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Social Media Recap from NMC 2009

2009 nmc summer conferenceSince it is already a week in the rear view mirror, this ought to be my last post about the 2009 NMC Summer Conference. Heck, it’s time to start thinking about 2010.

However I wanted to record, primarily for my own sake, while fresh in my mind a recap of the social media tools we used (and other related factors) for our conference. I resisted using the title of “report card” 😉

cc licensed flickr photo shared by alumroot

Most of this follows what we provided for attendees as our “conference tech tools”.

Previously, On NMC….

For background, in the 3 previous NMC conferences I have been involved with since starting my job there in 2006- we’ve done mainly a “tag this conference” approach where we ask people to tag photos, web sites, blog posts e.g. 2006, 2007, 2008 where I cobbled together some summary pages using mainly my own Feed2JS code.

Last year at Princeton, we added a Google Map for people to geotag their home location, an invitation to share photos of the number “15” (it was the NMC’s 15th anniversary) that got rolled into a NMC@15 video, and a chance to sign up for 15 minutes of studio time on the John Lennon Bus to create a package of sharable music loops. Twitter was definitely on an upswing (but not near the use we saw this year), and we had a TwitterCamp display set up

Those went okay, we always get a solid core of photographers tagging and posting pictures to flickr. And although we had some people tweeting from sessions, to me it seemed like we were missing an opportunity but not having a perhaps more organized approach to having our conference audience help “cover” or document the conference. A dream would be to know for sure there was one or more persons in each session blogging and sharing it so we had a record or artifact of all sessions.

So on to what we tried this year… (this is gonna be a long scroller)

Pathable- A Conference Social Network Site

Our conference planner told me earlier this year about Pathable a company that provides a social network site for your conference. It looked a little more comprehensive then just asking people to tag and then trying to aggregate (we also looked at other tools like CrowdVine which was very comparable, almost a coin flip).

So we signed up with Pathable and started in April building out the site with them which is at (it is hosted on their site- that’s just a redirect URL)

NMC Pathable site

One feature I liked was that Pathable has an API for creating accounts, so I was able to roll that into our conference registration on our drupal site, and it populated their Pathable account with their organization, blog url, delicious url, flickr url, twitter url, etc (if they had added that to their drupal profile on NMC’s site). The key on Pathable is that we can ask them questions that they respond to with tags to describe themselves or interest:

pathable tags

This creates some interesting effects- you can find other people with common interests based on tags, and Pathable does a tag comparison to suggest other people you may want to get to know during the conference. And, the one I used a lot, you can communicate to sub grounds by using the Pathable messaging by tag.

But there was more- we were able to import the conference agenda, and people could then indicate which sessions they were planning to attend, so I might say, “I think I;ll go to this session because I always wanted to meet Barbara Sawhill” or “I’ll go to this one because Gardner Campbell is in the room”. By doing this, you also create your personal conference calendar, which was handy for the other big reason we went with Pathable- that have an iPhone version of the tools.

One piece we did not use that we could have gotten some leverage- Pathable can add a mini WetPaint wiki to each session listed in the calendar, so we could have asked people to share notes, links there.

We also had some back end tools that provided details on the usage and activity; for example out of 359 accounts set up, 177 actually made it to Pathable and did some activity (that is 49%)– and we have graphs!

pathable stats

And there was another bonus we found later, see the twitter section. Thanks Jordan S for working with us on this!

Tweet, tweet, tweet… Sweet!

Twitter was the biggest social media activity, absolutely no surprise. This is the #hastag year, and we recorded more than 1875 tweets tagged #nmc2009.

Actually, the twitter API only returns the last 1500 (I scrolled back as far as I could from the search tool). I also ran the tag through PrintYourTweets, which found also only the last 1500, but as a nice feature, included any TwitPics that people had posted- I assembled those into an unwieldy 33Mb PDF record.

Post conference, I also learned of TwapperKeepr and Roomatic as hashtag grouping tools.

Something that got a lot of attention (we did have it set up on a large plasma screen in the registration area) was the display of our nmc2009 conference tweets using VisibleTweets one of the best visualizer tools I’ve seen- here is the embedded version (well the cheat way of embedding with an iframe)

It’s simple to do cause it is just a link to a web site.

I got a really nice surprise when Jordan from Pathable contacted me this week and asked if we’d be interested in them doing an analysis of the twitter activity like they had done previously for WordCamp.

Hell yes!

I mentioned that I was able to track only the last 1500; he replied and said that their tool actually archives all hashtagged tweets, which he was able to send me as a data file, which is how I got the 1874 total. I dusted off my weak Excel skills to determine that we had 173 different people use the tag, and then did a count and sort to look at the frequency. Our gold medalist was @JoeAntonioli (124) just edging out our Silver Medal tweeter, @BryanAlexander (121):


No surprise, it is a classic Long Tail of activity:


I’ll share my spreadsheet for anyone interested…. twitter-summary.xls

Twitter is obviously then a way for people to easily send out highlights and link share; that was a lot of activity we saw; but also the generous back and forth from people at the conference and people remotely watching from afar.

Flickr the Conference

We are seeing a great stream of tagged flickr photos from the conference– more than 2400 at last peek. I really wish there was a way to find out hoe many individual people added to a tag (in previous years, I analyzed this by manually paging back, and writing on a piece of paper each flickr user name I saw– I am not going to do it again!):

You might see an over representation of Point Lobos- this is because of the pre-conference digital photography workshop a few of us (including me!) got to participate in; a 7 hour stint of shooting with the available expertise of Sports Illustrated photographer extraordinaire Bill Frakes and Don Henderson from Apple, Great Photographers with Giant Lenses

cc licensed flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

And you wil find a lot of local scenery in the flickr stream as people enjoyed the streets of Monterey.

I am a bit anal about wanting to post and caption my photos every day, which is hard to do at a conference, and I know others are still editing and processing, so I expect the photo count to go up.

Other Tagged Stuff

Rather interesting that this year I did not even push delicious tagging, but we do see a nice list of things that people went and tagged on their own Lesser results I see for Technorati, which to me is pretty much passe ( — google blog search picks up a bit more

“Official” Conference Bloggers Knock it Out of the Park

I have already written about the fabulous blog coverage we got form asking three bloggers to post about the keynote and main sessions, but this again was a tremendous success in finding a way to capture the presentation experience, and yet much more, as the dialogue these posts generated.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

For us giving three bloggers a special perch (and actually the table was cramped), electricity, and internet, we got amazing results. My dream would be next year to find a way to know that there is a blogger in every conference session!

This can be proverbial low hanging fruit (and why is that always a good thing?? what is wrong with high hanging fruit?) – and can extend beyond conference blogging; plenty of teachers do well by having students blog classes/lecture for not only the benefit of other students, but would, IMHO, provide an instructor an interesting insight into how their “audience” is getting the “message”.

We will definitely do this again. I am not sure we need the scribe (e.g. using CoverIt Live) to capture everything- I am more interested in the types of posts our Conference Bloggers created that had reflection and analysis (and criticism, we want that too?

Geotagging Photos

We’ve been very interested in geolocation technologies, especially in seeing how they are being integrated into devices like camers to automatically record the locations where photos are taken, whether it is a GPS device like Nikon has, or a tracker GPS that can then be synced to photos by matching the time of the photo to the recorded track, to just the iPhone camera which can automatically geocode.

We asked people who were tagging photos to also “map them” whether they had a tool as described above, or just by using the flickr map tools– and including Point Lobos in the vicinity, I see more than 700 geotagged flickr photos bearing the #nmc2009 tag.

Another related tool we found is which provides a browser bookmark tool that allows you to add geolocation machine tags to any of your flickr photos, which in turn will show up on this map:

Upping the Tagging Ante to StoryMapping

This concept did not exactly pan out, but there is only so much you can throw at a crowd.


I thought it would be interesting for the photos that were tagged and geotagged, to ask people to do more that toss a photo named IMG9374.JPG on flickr, but to add to it in the caption a few sentences describing a special moment at the conference (adding one more tag of nmc2009story). If geotagged, we might end up with a storymap— did not get much takers, and most (including one of my own) seemed to miss the geotag part; still we have 4 examples in the tag link.

Participant Generated Conference Video

Another punted idea that I still want to come back to– each year we have a professional videographer that captures footage of the event and interviews with attendees so we have an official conference video (we send a DVD to all attendees, which also includes archives of all the keynote videos) e,g, here is the one from 2008.

Since we see many people carrying FlipCameras, mobile phones with video recording capability, etc, it seemed like it could be interesting to have people share footage of the conference from a participant perspective. I set up a site to collect these, but have only seen some form one person. I have some other footage I shot, and on disk that another attendee handed me, so there might be something to put together.

Live Video Streams

We initially planned to provide a small number of live streams of the main sessions, as our local conference host said they could broadcast to about 50 streams. A few weeks before the conference, we heard a lot of interest form among our community from people who could not attend the conference due to travel cuts, so less than 2 weeks out, I decided we would up the capability by hiring The Stream Guys to handle the distribution- we’ve had great luck with them previously on our March conference in Second Life.

We managed to get a medium quality Quicktime stream that we put into Second Life, and higher quality Flash video stream, that we made available on the web. We expected a decent Second Life audience, because on the opening day of the conference, Linden Lab offered to put a link on the main login screen that some 70,000 people might see.

The streams worked great– except for Alan’s goof of forgetting until about 2/3 the way in, to swap the script we use to push the URL to the 10 sims we had set up, so our SL audience was likely turned off. Still later in the conference we saw numbers of about 30-60 viewers in Second Life and over 100 on the live Flash stream.

I’m still processing the archived keynote videos The videos are all available now tossed together on a single Flash Player along with a browsable view of all media, each with extra linked information, e.g. links to the conference blogger posts for the keynotes.


Gone Green(er)

I was glad to see our team eager to embrace a move to generating less print materials,a s part of our NMC Goes Green effort. First we made arrangements with CarbonFund to calculate the total carbon imprint of the conference, which was 234.4 metric tons – the equivalent to the annual emission of 43 cars. On our conference registration form, we offered each individual the opportunity to pay a carbon offset of $5.86 (this was a direct calculation of the total number of registrants divided by the cost of those 234.4 tons, we did not put any padding in).

I managed to write some custom PHP code to create a sidebar widget that gave a dynamic display of the carbon offsets, based on hitting the database to count the current number of total offsets paid. It is just some CSS based on Mike Cherin’s Donation gauge (well it did take some PHP monkeying to make it work for me).

We came in about 107 offset or 46% of the total. There were some issues with people being able to add extra fees to registration due to budget cutbacks (yes, even $5.86 was a problem for some people) and while we did offer a secondary way to pay, we need to rethink this part of the conference registration.

But the big part, for me, because it has been a long ongoing fetish for me, was our not giving out conference bags. Now I know (and di hear from) a few people who like them, or use them for grocery sacks, but c’mon, a lot of them end up in the trash. We eliminated the bags, water bottles, and all the printed stuff that previously went into them. We eliminated the t-shirts too.

As an alternative, we created a Cafe Press shop with many more kinds of t-shirts then we could normally provide, plus other goodies. Now I realize it is a shift to go from something we used to give out free to something we tell people to pay for– but the cultural shift is going from a situation where we give everyone a pile of stuff of one kind (one shirt style, one bag) that they may or may not want, to letting people decided if they want the swag.

I bet a few people still grumbled, that’s okay.

The other thing we cut out was the old paper based session evaluations. I always considered them skeptical, because people scribble down things on paper in the last 3 minutes of a session, when they would rather be doing something else. We replaced it with online evaluations, using Google Forms, so all we had to do was give out a daily URL that had all the sessions for the day. Not only does this save paper, it saved a lot of work for the poor office aide who had to decipher hand written comments and enter them in a spreadsheet.

So we cut out a lot of things, and in place we focused on producing what we think is a really dynamic format for a printed program:

cc licensed flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

The metallic looking cover is actually cardboard, and inside, we had fold outs for schedules and maps, but each page had a 1 or 3 session layout (for keynotes and breakout sessions, respectfully), with larger photos of each presenter, and on the facing page, a blank sheet for notes (we had some reminders on that page about tagging and the link to the online session evaluation. Our real dream was to make the blank pages for notes the dot paper used for the LiveScribe pen (you can print your own paper from a PDF they provide, but we could not get the form factor our program needed).

People seemed to really like the new program, that was a big success this year.

Conference Facility

The Portola Hotel and adjacent Monterey Conference Center were excellent facilities, but in many ways, fail on the needs a group like ours brings. The wireless network was spotty for many people. We had long conversations with the “IT Guy” ahead of time, who kept trying to re-assure us that their capacity was more than capable– he kept saying, “I see this all the time, less than 20% of conference attendees use the network at any one time”.

We kept trying to tell him– “not our folks” and sure enough there were times that people say no or poor connectivity (but at least it did not go black for long periods. We tried to ask people with mobiles to use their 3G connection, but that mostly confused a lot of them. I saw one colleague, Keene from UT Austin, had this little Verizon hub, that could share through wireless 4 network connections that fed from the mobile network.

I mostly used my Alltel mobile connection rather than the wireless network.

I fail to see why hotels fail so miserably in this regard (and charge you up the wazoo for poor connectivity) — any college campus is serving hundreds of people chewing up mega bandwidth without the kind of headaches you get at conference centers. Frankly, I think they throttle it to save costs. But it sucks.

The other lacking capacity is electricity. Breakout rooms with 4 outlets, and large lecture halls with maybe 6 public ones are a problem. I noted to the hotel staff on our walkthrough that in the general area where people congregate around the registration desk, for every chair, there would be a person wanting at least one outlet.

Did you know sometimes they charge conference planners like $50 to roll out a power strip? Geeeez.

There was a funny moment later when Barbara Sawhill told me she found a stash of powerstrips in a box under the table; I saw here and Brian Alexander carting one around to all the sessions they went to so they could “share the power”.

A Nice After the Conference Idea

After the great time many of is had in the pre-Conference Digital Photography Workshop, my colleague Rachel Smith had the awesome idea to create a VoiceThread, with one photo of every participant, so we could make an online giftbook of thanks to the workshop leaders, Bill Frakes and Don Henderson.

We just sent it out, but it is really great to have people provide feedback in audio, text, or video form. VoiceThread has so many ways you can creatively use it.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Thanks for sharing your success. Have you tried integrating a blogger’s hub during the event. The 2009 World Innovation Forum created a Blogger’s Hub to capture and share the content both in and outside the event. The challenge with Pathable, CrowdVine or other other similar programs is that the content get’s stuck behind a wall and becomes a velvet rope community. It’s works well for attendee interaction but not for virtual attendee or the public.

    Here’s more information about the WIF09 Blogger’s Hub:

  2. Alan, thanks for sharing. There are great points here about all the ways social media can improve a conference and how a conference social network can play a big role as a hub in that.

    I think Jeff, above is misunderstanding what conference social networks do.

    First, twitter, blog, and photo aggregation are standard features for at least three of the conference social network providers (we’ve had them since we launched). That means they work as a hub.

    Second, at least for CrowdVine, we often run in a public or semi-public mode so that anyone interested in the conference can follow the content.

    Third, the content of general interest ends up in blogs. The content that ends up in the networks tends to be very focused on the conference experience. If you didn’t attend, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of value.

    The whole idea of social networks for conferences is relatively new though (kudos to NMC for being an early adopter), so we have a big education challenge ahead of us.

  3. Thanks Tony for chiming in (my reply to Jeff seems to have disappeared before I could post it)– and also thanks for talking with me earlier this year on the potential of using CrowdVine. I am convinced such services offer more than I can cobble together with RSS feeds etc.

    Jeff- I liked your tips and appreciate you sharing your experience. The Bloggers Hub you describe is pretty much what we did for our invited conference bloggers (which only covered the main sessions). Our Pathable site was most certainly *not* closed or behind a velvet rope – it was (and is) all public viewable (and we tracked a lot of access by people outside the registered users). As Tony suggests, the Pathable site was not a single solution to social media, it was in conjunction with the other things we were doing. The primary purpose was for attendees to be able to find and communicate with each other before, during, and after the conference.

  4. Sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. I should have clarified that the challenge of any conference social networking site rests with the conference organizers. Unless the conference organizers decide to have an open community, the public and virtual attendees cannot access them, and people like me will assume that the social sites have some limitations.

    My experience with three conference social sites in the past six months is that they were closed velvet rope communities. These were large conferences, and the public and virtual attendees could not access the conference social site without paying full conference registration fees. The conference blogs were behind the site login and the content was not shared outside of the community. Unlike NMC 2009, the value of the conference social site was limited to paying attendees only. This will be an ongoing barrier and challenge within some organizations, and therefore some people that can’t access the site will have negative reactions towards the conference social site companies.

    My take away from the three comments above is that event organizers should clearly think-through having a closed or open conference social site. And, that event and meeting professionals should intentionally include some additional AV and specific room sets so people can easily create and share content from the event. Inviting bloggers to a conference is a step in the right direction. The meeting professional should go one step further and ensure those bloggers needs are met with adequate electricity, adequate wifi and bandwidth, tables and seating for those bloggers. Then bloggers and attendees can access all the social tools possible during the event.

    NMC 2009 is clearly ahead of most conference and events and meeting professionals should emulate many of their practices to bring events into the Web 2.0 world.

    PS…yes, welcome to my world where you are charged for every extension cord, powerstrip, room setup change, etc. As a professional meeting and event planner, we address a lot of these concerns upfront in our contracts so we are not nickel and dimed for everthing. Now if we can just merge the meeting logistics with the strategic elements of Web 2.0 world that you address Alan, we’ll have great success.

  5. Ah, that makes a lot more sense. The engagement of the conference organizer is by far the biggest driver of attendee engagement in CrowdVine.

    But even the minimum level, merely announcing the existence of the network, is a huge boost in the value of a conference. Many attendees go to network but have no way of finding the people that they would really want to meet. It’s pretty easy for conference organizers to solve that with a social network, and attendees are pretty reliable in using it.

    The maximum level takes a lot more work and communication, obviously, but can do a lot to amplify the conference. For some, especially associations, that’s a goal. For others, and we have many conferences like this, the whole point is to create something valuable enough to pay for.

    Strangely, I often talk to conference organizers who think that a public attendee list will result in competing conferences poaching those attendees. Is that a legit concern? I try to operate under the assumption that all the concerns of our customers are legit, but I don’t know about this one.

    As far as how people judge our software, I think this is part of the education process. There are a lot of companies that offer networking tools for events, but still only six or seven that work, and that small group seems to have a market penetration that’s still less than 1000 events. A year ago, that number was probably less than 100. In the future, you will judge these products because you used them at a conference you attended, and everyone will have a better understanding of what their capabilities are. Certainly, complaints about closed networks are best to be taken up with the conference organizer.

  6. Alan, thanks so much for this. It’s like a “how to” manual for bringing web 2.0 tools to a conference. I plan on using many of your suggestions at a biology teaching conference I organize every year (next up March 2010). I particularly appreciated your frank analysis of what worked, what didn’t, what was laborious, and what was seamless. For myself (one of the many who could not afford to come to NMC), I loved the Second Life sessions (next best thing to being there…) and I got the real meat & potatoes out of your conference bloggers. By reading their capture I not only got the gist of what was said but savored the amplifciation that their interpretation and informed judgments provided. It reminded me of a radio announcer at a baseball game. How many baseball fans do you see in the stadium, while watching the game, still have their radio headset plugged into their ear? They’re watching the game! But that experienced commentary adds another layer for them, just as your live bloggers did for those of us unlucky enough to not be there.

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