Live At Blogworld and New Media Expo 2009

This article originally appeared in Popmatters.

Whether you were ready for it or not, Social and New Media changed our cultural landscape—online and offline—in 2009.

At the beginning of the year, experts speculated that social networking platforms and communities like Facebook and Twitter would impact our lives like never before, both sociologically and economically. Then, as the year rolled on, a long list of facts grew to support the impact we felt.

Facebook grew to over 350 million users (including ages 18 – 55 and higher), more companies spent money on social marketing budgets and an army of music artists became empowered. Moreover, as 2009 unfolded, many wondered if the social media buzz would build into something bigger or just fade away.

Skeptics questioned the longevity and possible negative psychological and sociological impact of new media and social networking on our culture, while social media enthusiasts championed the potential that social communities and platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and blogs—could have on marketing, the music industry and tribes creating groundswells pushing for positive change.

Skeptic or enthusiast, whether you see the growing influence of Social and New Media on our global culture as an ally or an enemy, you can’t deny the fact that it will continue to change the way we connect (or disconnect) with each other, build brands (consumer or personal) and have a say on whether or not the music industry lives or dies.

But what does the landscape look like for 2010? Will there be as many changes and surges forward as there were in 2009? Who led us in 2009 and who will continue to lead the way along Social and New Media’s pixelated path in 2010? And, more importantly, will you follow them or just block their friend request without a hint of guilt and hope that the revolution will stop being digitized?

Like you, I was looking for answers to those questions, so I headed right to the source. I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of the present and get a peek into the future. Over the course of four days I submersed myself in the world of social and new media at BlogWorld & New Media Expo in Las Vegas. I scoped out cool new social search tools, spoke with bloggers, listened to new media experts admonish their peers and heard music industry heads and outspoken artists talk about where they see things going in 2010.

BlogWorld Expo 2009
This year, conference founders Rick Calvert and Dave Cynkin merged two previously separate events into one large BlogWorld & New Media Expo, where over 3,000 attendees took in 150 + workshops, seminars and keynotes. It was also the most diverse gathering the conference had seen yet as bloggers (pros and hobbyists), social and new media influencers, news organizations (CNN, Current TV), brands/marketers (Johnson & Johnson, Ford Motor Company) music industry heads (Warner Music), ad agencies and vendors showcasing everything from social media & blog software to the latest affiliate & email marketing programs.

Let’s start by talking about blogs and quickly put everything in perspective.

It’s remarkable to think of blogging’s humble tech beginnings and quick evolution in just a few short years. In the grand scheme of the digital universe, blogs are a relatively new medium. And they’re constantly being redefined by their content, how we publish them and who reads them.

But do we really know the true impact of blogs on our culture and will blogs continue to be a part of our future?

State of the Blogosphere
During the keynote address, the world’s largest blog search engine and aggregator Technorati unveiled the results from its 2009 State of the Blogosphere report. For the last few years Technorati’s authority system has been one of the chief benchmarks for judging a blog’s influence through its authority system that ranks blogs according to how many other blogs link back to a blogger’s site.

The number one ranked blog is the Huffington Post and to be in the Technorati 100 or even the 500, is the Holy Grail for bloggers who want to leverage their rank for increased readership and influence. To get their report’s data, Technorati CEO Richard Jalichandra said they polled a wide group of bloggers across various niches.

And among other telling and affirming facts, Jalichandra said that blogging is thriving. The demographics of who’s writing and reading blogs is becoming clearer as the blogosphere matures and develops. And he said with pride and confidence that blogging has undoubtedly influenced mainstream media in style, delivery, frequency and reader interaction and expectation.

So how much and how often do the top bloggers blog? Jalichandra said a top tier of blogs produces 300 times more posts than those with a lower ranking and the top 500 ranked blogs produced 100 times more posts, which means Technorati’s system favors frequency and the more you blog the bigger chance you have at being a top ranked blogger.

When asked how Technorati separates its search and ranking data between one-person blogs and the bigger blog networks like Huffington Post—who has a team of bloggers creating content—Jalichandra said Technorati currently doesn’t have a system in place at the moment to separate the two, but they are aware of the difference and have taken that into account.

Being a blogger myself, I was surprised at what the report revealed about the pop culture and relational impact of blogging. It showed that most bloggers are not interested in celebs or politics and that only six percent of those polled said that their families suffered as a result of their commitment to blogging.

I balked at this because some of the most popular blogs in Technorati’s Top 100 are both political and celebrity-based. Moreover, from personal experience, I know that blogging is hard and is only for the truly committed. And if you have a blog that requires 24/7 frequency and breaking update posts, the likelihood that you’ll sacrifice offline relationships is even higher.

Ask any blogger and they’ll tell you (if they’re honest) that balancing online relationships with offline relationships like family, is a constant battle, and sacrifice is inevitable. So I think that percentage should be higher than six.

But admitting and facing the blogger time management truth is often taboo in the blogging and social media communities. So I guess I’m not that surprised the percentage is a low six percent, because rarely is anyone quick to point out or tweet about this pixelated pink elephant.

Blog Me the Money
Sure, passion is a blogging requirement. But things have changed. Bloggers are not doing this just for “fun” anymore. 2008-2009 saw the biggest increase of brands entering, or increasing, their presence in the blogosphere. And you better believe that the bloggers are ready to claim their piece of the revenue pie and think monetization.

According to Technorati’s report, more bloggers are looking to monetize and turn the blogs into revenue makers. Since 2008, display ads are up 40 percent from 28 percent, ad tags increased by 68 percent and 17 percent of bloggers say blogging is their primary income.

Although, tech blogs have been working with brands and writing about consumer products for some time, one of the biggest blogging stories of 2009 was the influence of the mommy blogger on brands and their consumer audience.

Rise of the Mommy Blogger in 2009
You could say that 2009 was the year that mommy bloggers fully realized their influence on the consumer market. If you’re new to the niche you might be wondering what is a “mommy” blogger?

Well, first, you should know that most of them don’t like the “mommy” tag. But once you get poor use of adjectives out of the way, you’ll see that the top mommy bloggers are passionate like all bloggers. They’re also savvy business women who are fully aware of their power to build strong communities, influence consumers and, if necessary, take a brand to its knees with one post.

Some mommy bloggers are former PR or marketing pros who have leveraged their biz savvy and adapted it to the blogosphere, while others have gained attention through hard work and gradually building a following by providing honest value to their readers. Some do so by honestly (sometimes ruthlessly) blogging about raising their children and struggling with home life, while others share valuable consumer tips for fellow moms or by reviewing their favorite brand of dish soap, clothing or home appliances.

Like other blog niches, mommy bloggers have their own larger networks, too. Top networks like Momdot.com, Momadvice.com and Momcentral.com bring together legions of readers and bloggers.

Then there are the more personal and one-woman blogs like The Bloggess fueled by the hilariously scathing rants of Jennifer Lawson, or Heather Hamilton’s more literary and equally entertaining outbursts on Dooce.

Networks or solo, mommy blogs are led by a committed queen blogger who understands her audience and knows how to transform her blogging into a community (or even a business) that can have a tremendous influence on a consumer brand’s reputation on or offline.

In 2009, after a few years of groundswelling, the mommy blogger community experienced a “coming into their own”. Brands saw their rise and influence as a golden opportunity to reach and interact with a growing market of consumers.

During the Mind of Moms—a mini summit within BlogWorld, a group of top mommy blogger influencers covered the basics—from PR to ethics—in an effort to educate brands and bloggers alike about the business of mommy blogging.

One hot topic was the new Federal Trade Commission’s disclosure policy, which goes into effect on December 1st. In October the FTC ruled that all blogs must have a clear disclosure statement informing readers of the sponsored nature of their posts. How and where the disclosure is made is left up to the blogger. But it’s better there or the blogger can face some hefty fines or even lawsuits.

Until this ruling, the FTC has remained out of the brand/blogger disclosure relationship for the most part. But with the rise of the mommy blogger in 2009, one of the main reasons the FTC stepped in was to protect the consumer from being swayed or deceived by a product review without knowing the relationship between the brand and the blogger.

It’s a controversial topic among all bloggers and the details still need to be worked out. But most bloggers agree the FTC ruling is long overdue, welcomed and will help create clearer guidelines as blogs and new media continue to influence the consumer buying process.

The Influencers: Social Media Marketing
During the BlogWorld’s Social Media Business Summit, workshops drew top influencers—Guy Kawaski, Jeremiah Owyang, Mari Smith, John Chow, Darren Rowse and Brian Clark, etc.—educated marketers, ad agencies and beginning bloggers on social and new media’s future and best practices.

But it was Chris Brogan’s keynote address that best summed up the state and future of social media. With the rhythm of a stand-up comedian dishing one liners mixed with profane humor and applicable social marketing wisdom, Brogan admonished the new media world using abridged highlights from his recent New York Times Best Selling book Trust Agents (2009) which he co-authored with Julian Smith.

Brogan encouraged peers and proselytes alike to use social media as a way to give their ideas handles, stop hoarding knowledge and start creating valuable alliances. “The playing stage needs to be over and we need to do more than just create or play silly games like Farmville,” Brogan said. “We need to start using social media tools to impart real change.” The “real change” he’s talking about can be seen in the work he’s done via his Technorati top 100-rated blog, Podcamps and company New Marketing Labs. As an early social and new media adopter and experimenter, he’s been educating and empowering marketers, peers and brands to use the social media platforms like blogs, Facebook and Twitter to improve their lives and businesses.

The often humble Brogan probably doesn’t like the “social media rock star” label some have given him. But nonetheless, from Ford to MTV, he’s one of the most sought after advisors when top consumer brands and businesses look for guidance on building trust and reputation with customers in the socialsphere.

What’s also made Brogan so popular is his desire for creating a community of collaboration on the web. He wants to provide practical solutions to marketing problems using social media tools. One of the constant themes running through Brogan’s message—and communicated in Trust Agents—is for brands, marketers and his peers to use social media platforms to build trust, which during his keynote, he said doesn’t come from aimlessly racking up Twitter followers or wasting time playing Farmville. Building trust comes when brands and social media marketers take advantage of the opportunity to be transparent and authentic with social media tools.

Though he’s a hard guy not to like, not everyone is a fan of Brogan. And he’s often at the center of debate. Last December, he caused a controversy among his peers about disclosure and sponsored conversations on blogs when he participated in a blogger outreach with Kmart. Brogan’s not the only social and new media thought leader leading the way as many other aforementioned social media experts advised brands and marketers at BlogWorld. But he will certainly continue to be a key player in pushing the conversation forward in 2010.

The Journalism Ice Age is here
You can’t talk about new media in 2010 without looking at the impact it has had on journalism this year. Several workshops and keynotes were dedicated to addressing the fact that we now get our latest news from a myriad of social sources like Twitter, Facebook page updates and blogs. Social Media might be at odds with traditional media but progress is being made. During the Death and Rebirth of Journalism panel—CCN’s Don Lemon, Current TV’s Joanna Drake Earl, expert radio host Hugh Hewitt, NYU journalism professor/blogger Jay Rosen—all agreed that “traditional media and new media will have to coexist”. Although, that’s a big step forward. The panel didn’t provide much of a clear or bold prediction on what that future symbiotic partnership will look like. They decided to let time answer that question.

But can we at least get a glimpse of the future of journalism? Heading into 2010, it looks like we’re at least headed in the right direction. And the panel also agreed on the fact that many bloggers link back to major new sites. Does that mean that news organizations and bloggers want to work together? It depends who you talk you. “They’re going to have to,” said Don Lemon as he answered the question and tweeted from his mobile phone. “It’s a no-brainer to include social media in their platform. Doing so allows journalists to be transparent, authentic. CNN encourages us to be everywhere. Sure, some people are being exploitive by social media, but I’m not. CCN asked me to come to Blogworld so I came because it’s where the future of news and social media conversations are happening.”

Another important and lingering question that was discussed but yet went unanswered was “where will the next generation of journalists come from”? Some on the panel said that bloggers might be the new journalists as the craft unfolds and new media develops.

Could a hybrid of traditional and citizen journalism be the future? You could look at the model of Al Gore’s San Francisco-based network Current TV. Its CEO Joanna Drake Earl spoke about how Current has been successful by mixing professional journalists telling stories not covered in mainstream media with unique viewer-created content. She said their approach seems to satisfy their audiences without sacrificing journalistic integrity.

The whole point of the panel was to discuss the fact that old journalism is dead and a new one is being born. But old or new, we still need journalists to report the truth. But if social media keeps giving more people the freedom to “make” their own news, how do we filter, find it and categorize it? What new tools and platforms are being created to help reader and journalist alike navigate the clutter?

New social, meme trackers and news media filtering tools
Will we have to fend for ourselves in the internet’s swarming and ever-increasing amount of overwhelming digital ephemera in 2010?

Besides conversation and discussion, BlogWorld also provided the opportunity to check out new applicable platform and search tools to help us navigate the myriad rivers of user-generated content, tweets and blog posts that will continue to come rushing at us.

You can search via Google for keywords or set up an Alert in a feed Reeder or maybe even a real-time search in Twitter. But still, as more of us join the digital conversation across the socialsphere, social search has become the growing trend and problem to solve.

Brands want to know who and what is talking about them. And news organizations need tools to filter all the streams of possible stories popping up, trending and developing on Twitter or blogs.

Many developers showcased their platforms at BlogWorld and I had the opportunity to speak with the CEOs of Thoora and Twingly, who with their social search and aggregate platforms seek to solve the content filtering conundrum for journalists, bloggers and readers.

On the main exhibit floor Thoora CEO Michael Lee popped open his laptop and took me through a test of Thoora, a real-time news discovery service, which was publically unveiled for the first time at BlogWorld. When I asked how Thoora will tear down the silos of social and traditional media, Lee says the platform empowers users by merging content streams into a manageable dashboard that is customizable. “We’re right in the middle of the transition where a blogger or even someone with a twitter account can break a news story. So Thoora organizes tweets, blogs posts and news articles to reflect the living and breathing nature of news. It brings together all the blog commentary, tweets and breaking news to give a more accurate and complete picture of a particular topic.

Lee says that most platforms tend to focus on the sources and Thoora indexes everything into one page so you can see everything that’s going on in real-time on that topic. “We rank everything by size of reaction. The audience and not just news editors can determine what gets pushed to the top. You can focus on many different topics and not just breaking news because you’ll be able to track developing stories since we index every blog, considering language and content. Lee aims to answer one of the content pitfalls of the interwebs. “Generally only five percent of the blogosphere is cross linked so you’re never able to find the most relevant topics.”

Thoora’s set up is to mainly focus on general story context and values the contribution of how the content adds to the overall story. As an example, he cites pro tennis player Serena Williams’s outburst story. When that story broke he says Thoora found a pro tennis player’s blog who knew the rules and provided very valuable content, which would have never been found because most platforms like Technorati index content by authority. “The real-time search takes into account all the different factors that go into news gathering and uses them to bring together the most complete and useful collection of content.”

Thoora appears to be a viable tool that will help journalists and readers in the long run, but we’ll have to see what role it’ll play this year as real-time social media continues to be a main source of news. As the beta version develops and more people use Thoora, we’ll have to see if it’s truly useful solution for journalists, bloggers and readers alike.

Taking a more user-generated and community approach to social meme tracking is Twingly, a service that enables social filtering in real-time search to help people easily track any topic, brand or person. Twingly CEO Martin Källström says his channel-based platform protects people from information overload and encourages the like-mind to create communities based on their channel content. “People can curate their own channel and invite others to filter out what’s important.”

Combining favorite qualities of social networking site Facebook and link sharing site Digg, Källström says Twingly cuts away all the noise giving people the opportunity to be their own channel “editor” which he hopes will create value centered around people enjoying the content each user curates. Twingly will launch in February 2010, so he’s showing me an exclusive beta version explaining that development began with “a preview application process” to limit growth. At the time of our chat in the BlogWorld conference hall, Twingly had 124 subscribers, 250 unique channels and 500 people waiting to create more channels—everything from music and news to tattoo and dog breeding.

It’s clear that Källström aims to put a personal touch and more democracy into social meme search and aggregation. He doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel but instead solve the noise and clutter problems created by Twitter and hopefully bring like-minded people together to build strong communities around specific and shared topics of interest. Twingly is designed to put context to the articles, aggregate them via an extensive global coverage and then let the user’s dashboard present memes visually as social proof of what’s most important to the community that user has created.

During the testing stages, Källström says users have asked for a channel directory to easily locate memes. And brands have expressed interest in using Twingly to track consumer and influencer conversations in a closed channel service. So as a possible future revenue stream or sponsorship model, he’s considering creating a B2B model where companies could sponsor channels. Social meme searchers and new journalist and content junkies appear to have some cool tools to work with. But what about the music industry? Does the future look bright for artist, labels and fans on the social horizon?

Big Music and Social Media: Who’s Killing Who?
Is social and new media killing or giving to life to the music industry? Do these mediums help album sales and give fans more intimate access to your favorite artists? Does the music industry see the social and new media as an ally or the enemy? There were a lot of questions to answer as a panel of music industry folk discussed how Social Media is Saving and Killing the Music Industry. On the panel was Steve Koskie, CEO of Lifestyle destination site Dip Dive, created by the Black Eyed Peas.

Though the panel didn’t make many specific predictions on what the future would look like for social media and the music industry, Koskie did speak his mind on micro-blogging and the dismal future of a fading social networking giant. “Twitter will come and go. In the end those kind of social media tools are really only a way to help tell the story of the artist and their music. Look at Myspace. It’s a wasteland that will soon dissolve. I believe in cycles and none of us really know when the next one will start.”

And what do the major labels think? Jeremy Holley, Vice President of Consumer & Interactive for Warner Brothers Records, said Warner Brothers is focusing on the “tangible”, meaning strong sales show that fans still want special vinyl releases or specially packaged CDs and other unique content. “We’re testing different portals by offering more VIP packages for concerts and releases and focusing on the premium bundling.”

Social media can’t give an artist what they don’t have. Either you got or you don’t. “You still need to have talent,” asserts Chief Xcel, DJ/producer for hip hop duo Blackalicious. “Social media or a slick YouTube video doesn’t make you an instant star. Today more than ever, you must know how to perform live because most artists today make their money through touring. Social media tools don’t make it any easier to perform live or sell albums; they just allow you to have a closer connection with your fans.”

Taking Chief Xcel’s thoughts one step further, rapper Jermaine Dupri called out the music business and his peers during the New Celebrity panel and BlogWorld Press conference. Speaking for a legion of other music artists that have been empowered by social media, Dupri boldly explained how he’s embraced social media platforms to thwart the big music business model and gain more control of his music and fan relationships. “Social media has shocked a lot of people in the music industry because over several years the industry has gotten lazy. And now they’re paying the price. I’m trying to get around the middle man. It’s not really any tougher than it was twenty years ago, necessarily. It’s the fact that the gatekeepers and the middle men don’t want to change.”

Cutting to the core of why most musicians and celebrities don’t fully embrace social media’s rigorous demands of constant updates and tweet and blog posts, a roar of cheers arose after Dupri said “Blogging is hard work and it’s about being involved. The music business got really lazy. And if you’re a lazy musician, then social media isn’t for you. Top musician bloggers in the industry don’t blog on the weekends because they think it’s their time off. That’s fine but that tells me that they don’t understand social media. I’m [at BlogWorld] to break new ground and encourage those guys to change their business.”

Dupri said the heart of his struggle has been with the control of the corporate suits. “They told me you can do it for less, and then we’re going to stop giving money. But right now [the corporate suits] don’t think [social media] works. They told me my YouTube numbers don’t affect my record sales. That’s just not true because I know that I can sell 30,000 [albums] in 30 minutes because of the following I have on Twitter and YouTube. For the fan it’s all about the immediacy and authenticity. And I can give them that with social media tools.”

Dupri’s comments stuck with me as I left BlogWorld. True social media has given artists more control over their music and the relationship with their fans. Artists like Matisyahu, John Mayer, ?uest Love, Taylor Swift, etc. have all taken to tweeting as a way to be more available and transparent with fans. But do fans feels more connected? And does the connection make the music better? Is the listening experience on record and during concerts more personal? If Dupri, the social media experts, and the largest BlogWorld Expo attendance ever are any indication of what’s in store for 2010, then the next challenge for us is to strengthen the communities we’ve created in 2009 and stop “playing around” as Brogan commands.

What does not playing around mean to me? It means using social media to strengthen my existing relationships, discover and network with like-minded but geographically distant peers/colleagues, and embark on daily pixilated self-expression. If you haven’t picked up on the theme yet, I’ll say it again. We all use social media for different reasons. Brands track reputation and sentiment, some lurk, some network, and others do a mix of everything. The sheer fact that social media plays to basic human needs tells me that it was never a fad to begin with. And going into 2010, social and new media will continue to mirror, enhance and give greater opportunities to those who want to connect, get or be affirmed and self-express.

No, I’m not going to make any 2010 predictions (besides the Cubs winning the World Series). But I’ll share a few closing nuggets that you can tweet, share or blog about. Skeptic or enthusiast, I hope you discover new social media tools to make your communities more authentic, your businesses more transparent and your inner-circle relationships more intimate. For those of you using social and new media sociologically, I hope you see social media as a digital mirror reflecting the developing parts of human behavior and follow your curiosity to new revelations.

Expect it. In 2010, there will be lurkers, interacters, creators, enthusiasts and selfish narcissistic dweebs like there have always been on the interwebs. But as I mentioned earlier, the challenge will be clearing out the clutter and noise, so we can get to the meaningful content and build the relationships that matter to us the most.

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