Welcome to my blog.

Events in the connected city (part three): add ingredients and mix.

Sometimes, when I'm delivering a lecture, I start a sentence knowing that I've no idea how I'll finish it.  I'd love to say this is game my tricksy mind plays with my weary intellect, though I suspect the truth is somewhat less constructive: a compulsion to carry on speaking and hope the audience doesn't spot the cracks.  It's also a little masochistic I guess.

And so it is that I present a blog post that I haven't planned, can't guarantee a suitable conclusion or any sort of plot.  What I do have is lots of material to work with, which I'll try to link to this idea of events, tech and the urban environment.

First and foremost, Rohan Gunatillake (he of the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab) and his July 2010 presentation on 'Why the festivals are like the web' (video after the jump).  In twenty lucid minutes, Rohan's talk brings together many of the themes I've been looking at on this blog.  I'd urge you to have a look, please do: I feel churlish even considering an appraisal of his work, but in the interests of discussing and archiving my contribution to the topic here goes...

- Technology is shown to have emphasised the importance of the live experience, witness the relative demise of the recorded music business model in the face of a thousand ways to share files and short-circuit the industry.
- Festivals come into their own in times of austerity, such as 1947 (and 2010).  What links here to a Roman vision of bread and circuses to keep the masses happy, or at least docile?
- The presentation poses the question 'what is a festival?' and challenges those in the industry to answer it as well as one looking in from the outside; a case of trying to see the forest and the trees.  Rohan's answers include a need for content; the creation of a bounded space (by time and/or location); the use of social spaces, where attendees can contribute; with the acceptance also of a market place.

And so the stage is set for three more points to drive home the idea of Edinburgh and the web...

- Fringe as unconference: a democratic, participant-driven opportunity for one and all to contribute.  Yet an opportunity which exists because of structures which enable and facilitate it.  Take note of 1947, where a festival space was created in Edinburgh by the EIF and the city fathers, to which others saw an opportunity and a motivation to get involved - democratic and open access.  This reflects the same themes I explored in my undergrad dissertation (hosted on this site), with particular attention paid to Scottish national identity.  Rohan references What Works (2010) by Hamish McRae of The Independent and his identification of three (always three?) key contributors to this success: a willingness to listen to others; an openness about motivations and methods; plus a fluid relationship between top-down and bottom-up contributions to the overall picture.  Thus is it for Edinburgh, and likewise the web - encouraging contributions, within a structure that is sufficiently clearly defined to open up those social spaces where we may have our say.  The Fringe works so well because it has a festival ('official'?) to react to and grate against - the two represent discrete yet complementary aspects of our culture.

- Edinburgh and web: there's so much going on, how can you navigate it all?  How to separate the exceptional from the dross, or the irrelevant from the vital?  (Bearing in mind that for the person sat on the next bar stool your opinion of what's good may be just a little wacky...)  For the web we have a multitude of tools at our disposal, from Google to recommendation sites - but what works in a festival environment where word of mouth is so powerful?  Do we seek to replicate the conversation with a stranger in the queue ('seen anything good?'), or can we do more with the technology available to us?  Step forward the Innovation Lab of course, with an important contribution to make here.

- Collaborate or fade: Festivals Edinburgh was lauded as a collaborative model of great relevance and importance by Rohan (who is also employed by them).  The web encourages people to work together, despite some needing to be convinced.  I'd suggest that live blogging of major events is an example of this, pulling together links, contributions, quotations and insight from across a broad spectrum of sources to create a more valuable whole.  Likewise FE, who presents its twelve members (large and small) with a space in which to discuss their ambitions (often shared) and explore what they mean by a 'digital festival' and the opportunities it may open up.

So you see, you could just have watched the video and learnt more in a shorter time than you've spent reading this.  So some surface analysis: how to protect serendipity in these twin environments?  It is common to hear that web draws us together with others who think the same, share our passions, will rarely criticise our motivations and thus validate our views.  Real life isn't always like that, but to what extent is the web real life?  ...to what extent is a festival real life?  Do the conditions created by both these environments lead inexorably towards a blinkered, relatively safe world view?

The world wide web and Edinburgh's summer festivals are so vast in scale and scope that they will happily accommodate a thousand different experiences.  Those who seek Shakespeare, vice, tradition, experimentation, or mass hero-worship can all find it in spades.  Even those seeking isolation and private reflection will be in good company - if that's not too twisted a logic.  In Edinburgh's case I'd say this is as a result of the underlying acceptance that everyone is entitled to the festival of their choosing, which (as with the founding of the web) is a product of the values which gained credence and validity at its founding.  The extent to which myths place their part in the founding story of the festivals is almost beyond human memory, so we must work with the evidence we have available to us.  Whatever, we now have a beast to contend with, which often people cope with by shutting off huge swathes without a second thought: simply by neglecting to pick up the Book Festival programme you're denying yourself the treasures within.  Likewise the UK's most popular newspaper website (www.dailymail.co.uk) is studiously ignored by huge sections of the nation's connected population.  Serendipity calls into mind luck, accidental discoveries, flukes and happy coincidences: what can be done to promote this phenomenon against the tyranny of choice?

Tyranny of choice, as discussed by Mail Online and Scientific American - your choice.

This discussion would not apply if we weren't discussing an urban environment, I'm sure of it.  Sure, there are large scale festivals in rural settings, bounded by time and space that offer a huge range of choice, but they're not the world in which most of the visitors live.  We are an urban culture and it is through the festivalisation of our urban spaces that we can remake them, reimagine them and reassess them.  Festivals shake us out of our daily routines - a change is as good as a break.  While festivalcities may share many of the benefits and possibilities of the web, they risk the same pitfalls - we are complacent, lazy and lack the imagination/guts/knowledge to break out of our comfort zones.  Perhaps bringing the two together is our pathway to salvation; I shall be looking to Rohan to provide some of the answers.

Back to Richards and Palmer and their Eventful Cities text.  They include a short discussion on virtual festivals, making reference to those in Second Life which have in the past run parallel to the 'real' experience - enabling the viewing of streamed video content to virtual spaces.  With added capital letters they also list Virtual Festivals (www.virtualfestivals.com):

Virtual Festivals is a very special creative endeavour to connect up the festival scene, and everyone who is a part of it, in a big collective embrace of positive energy, passion and collaboration.

Our mission with VF has always been to promote open information across the festival landscape and empower fans to influence the shape of the festival future.

And a thorough job they seem to be doing - the site has plenty of content, although a cursory look through just now surely hasn't done it justice.

It's good that such topics have reached the mainstream textbooks, although I think academia still has a lot of catching up to do with the industry.

One contributor rarely behind the times is Paul Carr - formerly of the UK technology media, now in America as a writer for TechCrunch.  His recent article exploring the power of social media to truly change the world get to the heart of my topic - he's looking at relationships.  Choice quotations (not always of Carr's writing):

“The relationships start off weak – a retweet, @ reply, or blog comment – but often strengthen through further discussions and eventually become new friendships and business relationships.”  Precisely. The retweets, replies and comments started off as inherently weak connections but some of them have since led to actual discussions and friendships and business relationships.

On the contrary, like most of the relationships Dixon is describing, it [dating a flight attendant] didn’t become meaningful until we took it away from social media; first to text messaging, then phone calls, then an actual real-world date. The further away from Twitter the relationship got, the more meaningful it was. It’s the real world element that gave it value – something that, in their rush to flag-wave for technology, too many social media fanatics fail to realise.

Hence the need for the real world, real life experiences.  Social media is therefore a tool in these scenarios, or a collection of tools, to start the ball rolling, bridge building and other physical metaphors.  The live experience has primacy and is valued as such.

Is this a backlash?  A wake-up call?

[Ignorance of the value of the 'real world element'] leads to the second, and more dangerous, attitude those same fanatics share: a confusion between Means and End; the idea that saying something is the same as doing something.
This could be a superficial, tokenistic gesture to change one's Twitter avatar, or it could a confusion between the virtual festival and the real deal.  A tension exists whereby festival producers recognise the opportunities which lie tantalisingly within their grasp thanks to advances in technology, if only they could recognise them and somehow make sure they fit with their core business of creating that live experience.  On limited resources there's a tendency to move slowly, yet a fear that this risks being left behind.

What Rohan had to say is relevant here, for it may not be up to those festival organisers to do the hard work, merely to create the space in which others can contribute: festivals of Edinburgh's sort abhor a vacuum - there are too many people and organisations keen to contribute and help shape these institutions, fuelled in many cases by a sense of ownership that only comes with time and acceptance.  It's a sense of ownership born of the real world element which Carr recognises.

Three examples of festival/event opportunities being exploited through technology:

Think up, design, create and market a new tech idea in 48 hours.  Easy.  As attempted in Edinburgh in early November 2010, within the walls of the University of Edinburgh Business School.  Once again therefore an institution provides the space in which this creative and technical thinking can take place, relying on the close cooperation and rapid development facilitated by the real world event.

The plan, as outlined back in July 2010, is to use three carriages on a Virgin train to bring tech companies together with those who might fund, use, work for and love their ideas.  The train would travel from London to Edinburgh and back, with people getting on and off as it goes.  This will only work thanks to the critical mass that can be generated in the different cities along the route - it's a case of taking this a step further and linking the cities together.

Lanyrd is 'the social conference directory', helping users to 'get more out of conferences'.  For a potted introduction (and yet another link to The Guardian, so much for serendipity) see here.  The site (and its honeymooning founders) are using the links people have already formed through Twitter to open up a world of relevant conferences and events, which can lead to the hosting of slides, venue information and so on.  I'm about to sign in for the first time...  Well that was painless - a couple of clicks and I'm suddenly aware of many new conferences and events that might appeal, all through the power of the social network.  And yet it's a tool - a means to the greater end of attending, experiencing, bonding with those like me and bridging to those who may not be.

So there's a blog post which didn't have much direction to start with - hopefully the joy was in the journey and the value to come in the future from this investment in time and consideration.

A final conclusion...?  If the festival city is like the web it provides us with a wealth of experience on which to draw so that our understanding of one may inform our ambitions in the other.  The connections we make in either environment are real, but their full potential often lies hidden, latent, undiscovered until given a chance to develop.  The challenge is to create those opportunities such that people may invest their time and resources to build up social capital and see it spent on transformative projects, cultural expressions and effective conferences.  The spaces in which this may take place may be virtual or real, but they are social, they are vital, and they are created thanks to the connected city.

Please come to my seminar! Monday 29 November.

The RSA: membership organisations; Big Society; ...events?