I attended TEDx Manchester yesterday – a half-day of presentations and debate on technology, entertainment and design (the TED of the title). I’m still digesting much of what was put out, because there was an awful lot packed into the five-hour programme. Apparently, too, this was the biggest TED event in Europe to date – at a rough guess, the audience numbered around 200. BBC Manchester had kindly opened its doors yet again to Manchester’s huge creative and digital community (it has twice hosted the Social Media Café this year) and TEDx took place in Studio 7, normally reserved for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
As with a lot of these kind of events, the quality of the speakers and their presentations varied. I’m pleased that most of the TEDx Manchester panel was up to scratch. I was left disappointed by Dr Mariann Hardey’s presentation on social media etiquette, which focused largely on how to use platforms such as Facebook – given that probably almost everyone at TEDx is digitally savvy enough to have been using social media for some time (as evidenced by the heavy tweeting during the afternoon), it was surely a case of preaching to the long-converted. Likewise, Matthew Postgate’s (head of R&D at BBC Future Media and Technology) presentation on what the BBC are doing with social media left me with the impression that the BBC is desperate to be seen as up to speed when it comes to social media platforms but is still struggling to catch up with what ordinary people are doing digitally. This does raise some interesting issues – firstly, that the BBC seems very keen to grab user-generated content for its vast website without paying for it (and indeed that raises the further question of should it pay for it out of the licence fee?).
And secondly, with the BBC being funded by licence-fee payers, just how much should it be spending on investing in digital projects of whatever sort instead of on programming? Clearly, as technology moves forward at an astonishing pace and changes how the viewing and listening public want to receive their media, the BBC needs to keep up and it has indeed done some ground-breaking stuff, like iPlayer. But just where does that remit start and stop? This came to the fore later in the programme when Hugh Garry (senior content producer for BBC Radio 1 and 1xtra) showed us a film he’d created by handing out mobile phones to the crowd at a music festival and told them to just go and film whatever they fancied then hand the phones back. The clip we saw was extraordinary in its creativity and looked as good as anything shot on a proper film camera. But what does filmmaking have to do with radio?
There was also a third BBC staffer on the panel, Marc Goodchild (head of interactive and on demand at BBC Children) who talked about creating digital content for children. I tuned out a lot here, not having kids myself and not knowing any of the programmes he mentioned, but he did raise a couple of points that caught my attention, largely because they weren’t 100% accurate. Firstly, Goodchild said the QWERTY keyboard was basically not very good because it meant you had to learn how to type and they keys were all in a funny order, etc. I was quite staggered by this as I’ve never learned to touch-type – I basically get by with a couple of fingers, like many do – but it hasn’t hindered me in 30 years of earning a living using a QWERTY keyboard. You simply do not need to be able to type “properly” to use a keyboard to communicate digitally. The other point I perked up at was his mention of needing to rethink how they provided interactivity as, for example, a conventional mouse is too big for a child’s small hands – children are very active with technology from as young as 5 but are adapting themselves to deal with accessories designed for adults. His comment that technology design for children is not being driven forward because there’s no money in it (“small hands do not have big wallets”) is not really true because children don’t need to buy their own technology – their parents buy it for them and today’s parents have very deep wallets when it comes to spending on their kids.
Incidentally, as an aside, I’m pleased I was one among many who was very irritated when the floor was opened to questions and some people took the opportunity to not ask questions but instead rant about everything that’s wrong with the BBC. This was not why we were at TEDx and it was an appalling abuse of the limited chances to raise issues from the audience, depriving others who really did have questions of the possibility to ask them.
Only two of the presentations were non-digital. Architectural expert Phil Griffin gave a truly inspiring talk and slideshow on the built environment, with a very obvious local focus. As I’m relatively new to living in Manchester and still finding my way round, seeing the interiors of some amazing historic buildings that have been regenerated for different purposes was fascinating. A lot of Manchester’s mills have been turned into living accommodation, for example, or modern work spaces or even night clubs. Griffin made the strong point that while building new buildings can be important (illustrated neatly with a slide of the new BBC premises being constructed at Media City in Salford), it’s also vital to “bodge, make do and mend” as he put it – to reuse the many magnificent but decaying and boarded-up old buildings scattered by the hundreds across this wonderful city, which has turned the notion of recreating itself into an art form already in so many ways. Sustainability, in other words. Global Socialite’s blog on TEDx Manchester expands on Griffin’s contribution, picking up on the notion that the non-digital remains vitally important in the exchange of ideas.
Sustainability was an unspoken theme running through the presentation given by Sarah Hartley, digital editor at The Guardian, who spoke about the importance of local journalism and how communities provide the lifeblood for journalism at every level, as they are the source of so many stories as well as sustaining local media. She pointed out that much of what journalists do is now done by ordinary people, through blogs and online communities. She cited Help Me Investigate as one pertinent example of people coming together to investigate local issues with the help of journalists as a way to break important stories. Hartley noted news pioneers are often community activists, too, and that many local news blogs are popping up run by such activists to fill the gap left when local papers get closed. This merging of press and activism is leading to what her editor at The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has called the mutualisation of news. We can probably expect to hear this phrase a lot more in the near future as the Guardian goes head to head with News International and Rupert Murdoch: two very different news models are emerging with the kind of locally fed and supported, community-sustained mutualisation facing off Murdoch’s forthcoming paywalls. Seeing which one will ultimately dominate is going to preoccupy media commentators for the near future.
Ben Light, a professor at the University of Salford, turned the gathering into “TEDsex” with his illuminating presentation on how gay men brand themselves on dating websites. He used popular site Gaydar to illustrate his findings about online identities, stereotyping and fascinating market data, such as gay men being more likely to use all the obscure features on a mobile phone than straight people. It was clear that much of Light’s research about personal branding applies to non-gays who date online, too, and there was much laughter at a question from the floor about whether the professor had pursued his findings on other niche online dating websites, such as those for people who practise BDSM.
The final presentation was by Paul Coulton, who undertakes mobile research at the University of Lancaster, who gave a very entertaining talk on mobile gaming. I’m not much of a gamer at all and certainly not on my phone, but he held my attention with his wit and some startling statistics, such as that for every four babies born, 27 mobile phones hit the market and that with more than 4 billion owning a cellphone we have truly become cyborgs. Coulton breaks down games and gamers into different types, such as pre-Raphaelite (the Wii apparently being one of these – I’ll take his word for it as I don’t own one). I’m not convinced by his statement that gaming can change the world but I’m happy to accept that gaming has changed the way people interact with each other.
All in all, Tedx Manchester probably raised far more questions than the panel could ever attempt to answer. There was a feeling the surface had barely been scratched on some discussions while it was great to have new topics (such as the gay research) thrown open for our perusal. The TED concept is spreading so we can expect to see more of these events popping up around the UK. I certainly hope it will return to Manchester before too long. Thanks are due to the BBC for hosting and to the huge team who worked hard to pull it all together (details of whom are on the TEDx Manchester website).