Social Media: What Edmonton Transit (ETS) could learn from TransLink

I think the South Coast BC Transportation Authority, or TransLink, is one of the most web-savvy transit organizations in Canada. Through blog posts, videos, meetups, and more, TransLink is doing a great job of fostering a community of people interested in transit. I think Edmonton Transit (ETS) could learn a lot from them!

The Buzzer blog

The Buzzer is a free publication found on all TransLink vehicles (our equivalent is In Transit) and The Buzzer blog is its companion. The blog is described as a “frank, fun, and ongoing conversation about TransLink and its work.” Every time I read it, I find myself wishing that ETS had something similar! Here’s what I love about the blog:

  • It is updated regularly – almost a post per day!
  • They have comments enabled – and they participate in them!
  • They post about a variety of topics, not just announcements and service updates
  • There are clearly defined Participation Guidelines

Most importantly, the blog is written with a human voice. It’s interesting and easy to read.

What ETS could learn: The easiest, most effective way to get involved is to start a friendly, regularly updated blog. It forms the foundation of TransLink’s social media efforts, and could perform the same role for ETS. This should be priority #1!

TransLinkInfo on YouTube

Video is time-consuming both to produce and to consume, so while it shouldn’t be the primary form of communication there are times when video is handy. TransLink gets this. They primarily post short updates and announcements on their YouTube channel. Videos range from about 30 seconds to 5 minutes. I think it could be a good vehicle for “behind-the-scenes” kinds of stories as well.

What ETS could learn: Pick the right tool for the job. There’s more to the web than just text, so venture into other forms of media too!

TransLink on Twitter

There are a few TransLink accounts on Twitter: @thebuzzer, @KenHardie, @2010Transit, and @TransLink. I think the 2010 account will get more interesting as the Olympics near, and The Buzzer account could probably be used for more than just broadcasting, but they are on Twitter and are evaluating how to use it better (they recently polled the community to see if they wanted Twitter service alerts). It’s pretty cool that Ken Hardie, Director of Communications at TransLink, is an active user.

What ETS could learn: Twitter is growing incredibly quickly and is becoming an increasingly important platform for news and connections. TransLink is guessing (I think correctly) that Twitter will be a key communications tool for the 2010 Olympics, and they’re getting prepared now. ETS would be wise to make use of Twitter on a regular basis, and especially during Edmonton’s major events.

I Love Transit Week & The Buzzer Meetup

TransLink celebrated I Love Transit Week on its blog from February 23rd to 27th. I like their introduction to the event:

Why? Because while there are things we don’t like about transit, I know there are many things that we do like about the system. And there just hasn’t been an official opportunity to celebrate what we like – until now!

That could definitely apply to something similar here in Edmonton. We always hear people complain, but there are lots of things to like as well. TransLink did a good job of keeping the blog updated with I Love Transit Week content.

The other cool thing they did that week, was the meetup. They hosted the gathering at a local cafe, and brought transit-related swag to give away. Face-to-face conversations are always best, so the meetup was a great (and obvious) idea.

What ETS could learn: The annual Community Conference is a formal, one-way conversation – ETS speaking to a select few. Meetups are more informal, and are two-way. They allow the community to put human faces to the organization. Plus they can be a ton of fun!

Final Thoughts

I don’t mean to suggest that TransLink is perfect, because they’re not. And to be fair, ETS acknowledges that it has a lot of work to do in the area of community engagement. Like many other organizations they are new to social media, and are going to have to learn quickly.

Conversations about the state of transit in Edmonton are happening, but ETS isn’t yet participating. The sooner they get involved, the better off they’ll be. Fortunately for ETS, they don’t have to start from scratch. Others like TransLink are already leading the way!

Northern Voice 2009: Passionately Local

Of all the sessions at Northern Voice 2009, I was perhaps most looking forward to the one presented by Briana Tomkinson of Tenth to the Fraser titled Passionately local: blogging about your own backyard. As someone who is definitely passionate about my hometown, I was really curious to learn about the experiences of others.

Tenth to the Fraser is a hyperlocal blog focused on New Westminster, a city in the Vancouver area. Briana talked about some of the motivations behind the site, some of the challenges, and some of the rewards.

Here are some notes I took from Briana’s slides:

  • The Greek Chorus of New West
    • Help the ‘audience’ follow the performance
    • Comment on themes
    • React to the drama
    • Provide insight
  • Passion for community
    • A desire to dig in to a place
    • An itch to uncover more
    • A calling to share the results
  • Everyone blogs from a place. The placeblogger blogs about a place.
  • Hyperlocal made interesting
    • Reveal the character of a place
    • Represent diverse perspectives
    • Keep focus narrow
    • Balanced mix of: aggregating local information, publishing original content, relationship-building
  • Finding your nice within the media ecosystem
    • Befriend the local media
    • Extend traditional news coverage
    • Reveal opinions and perspectives that are missed in mainstream coverage
    • Geek out: food, schools, politics, shopping
  • The Rewards
    • Pride of place
    • Local fame
    • Community
    • Knowledge
    • Giving back
  • Be the change you seek in your community

I really liked Briana’s talk, even though the end was a bit rushed as everyone started asking questions and she ran out of time! There were definitely moments when I thought “I know exactly what she means” and others when I thought “that wouldn’t work in Edmonton”.

With a population of nearly 60,000, New Westminster is about 13 times smaller than the City of Edmonton, and almost 20 times smaller than the Edmonton metro area. So while a single, focused blog in New Westminster probably would work very well, I don’t think it would fly in Edmonton. There’s just too much to write about for a single blog. I think, more than ever, that aggregation is the way to go for a city of Edmonton’s size.

There are some similarities, however. Tenth to the Fraser has started the #NewWest hashtag on Twitter, similar to our beloved #yeg. They seem to write a lot about politics, which is perhaps the most popular topic here too. And they have a relatively small, but rapidly growing online community.

I think there are lots of things that hyperlocal bloggers can learn from Tenth to the Fraser. Check it out, and let me know what you think. The first thing you’ll notice is that the site is free of any advertising. Briana and her team do it because they love their city, not because they’re in it for the money. We could use more blogs like Tenth to the Fraser!

Northern Voice speakers are primarily from Vancouver and use Twitter

logo by basco5 If you visit the Twitter page for Northern Voice, the one line bio says “Canada’s social media and blogging conference” (isn’t the blogging bit redundant?). The website isn’t quite as direct, but the impression you’re left with is the same: it’s a Canada-wide event. A few days ago they announced the schedule for Saturday, the “conference” part. I took a look at it today and was struck by how many of the speakers are located in Vancouver! Here’s the list, with speaker names linked to their Twitter profiles where available:

Kris Krug – Vancouver
Lauren Wood – Vancouver
Nora Young – Toronto
Rob Cottingham – Vancouver
Stewart Butterfield – San Francisco
Steve Pratt – Vancouver
Nate Elliott – Vancouver
Tod Maffin – Vancouver
Isabella Mori – Vancouver
Airdrie Miller – Vancouver
Briana Tomkinson – Vancouver
Rebecca Bollwitt – Vancouver
Linda Bustos – Vancouver
Jenn Lowther – Vancouver
Nadia Nascimento – Vancouver
Monica Hamburg – Vancouver
Kim Adamson-Sharpe – ?
Hilary Genders – Vancouver
Tim Bray – Vancouver
Robert Scales – Vancouver
Susannah Gardner – Vancouver
Barbara Ganley – Vermont?
Laura Blankenship – Pennsylvania
Nancy White – Seattle
Darren Barefoot – Vancouver
Alfred Hermida – Vancouver
David Eaves – Vancouver
Alan Levine – Arizona
Dave Johnson – Vancouver
Kate Trgovac – Vancouver
Rosemary Rowe – Vancouver?
Dave Olson – Vancouver
Bev Davies – Vancouver
Irwin Oostindie – Vancouver

This list may be inaccurate or incomplete – the NV site lacks bios and abstracts, has one “TBA” slot, and doesn’t make it clear where everyone is from so I did the best I could to look it up. If you spot an error let me know and I’ll correct it.

Canada’s social media and blogging conference? More like Vancouver’s.

A few final remarks: I fully appreciate that this is a community event and that speakers’ expenses are not covered, so it makes sense to have more locals. I noted the Vancouver-specific nature of the conference last year. I submitted a speaking proposal and was turned down for Saturday, but will be leading a session on Friday (hopefully the schedule for that goes up soon).

Thoughts on Northern Voice’s popularity problem

image by bascoYesterday, Darren wrote about Northern Voice’s “popularity problem”. It’s a nice problem to have! This year’s conference sold out in just three days, leading Darren to speculate that individuals who aren’t “in the know” probably missed out on registering. I think he’s right. I also agree that part of the problem is that NV only happens once a year. I don’t think hosting Fall and Spring editions of the event is going to solve the problem though. The real issue is that NV has always tried to cater to two different audiences across an enormous country – techies and noobies from eastern and western Canada – and perhaps that just isn’t realistic anymore. If there are going to be multiple NV events in a year, I think they need to be distinguished by target audience and perhaps by location.

I wrote a post-mortem for last year’s event which was actually rather negative. I think the main thing that keeps me coming back despite the problems is that I fall into the techie audience, and NV is basically the one opportunity each year where techies from across the country (or at least the western part of it) can get together in person relatively easily and inexpensively to interact with one another (other events, such as Mesh, cost about $500 not including travel expenses). For me, that’s the real value of NV.

What would the two events I’m talking about look like? Perhaps Northern Voice for the noobies, and BarCampCanada for the techies. And recognizing that our country is massive, we probably need eastern and western versions of each of those events. An idea that was floated back when Northern Voice was getting started was that it could travel around the country from year-to-year, so we might have “Northern Voice: YVR” one year and “Northern Voice: YEG” another. Obviously that didn’t happen, because it’s just too difficult to manage. I think “Northern Voice: West” and “Northern Voice: East” would be sufficient. Same goes for BarCampCanada, which has had its date pushed back numerous times for precisely the same reason.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should completely segregate techies and noobies, because we’d lose out on the opportunity to learn from one another if we did that. All I’m suggesting is that Northern Voice could be targeted at noobies and BarCampCanada could be targeted at techies. That would help solve the problem of having everyone try to register for the same event immediately. Some techies would go for NV and some noobies would go for BarCampCanada, sure, but I think there would be less issues with this than with Spring and Fall events targeted at everyone.

In case you’re wondering why I’m calling it BarCampCanada, it’s because I’ve always thought that NV got it backwards when they applied the “unconference” style to the Friday meant for noobies (this year seems to be different thankfully). And since most major Canadian cities already have fairly well-established BarCamps (that tend to be more for the techies than for the noobies), why not get them to help organize larger east and west events?

Anyway, as I said, it’s a nice problem to have. Those are my armchair thoughts on the situation. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at Northern Voice 2009 – both techies and noobies!

Registered for Northern Voice 2009

Early this morning I registered myself and Megan for Northern Voice 2009, taking place in Vancouver on February 20th and 21st. As you may recall, I submitted a speaking proposal back in December. Unfortunately, my submission wasn’t one of the 18 selected, but that’s okay. I’m glad to hear that the organizing committee received over 100 proposals as it suggests to me that the conference will once again have high quality content this year. Thanks to the committee for considering me and undertaking the nearly impossible task of narrowing that list down!

There are only 300 tickets available for the conference and as of earlier today, they were 75% sold out. If you haven’t already done so, you had better head on over to the registration site and book your spot! Keep an eye on their blog and Twitter account for updates. I suspect they’ll once again have a waiting list, but you don’t want to be on it.

Hopefully they announce the schedule soon – I’m keen to see who’s speaking!

You can read my previous posts related to Northern Voice here. You can also look at my photos from 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Are you going to NV2009? Let me know!

How do you define mainstream?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the word “mainstream” and what it means. Princeton’s WordNet defines mainstream as “the prevailing current of thought” while Merriam-Webster defines mainstream as “a prevailing current or direction of activity or influence”. I think many people have a different definition however, something more akin to the one at UrbanDictionary:

Mainstream is what’s the new trend. When one "style" gets old, a new one is reborn; a mainstream person is someone who jumps from trend to trend so that they fit in with the rest of the crowd.

That definition has 514 positive votes and only 51 negative votes. There are a few others there too, but that one is the most popular. The definition at Wiktionary is similar.

Two recent articles got me thinking about this. On October 27th, the Wall Street Journal said that Twitter is going mainstream:

When the service first appeared a couple of years ago, its appeal seemed largely limited to narcissists who wanted to let everybody know what they were doing in real time. But, like blogs and social-networking sites, Twitter is starting to cross into the mainstream, as a wide range of people find interesting uses for the brief notes.

Is the WSJ right? Has Twitter crossed into the mainstream? I think that depends on which definition you use. Based on the one in the dictionary, I’d say they’re wrong.

The second article was from The Economist. They say blogging is mainstream now too:

Blogging has entered the mainstream, which—as with every new medium in history—looks to its pioneers suspiciously like death.

Hold on a sec – blogging has only just entered the mainstream? If that’s true, how can Twitter possibly be considered mainstream? Seems the “mainstream” media have different definitions for the word too!

Maybe everyone has a different definition for the word? I think it all depends on what your litmus test is. For instance:

  • Has Twitter been mentioned on TV and in the newspaper? Yes, it’s mainstream.
  • Does anyone make money using Twitter? Yes, it’s mainstream.
  • Do my parents use Twitter regularly? No, it’s not mainstream.
  • Do all of my friends use Twitter? No, it’s not mainstream.
  • Will a random person on the street know what Twitter is? No, it’s not mainstream.

I think that’s pretty close to what my litmus test is. Replace “Twitter” with “Google” or “Facebook” and all of the answers are yes.

What’s your test? How do you define mainstream?

Blogging killed by Twitter? I don’t think so

I’ll give Paul Boutin credit for writing some seriously good link bait, but that’s all his recent essay for Wired is worth. Paul argues that we don’t need blogs anymore thanks to Twitter (and for good measure he mentions Facebook and Flickr too). He advises anyone thinking about starting a blog to think twice, and anyone who already writes one to pull the plug:

The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.

I guess Paul is a “glass-half-empty” kind of guy.

Of course it’s difficult to get noticed in the blogosphere – there are so many blogs out there! Of course something you write is going to attract comment trolls – you can’t please everyone! Of course blogging takes more time and effort than Twitter – but that’s because you’re writing so much more!

But none of that is reason enough to give up on blogging.

Obviously I’m a big fan of Twitter, and I do spend quite a lot of time posting there, but I don’t think I could replace my blog with it. I find the two are complementary – quick comments and updates go on Twitter, longer thoughts go on my blog. That system seems to work well for me.

Same goes for the consumption side of things. Tweets are searchable instantly, true, but good luck following a thread. Short conversations between a couple of people are okay, but anything more and you’ve got problems. Blogs don’t have this problem of course, thanks to comments and trackbacks. And let’s be honest, Google indexes blogs fairly quickly anyway.

Paul says:

Twitter — which limits each text-only post to 140 characters — is to 2008 what the blogosphere was to 2004.

I’d agree with that. Twitter has lots of buzz right now, that’s undeniable. Just as the election in 2004 helped blogs increase in popularity, the current election is giving a boost to Twitter. What I don’t agree with is the notion that Twitter’s success sounds the death knell for blogs.

I think blogs remain incredibly valuable and will be with us for a long time to come.

Scared of social media? Follow Batman's lead

batman One of my favorite movies is Batman Begins. Near the beginning of the film is a scene in which a young Bruce Wayne goes to see crime boss Carmine Falcone. As their conversation comes to a close, Falcone says:

This is a world you’ll never understand. And you always fear what you don’t understand.

I love this quote and often think of it when I come across an organization that seems to have trouble with social media (or citizen journalism, if you prefer). Pushback against social media, whether it’s against blogging, social networking, photography, Twitter, or something else, is almost always the result of fear caused by lack of understanding. Social media is a disruptive force, so if you don’t understand how it can be beneficial, it’s not surprising that it may at first seem scary.

The other reason I love this quote is that Falcone is wrong, of course – Bruce Wayne does eventually come to understand the crime world. It wasn’t easy, and it caused him to question himself and the way he perceived the world, but he became a better person because of it – he became Batman.

Getting over your fear of social media is simple:

  1. Admit that you don’t understand social media.
  2. Set out to rectify that.

In short, just follow Batman’s lead.

The natural result of completing those two steps is that you’ll be able to embrace social media and benefit from it.

Here are a couple of examples where local organizations didn’t follow Batman’s lead. Instead, they pushed back.

Century Hospitality’s Hundred: Everyone is a reviewer!

hundred bar kitchen Last Thursday, Sharon and I went to Edmonton’s new resto-pub downtown, called Hundred. It’s the latest member of the Century Hospitality family. As you may know, Sharon and I have been to dozens and dozens of restaurants in the last few years, and we’ve taken pictures of and reviewed all of them. So I was definitely surprised to find myself being questioned about taking photos at Hundred.

We follow a few simple guidelines when photographing our restaurant experience. First, we try to get pictures of both our dishes and the interior of the restaurant (sometimes the exterior too). Second, we do our best to avoid disrupting other guests – that’s why we never use the flash. We bought little tripods and have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get decent photos in low-light areas.

We were following both of these rules at Hundred when I was approached by the manager, Dean. He asked if he could help me, and I said no, just taking some photos. He then told me that I couldn’t just take photos without getting permission first. When I asked him why, he stumbled a bit and then said he had no way of knowing whether I was from a competitor or not. He asked what the photos were for, and I said a review on a blog. That seemed to confuse him, and he asked again. I gave him the URL for Sharon’s blog, and sensing that it wasn’t going anywhere, asked him for a card and promised to send him the link.

I think that Dean simply felt that he had lost control somehow. When he learned that I wasn’t from the Journal, Vue Weekly or another conventional publication, he immediately got defensive about my activity. That suggests to me a lack of understanding about social media. For an organization that tries so hard to be hip and trendy, I find this a bit disappointing.

Dean – what you need to remember is that it’s not just the mainstream press that will be talking about your restaurant. Real people will have conversations about it too. Social media enables these conversations to be written down and shared, and that can be scary at first. The correct response is not to try and prevent them from happening, but to learn about social media and figure out how you can participate. Learn how to track mentions of your restaurant online, and comment on reviews and photos when you find them. I’ll help you get started – here is Sharon’s review, and here are my photos.

The Edmonton Oilers: I’m blogging this!

edmonton oilers logoDave Berry is an editor at Vue Weekly, and was also one of the main contributors to the Covered In Oil blog. That makes him one of the unique few that have a foot in both the old and new media worlds. On Sunday, October 12th when the Oilers played the Avalanche, Dave was in the press box and with some time on his hands, decided to liveblog the game. He was approached by the Oilers’ press guy, and was told that blogging wasn’t an acceptable use of the press pass. He was told to stop and delete the post, and that if he didn’t he’d be ejected from the building.

You can read Dave’s account here. And via Battle of Alberta, here’s a cached version of the post Dave was writing.

Maybe Dave got in trouble because of his witty writing, or maybe he got in trouble because he failed to read the fine print on his press pass, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Oilers press team wasted an opportunity to improve, an opportunity to understand social media and use it to their benefit.

Instead of threatening to kick Dave out of the box, they should have stopped and tried to learn more about what he was doing. Obviously they can’t issue press passes to everyone, but I’m pretty sure that Dave didn’t need a press pass to live blog the game. He could have done that from anywhere. The Oilers need to figure out how to work with bloggers, not against them.

I don’t know enough about the way the system works to comment beyond that. I think the Oilers may be restricted by the league in how they can engage with the media both offline and online, at least to a certain extent. I fully expect to hear from either the Oilers or the NHL one of these days, due to my creation and updating of the Edmonton Oilers account on Twitter. When asked if the NHL would try to protect Twitter accounts as intellectual property, Michael DiLorenzo, the NHL’s Director of Corporate Communications, simply said “not yet”. I’m hopeful for a positive outcome – after all, Michael himself is on Twitter.

Social Media is here to stay

The question is not whether bloggers, photographers, and others who publish things online should be ignored or treated like the mainstream media. The question is simply, what’s the best way to work with them?

I think it’s simple. Admit that you don’t know what you don’t know, and then find someone to help you. Stop being afraid of social media, and start embracing it. Follow Batman’s lead.

Contributing to Techvibes

techvibes I recently accepted an offer to contribute Edmonton-related content to the Techvibes blog. They’re trying to create a destination site with hyperlocal tech content from all of Canada’s major cities. The blog already has some great, unique stuff, such as the Start-up Index series, and I’m excited to be able to help it grow.

I did my first post Saturday, on the official opening of TEC Edmonton’s new TEC Centre. I’m hoping to post a mix of news, analysis, event notifications and reviews, and startup profiles.

If you’ve got an idea or story or event or tip or anything else related to technology in Edmonton, I’d love to hear about it! You can always leave a comment here, you can email me, or you can find me online (for instance, Twitter is a great way to get my attention!).

Joining along with me is Cam Linke, who was the driving force behind our recent DemoCamp event in Edmonton. Rob at Techvibes has written a great introduction post for us, which you can read here.

Two Thousand Posts Later

I don’t know exactly when I started blogging, but it was around the time of the oldest post I have saved. In the 1587 days since that time, I’ve made 2000 posts – yes, this one is #2000! I figure that’s a pretty decent milestone, so I wanted to share a few thoughts with you.

I’ve always said that I blog for myself first, and everyone else second. That’s still the case, and it’s the main reason that I don’t have any ads on here (I also don’t think they’d provide much value to my readers). I’m always surprised when I read old posts because they offer a glimpse into how I’ve grown and changed over the years. Sometimes I think to myself, “did I really write that?”

Me on the tablet

Both my style of writing and the topics I write about have changed quite a bit. Here’s a sample comparison, March 2004 and March 2007:

Except for the little exercise above, I don’t think I’ve ever gone back to look at my posts from March 2004. I’ve referred to the ones from March 2007 many times though (as have others). I think it’s safe to say that I’m writing more interesting and useful content now than I used to.

Another really obvious change is that my posts are a lot longer than they used to be. The increase in quality is part of the reason for that, but the biggest reason is probably Twitter. When I started out, microblogging wasn’t even a thought let alone a word. Now it’s an increasingly popular activity, with dozens of sites (such as Tumblr) offering the ability to post short thoughts, links, or images. I used to post things like “Arrived in Calgary” to my blog, now I just use Twitter.

The tools and technologies I use to blog have changed as well. I started out on dasBlog, moved to .Text, then Community Server, and I’m now on WordPress. I’ve used a variety of posting tools, such as w.Blogger and Windows Live Writer (which I use almost exclusively now). I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself using completely different tools in another five years.

200 posts

The one thing that hasn’t changed is how much I enjoy blogging. I’ve learned so much about myself, met so many great people, and have hopefully been able to help others a little bit, all through my blog. Who knew that such an awful sounding word could turn out to be so great?

Here’s to another 2000 and beyond. Thanks for reading!