Surly may not do my too cool for school Swedish waitress justice. She dispensed my morning coffee like a hand grenade— more throwing than pouring. Evidently she didn’t get the memo that we’re in a new age of customer service because before I could finish my food, she cleared my plate. And though I exclaimed, “I’m not done with my potatoes,” that plate was toast. (If this paragraph seems familiar, its because you read it first on FastCompany.com)
Unsettled, I couldn’t help but wonder if my grabby waitress was a blustery metaphor for the rapid-fire world of social media, especially Twitter. Every day thousands of morsels cross my Tweetdeck, many half-baked, some food for thought but none wholly satiating. It was with this mindset that I attended this week’s 140 Characters Conference, the veritable smorgasbord of Twitterville.
Curated by social mensch Jeff Pulver, this conference is unique in many ways but most notably for the fact that each of the 140 “characters” has only 10 minutes to tell their story. And when time is up, the theme song from Exodus blasts them off stage. Akin to a Spanish tapas bar, this approach limits the impact of any one dish, leaving you hungry for more of the good ones and grateful the bad ones got cut off.
A few of the tastier characters
Twitter superstar Ann Curry (okay she’s a TV star too), spiced up the morning with an impassioned plea for attendees to use the power of Twitter to do good. Seducing the crowd with a self-deprecating imitation of her mother’s halting English, Curry encouraged the audience to “dream the improbable” since she is living proof that these dreams can and will come true. I’ll take my potatoes with Curry any time.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker tweeted his way to the conference, alerting his 1-million-plus followers that he was stuck in Lincoln Tunnel traffic. Once he arrived, Booker’s straight talk about changing the way government works, including being more responsive to the individual, was refreshing but the gong went off long before anyone was ready.
Jeffrey Hayzlett, the former CMO of Kodak turned social media evangelist, took timeout from his book tour to introduce Gaby Zwaan, a Dutch artist whose career Hayzlett helped catapult via Twitter. Only a bit gabby, Zwaan let his tulip-filled paintings and street art tell his story, providing a quick feast for our eyes without overstaying his welcome.
No need for 5-hour energy drinks
Among the surprises, Ian Spector, a diminutive, self-described geek, shared his unlikely journey to fame by creating the bestselling Chuck Norris fact books after his tough tweets became popular. Providing a real-time taste of his wry sense of humor, Spector revealed that the indefatigable Norris actually sued him after the first book was published, a rich detail that left me energized and ready to kick Norris’s ass.
Mark Ecko provided the espresso by stimulating the post-lunch bunch to take action against corporal punishment. Explaining that paddling pupils was still legal in 20 states, Ecko told how he’d used Twitter and social media to change the law in one and how we could do the same in Texas. Within seconds, tweets targeting @govperry, who just needed to sign HB 539, poured out to #stopthepaddle.
Plenty of time for hugs
Most show organizers shake hands with their speakers. Not Jeff Pulver. He insists on hugs. Pulver explains that hugs are not only more hygienic but also express his desire to increase the warmth and sharing nature of his events. So every speaker got a hug, with the notable (and accidental?) exception of IRS representative, Jessica Orquina, whose desire to help troubled tax filers via Twitter seemed heartfelt.
Humanitarian Mark Horvath shared how social media fit into his personal campaign to help the homeless get off the streets. Working with the 140 Character community, Horvath raised enough to help Carey Fuller and AnnMarie Walsh gain housing, a story well-told on his HardlyNormal.com blog and on InvisiblePeople.tv. Fuller was at the conference, hugging all and tweeting her thanks.
Another hugger, Parisian Michelle Chmielewski, encouraged attendees to get up and share an “uncomfortably long hug” with a nearby stranger. Many did just that. Michelle, as it turns out, is a social star, recently gaining over 550,000 views with her charming “Learn French in One Word” video on YouTube. Her more recent “free hugs” video, shows Michelle putting hugs where her mouth is, on the streets of Paris!
Make time to slow it down
Lest you think the conference was all sizzle and no steak or that I’ve lost my way in this story, I will now come full circle. At the event, veteran journalist Dan Gillmor noted that while Twitter is terrific for “fast news, we also need slow news.” His appeal to be skeptical of all tweets and to take a breath before jumping to conclusions, had the allure of a well-aged wine to this particular reporter.
Ironically, the exit music harrumphed long before Gillmor or this audience member was ready. Just as he was explaining several egregious reporting errors via Twitter by normally reputable sources like NPR and Reuters, we had to move on to the next speaker. Alas, once again, my potatoes were taken prematurely, leaving me little time to digest Gillmor’s profound yet ironic message.
Final note: Before I dashed out of the conference to get lunch, I got a crash course from the founders of Webdoc, a tantalizing new web-based application that mashes up content into sharable, embeddable, essentially bite-sized HTML5 files. My first, somewhat half-baked Webdoc appears below (if it doesn’t show up click here.)