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On the Scene: 140 random characters

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On the Scene
Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The 140 Characters Conference NW focuses on the changing ways people are communicating now thanks to social media. A wide variety of speakers, from business and nonprofit leaders to government officials, spoke on the way social media helps them engage a wider audience and connect with people in ways never before possible.

The consensus was that social media has made leaps and bounds since its inaugural stereotype of a way to show the world what you had for dinner. Increasingly, Twitter and Facebook are serving as useful online tools for public agencies. Of all the 140 Characters Conferences with high-ticket locations such as New York City and London, the free event in Vancouver, Wash., was the first to target the public sector.

Since the conference was aimed at public sector organizations, it was partially sponsored with grant funds from Homeland Security Region 4 in SW Washington, hence the conference's somewhat confusing location across the river.

The #140ConfNW was held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Center in the Vancouver Hilton. Presentations were livestreamed online, with many people expected to watch the conference from the comfort of their homes instead of joining the 100 or so attendees at the Convention Center. Perhaps this was the reason the actual attendee turnout was much lower than the Vancouver Tourism Office's originally projected number of 900 people.

Jeff Pulver, founder of the #140 Characters Conference series, gave the opening remarks.

The conference was divided into short, rapid-fire 10 minute presentations, with a wide array of topics from food carts to disaster response. Attendees listened to speaker’s stories and tweeted their favorite quotes, creating a real-time conversation online. Rather than surreptitiously surfing the Internet on their iPhones under the table while attending a conference, at #140ConfNW, attendees were encouraged to have a conversation with one another via Twitter. This made for an interesting conference audience, with half the attendees watching the presenters, and half looking down at their laps, furiously typing away.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams spoke at the conference in the morning. He has gotten a lot of press for his liberal use of Twitter, much of it negative. Adams, who has almost 35,000 Twitter followers, said he is often asked "How can you run the city if you're always tweeting?" "How can I run a city without tweeting?" Adams asked.

Amid all the talk of how social media can help nonprofits, businesses and government agencies, some presenters chose to point out the downsides of the new media. Simon King, CEO of WordSpreadz, described how Rebecca Black's YouTube video of the song "Friday" received more views and social media buzz after its posting in February than many other more notable recent events combined, including such tragedies as last year's Haiti earthquake or the recent Japan tsunami.

King likened the advent of the Internet and social media platforms to the invention of fire. "Let's not waste this Promethean fire; let's prove to the Gods that we deserve this power," King said. "The world is much deeper than 140 characters, and so are every one of you."

Emma Hall is web editor for Oregon Business.

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