a new nickname as the notorious Phil(5Cakes)Kirby; and finally drank half my body weight in Vodka and cranberry juice. Obviously after that amount of vodka my contribution to the rest of the proceedings will have to be reconstructed from eye witness accounts. My own recollection has several large gaps and is mostly viewed through the bottom of a tumbler. Mainly I remember lots of jiggling ice cubes and half a strawberry. I never did manage to eat the strawberry.
Anyway, consider me fully disclaimed out and all my interests declared. Any success is entirely down to Emma (@culturevultures) who organised the whole day, assembling a stellar crew of volunteers to help out (great contributions from @MikeChitty the structure meister, @MonicaTailor the wordpress maven, & @RichardMichie the SEO guru) and arranging the lovely venue at last minute (and a big thanks to Sharon Dale the Round Foundry Centre Manager and her team for helping us out and being brilliantly efficient, and for instantly fulfilling every one of Mike’s increasingly odd requests! Cheers guys.) Emma also organised the evening’s jollifications over at Temple Works, buying all the cake and laying on lashings and lashings of Pimms. I didn’t manage to thank her enough on the night, so thanks Emma it was brilliant . . . and I will remember the IOU I put in the raffle.
So, what about the day itself? The idea really was exploratory, just to find what interest there was in Leeds for a loose support network of bloggers, tweeters, facebookers etc who were talking about similar stuff. Culture in general in its broadest definition. And blogging especially as blogging can be potentially the most inventive, interactive and involving social media expression, but also the most intensive and isolating. We all know people who start blogs with great intentions and a big burst of energy only to crash and burn within a month or two owing to lack of response and the feeling that the investment of energy, time and discipline isn’t worth the meager outcome. Emma and I talked a lot over the past few weeks how we could contribute to Leeds becoming a more nurturing and appreciative place for fledgling bloggers and she came up with the idea of “cultural conversations.” “Conversation” encapsulates what Culture Vultures is about; talking with a group friends about the things that amuse, delight, entertain and occasionally infuriate. A conversation isn’t a lecture and it’s not delivered from a pulpit to an audience assumed to be in the dark and seriously misguided. And good conversation is two way, it’s not just playing snap with opinions. The most boring conversations are between people who only connect when when you mimic their opinions, who are the type of people who say, “enough about me; what do you think about me?” Emma and I agreed that the best bloggers were part of a community, not just lone voices shouting ME ME ME, no matter how amusing that can be sometimes. Blogging is about saying how great somebody else is and being generous when someone else has done something marvelous. But it’s also about being honest. Emma calls it being a “critical” friend, and it’s about being mature enough to give as well as receive news you might not always want to hear. It’s the only way any of us improve though so it is an essential part of the conversation. Otherwise it’s just backslapping and toadyism. Very unhealthy stuff.
Anyway, there we were in The Round Foundry, Mike, Richard, Emma and I, early, expectant and a little apprehensive. Emma had a print off of people who’d signed up. I recognised a few names. Impressive list I thought. Sharon let us have the room at 11:30 and Mike started his makeover, tables to the side, chairs in a circle (well, oval as it’s a rectangular room) and lots of flip chart paper tacked to the walls. Mike was in his element so we left him to it, setting up the structure for the day. When Monica arrived the room looked ready and most of the attendees were milling around the coffee. A couple decided to nip out for a sandwich, a very sensible move, and I wish I’d thought of it as I got very hungry as the afternoon wore on. By half past twelve we were ready to roll and Emma began the formalities by inviting the four volunteers to stand and say a bit about themselves and what they could contribute to the day. Monica stood up and confidently started off the introductions, then it was my turn and I just sat and mumbled some silliness, and left it to Mike and Richard to bring it back to a more professional sounding presentation. There were probably thirty people in the room and Mike suggested we do a quick thirty second intro, who we were and why we were here, and that’s when it got interesting. I’m sure Emma will publish the list of attendees somewhere so I’ll not go into tedious detail, but the variety of backgrounds and stages of development was incredible; we had theatre people, opera types, public arts, literature, film, copywriters, museum curators, university coordinators, practising artists and even a homeopath! People who’d been blogging for years who were amongst the top ten tweeters in Leeds to people who hadn’t heard of WordPress and had only one tweet to their name. It promised to be a fascinating experience.
Mike soon got us thinking about practicalities. He’d mapped out a schedule on the wall and asked us to fill in the slots with topics we wanted to talk about. People grabbed sheets of A4 and scribbled in multicoloured Marker, SEO, WordPress, Twitter, Brand story, Personal v Brand . . . I wrote narrative as that’s supposed to be my forte and the reason I was there. Mike arranged the conversations and alloted them different spaces around the building, and we were off . . .
My group assembled in the corner of the conference room. I immediately alerted everyone to the fact that I wasn’t a leader in any sense and this was just a conversation, and we just talked. For three quarters of an hour. And I’m sure we could have gone on merrily all afternoon had Mike not interrupted us with an outstretched palm and a mouthed five more minutes. We talked about how we found it hard to develop tone of voice in our blogs, how we went about distinguishing personal opinions and feelings from our work persona, how we managed our anxieties about opening our professional process to unregulated public comment. Half the people in my group were novice bloggers and tweeters and were wanting advice from the more experienced people. The people who had more experience were equally wanting to question if the way they blogged/tweeted was the most effective, enjoyable and engaging way they could do it. What I found most encouraging was that everyone spoke and nobody seemed to feel they were just there to learn from the supposed experts. There was no back seat to retire to and just eavesdrop.
The rest of the afternoon went on much the same way. The next conversation I was involved with was about content planning. As I know absolutely nothing about this it seemed a good idea to find something out. Turns out though nobody in my group knew anything about the topic at all, so we had a chat about what we thought it meant till Mike turned up with his laptop and gave a practical demonstration of how he plans his blog posts. This was probably one of the best moments of the day, Mike demonstrating in live time how he uses Google Reader, how he integrates it into his WordPress dashboard, and how he uses RSS to enter and stimulate ongoing conversations. Everyone around the table thought they could use these tools to invigorate their own social media practice.
The last conversation of the day was about Twitter. Again a good mix of old hacks (sorry Monica, but you know what I mean) and complete beginners. Some of the questions that came up I couldn’t answer; I know bugger all about lists, never saw the point and probably never will. Lists are fine for shopping and enumerating the top ten electronic bands of the mid 1980’s but I don’t want to reduce my life to a rack of bullet points. I like twitter for it’s randomness and quirkiness. I don’t want just to talk to people who mirror my own opinions and share my personal worldview. It’s not meant to be so solemn. I love the fact that I can be talking to virtual wherewolves in Texas one minute and hookers in New Zealand the next, or I can share a coffee break with a designer in Rotterdam and a copywriter in Lisbon. This wouldn’t work for everyone and I think the point came across strongly that Twitter is a very personal too and don’t let anyone tell you there’s a right way and a wrong way.
One of the best things about conversations is that often you learn something about yourself that you hadn’t really thought about before. The most surprising conversation of the day for me was hearing myself expatiate at great length on my belief that not everyone should or could blog . . . when I went into the room I’m sure I consciously believed the exact opposite, but during a very lively discussion I came to a conclusion that quite frankly shocked me. I’m not a blogging democrat! I’m an outrageous, appalling, totally shameless snob! I never knew it, but I am. And if anyone would like to talk about it you know where to find me.
Just before we ended the day Mike asked us to finish with a few words about how we felt about how it had gone. He came up with a hashtag too, #cvsm, for people to tweet their experience. For me it was about forging that sense of collective identity and local responsibility, and meeting people who wanted to be part of an emerging and potentially lively and engaging network of bloggers and tweeters in and around Leeds. I met some fabulous people too and hope to see them all again on Twitter and comment and contribute to all their blogs. Thanks again to Emma for suggesting the idea and making it happen. When’s the next one and where can we find the twitter/facebook information? Would be great to circulate that.