Friday, January 30, 2015

The Alt Summit Recap Nobody Else is Going to Write

I'm just going out on a limb and assuming that nobody else is applying heavy theory to their conference summaries.  It is kind of an out-of-the-box thing to do.  But I was never in the box.  So here's my take-away.

Alt Summit has been the top-tier blogging conference on my radar for years.  The brainchild of some of the ridiculously capable Stanley siblings, it is a classy and design-consious spectacle that attracts a slew of powerfully talented women who are producing a disproportionate quantity of Pinterest's content (Plus a handful of brave men too, but the vast majority were women, which helped make this a good candidate for my research). It is a loud, intimidating, and wildly overstimulating experience. Thankfully (see classy, above) in the midst of the manic networking going on, almost everyone I encountered was kind, willing to fully engage in every encounter, and willing to disclose at least a moderate confession of the vulnerability and overwhelm that was unavoidably swimming around in their heads. It was actually an ideally suited environment for a researcher-of-bloggers to network and recruit interviews and surveys.  (And hey!  If you're unfamiliar with it - here's my survey for blogging mothers and an opportunity to win prizes and be quoted in a Masters Thesis. Join the party.)

While there were several occasions, especially near the end of the conference, when I watched conversations being dropped like hot potatoes when more "rewarding" ones became available, (talking lucrative collaborations and leverage-able social capital) there was not an overall sense of this being a frenetic or virulent environment.  Contrary to the angst everyone (myself included) spent on their outfits, there were no prizes awarded for some quantitative measure of style or chutzpa, just a whole lot of generous compliments flying every which way for two days straight.  Alt Summit is not cutthroat.

In a sense it was wildly empowering, to see so many women appreciate one another's talents in an utterly un-catty and supportive way.  To hear genuine and deserved compliments being paid so generously, there was a zion-esque quality to it, especially for the feminist in me who hungers for the sound of women supporting other women in fostering their talents and pursuing their dreams.  There was a sense of an impending tsunami of goodness should all of these women combine their talents and influence.  The potential and capacity was tangible.

The thing is, blogging as a profession hasn't quite grown up yet, and nowhere in the entire conference did I hear a fully fleshed out paradigm of the way blogger's relationships with their readers and with their sponsors works in macro.  There was lots (and lots and lots!) of emphasis on how to hook more followers, manipulate more page views and clicks, and pitch ideas to sponsors.  There were multiple pep talks to women saying they did not need to feel guilty about being financially compensated for the work that they do, but there was no real effort to address where that guilt was coming from, and what it was telling them about the way their current culture and economic system work. I'd much rather see women analyzing their guilt and selectively deconstructing it than trying to assuage themselves with half-baked mantras.  

In short, the media literacy chick (me) found herself caught a bit off-guard by the lack of literacy in conversations about money and audiences being had between the best of the best professionals in a medium (blogging) she cares deeply about.  I'm hoping as blogging and social media settle more into their own element, that makers and producers decide their ready to take a serious look at how their machinery works.

In summing up my conference experience to one of my professors, I mentioned my desire to share even a relatively accessible bit of theory about audience work, and the actual product sponsors are purchasing from bloggers. (For real; at least peruse Dallas Smythe (or a good summary) and think some critical thoughts about the commodification of blog audiences and the way they are earned, bought, and sold by bloggers.

Now I confess I'm conflicted.  On the one hand, I absolutely believe that these women can and should be compensated for the work that they do.  But most of these women don't perceive of themselves as being in the business of building up audiences to sell to sponsors and advertisers, yet that's their business model.  These women are far more likely to think of themselves as stylists, editors, content creators, photographers, and essayists.  Yet at present, those aren't the commodity they are actually getting paid for.  I don't have an immediate suggestion for a better system, but I would hope that most bloggers would be eagerly seeking after such a thing should it ever surface.

Money certainly talks, and while one presentation explicated that "Money = Power," it's also true that money is just one (dominant) type of power, and that a lot of these women don't recognize the other forms of power and influence they hold to be as such.  I had a persistent nagging feeling that commercial materialism has created a great stumbling block for the potential of blogging to capacitate truly powerful women. I worry that these women don't realize what a precious commodity their audiences are, and that they sometimes fetter them away like a birthright for so much pottage.

While the panel I attended about "using your blog to do good" still focused primarily on using blogs and online retailers to filter money to various charities and non-profits, I found within the conference and its attendees a few exceptional experiments in internet activism and using social media to change paradigms and stereotypes.  (We were all kind of enamored with We Brave Women, and Ashmae Hoiland's illustrated dress.  It's a fascinating study of non pecuniary power at work on the Internet.)

So my takeaway, besides a hundred or so promises to take my survey (do it! please!), was a profound appreciation for the powerful potential of so many women finding their voice and sharing their passions on the internet.  I am not the sort to trivialize or infantilize things like design.  I do not think being a design blogger inherently hijacks one's potential to do remarkable things on the internet, but it does perhaps make it easier to get caught in a hamster wheel of compensated content that certainly does very little to increase a blogger's long term potential.  What's happening in the blog world is by-and-large good and democratizing.  I hope with some more attentiveness to business models, audience phenomenology, and issues of sustainability it will eventually grow up and make us all proud.

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