Great energy at the likeminds conference and I wanted to try and capture some of my observations from the day before they go cold.  The first observations was that it was a real pleasure to be at such a well run conference – the organization was superb and the speakers the agenda not only made sense but was also very well presented – no crimes against powerpoint or reading words at us – thank you all.  I also feel I should issue a disclaimer – I know that the conference was not focused on democratic or civic issues – and it was really good to hear about social media from a different perspective.

I really liked the opening speaker Jonathan Akwue who spoke about the resonances between social media and hiphop (sounds odd – but it worked) and I think made a good point about how hiphop lost its way when it ‘sold out’ – this is a good warning for social media.  He also made some a very good point about the need to remember who owns the space you are working in – something that is fundamental to the Virtual Town Hall proposition  along with the idea, as he puts it, that you should be curating and not creating content.  He also asked a question about incentives which I want to think about more

I really enjoyed hearing Joanne Jacobs bang the drum for augmented reality – she was spot on and a great speaker.

Chris Brogan was really really good – in fact I have buying his book in groupie style – he spoke very much about the humanity of the social web and how it gives us a chance to connect to people in a way which is meaningful for them.  This is such a huge point about why social media has such impact and I was glad to see it highlighted well.  In fact Chris and Joanne are the two exceptions to what I am going to say next…

Despite having seen some great content and heard some interesting ideas I have to confess that my main impression from the conference may be a feeling of concern and a desire to punch the next person who tries to talk to me about brand experiences.

Here it is – I do not want us to miss the enormous opportunity that the social web affords us to make social change by losing it in a miasma of attempts to sell stuff to each other.  I do not want to talk about marketing and how brands can influence people – I want to talk about people having more power over the world around them.  I don’t want to talk about social communications – I want to talk about fundamental culture change and how we can influence it.

So the disappointment from the day was the sense that business, represented by their marketing agencies, is getting very very organized around the idea of the social web and it may well have set up shop a long time before we are able to set up democracy there.

Social media could be a tool for change – not just a tool for more effective marketing – but it needs to be connected with the right bits of the organization and sadly they are often the ones who are least inclined to talk to the marketing and PR folks.  There was very little talk of crowdsourcing (apart from one very good Kodak example) and there was not discussion really about internal communications and knowledge management beyond disaster recovery stuff.

I think this is linked to the fact that talking about brand can be a lazy shorthand.  I believe that the actual conversation ought to be about your organizational culture and values – your brand is how this is expressed to the world.   If you don’t make this connection then you don’t make the connection between the fundamental organization proposition and the audience.  This is not about making ‘shiny stuff’ its about how you embody your organizational values.  One of the last things said at Likeminds was that the real focus should be on building a really good business and that the marketing should flow from that and I completely agree with that – however a lot of the presenters were not really engaging with the change potential of the social web.

What are we going to do about it?  How are we going to help grow the ‘experiences’ which lead to better decision making about our communities rather than our brand choices and how do we avoid encouraging brands to think it’s a good idea to blow up a mountain to make a halfpipe because it gives them a huge amount of social media buzz?  And how do we point out that social responsibility is not just better marketing for charities – its about changing the way society works?

I know that anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a huge belief in the need to build civic spaces – but spending a day with the marketeers brings an increased sense of urgency for me on this.  Commerce is not trying to build something that will be there in 5 years time – they are trying to make a profit in the next budget year and are happy with reacting quickly to the way the social web evolves – they have no interest and no need to shape it.

This is not true for government – we have a fundamental problem in democratic engagement at the moment and the social web is one of the few places where we can look to change this.  Is it not incredibly irresponsible of us to let this opportunity just take its chances while we decide if we can risk letting a few officers post to facebook and letting some councilors twitter?

The digital natives are growing up and the social web needs to grow up with them and provide serious places which are accountable and transparent where we can look to carry out actual decision making.  Someone needs to take responsibility for making sure that the social web builds those civic spaces.

There were some really interesting thoughts today – and I have grabbed some from the twitter feed to keep (below) and I don’t want to be Cassandra like on this (though I will be).  But when the Town Manager of Exeter spoke of the process that they go through to plan the civic realm – I have to ask – who is planning the virtual civic realm?  Are we really going to turn it into a brand experience?