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culture

@SMWTO meets a new #digitalculture

Last week, Social Media Week Toronto stole all your communications experts and filled your Twitter and Facebook feeds. But in a few years, it will (or at least, should) be for everyone, everywhere.

The audience at the SMWTO event Twitter Tea Time.

The internet is to Social Media Week Toronto what beer is to Homer Simpson: “The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

At last week’s series of over 100 workshops, lectures, interactive art installations, and even a game of hoops, that sense of dichotomy was the feeling among entrepreneurs jazzed about their new gaming network, and among marketing experts looking intrigued (yet slightly terrified) of the nebulous online space. Even in 2012, the digital world is still a new frontier for those making a living in and off of it. And they seemed, as they have in the past, to dominate the conversation among the events at SMWTO—which is Toronto’s edition of Social Media Week, which took place across 21 cities worldwide.

Throughout the week, it was “social media” coming at you in “real time.” Turn “Likes” and “Retweets” into “fans” and “engagement” both “on the internets” and “IRL,” and increase the “ROI” of our time spent on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Instagram, and whatever else claims to be one of “the fastest-growing online communities.” (For a translation, simply click here.) Buzzwords are often inescapable when you’re dealing with something that’s “hot” or “emerging,” but they can also be hella alienating when you’re not the one using them. Considering that they’re driven by their everyday users, initiatives to analyze and discuss social networks have been made by companies looking to use them for marketing purposes, not by the self-proclaimed internet addicts actually using them for entertainment rather than profit.

But as memes, videos, blogs, and networks have born a unique and independent culture of their own, this year’s Social Media Week marked a shift to represent that—a shift that should keep growing in the years to come. Under the organization of Amanda Lynne Ballard, who has a background in arts events and festivals like Nuit Blanche and the Toronto Fringe, SMW changed focus from a marketing and communications conference to more of a celebration of digital culture in all its forms—visual art, theatre, lifestyle, sports, activism, even dating.

“It was still heavy on marketing and communications, but that’s what [SMWTO] is by its nature. This year though, we moved away from sessions that were basically product pitches or 101 course work,” she said.

The transition from a social media marketing un-conference (no strict schedule and multiple venues) to a full-on festival for the digital community makes sense given SMWTO’s free admission policy, one which allows the same access to Twitter newbies as it does to CEOs. Marketing and networking will probably always have a place, but in due time the novelty/fear of social media marketing will wear off, leaving lots of room for more industries to develop their own conversation. Soon, Ballard hopes to involve more leaders in education and health care, hold interactive panels, and bring new products like GestureTek into the mix—along with whatever other innovations happen to pop up in this unpredictable world.

“It’s ever-changing. Eventually, social media won’t be the new and the fancy, it’ll be integrated into everything. But that’s part of our challenge, to keep Social Media Week relevant and to keep new audiences engaged,” Ballard said. Not that this initiative will be achieved by next year, but rather it’s part of a long-term plan for SMWTO.

In one panel called The Social Media Ref, Tweeter/blogger/8-bit dreamer Lauren O’Neil said “Social media is real life,” contending that it involves the same things as reality does: social norms, practical judgment, and a variety of languages and interests. Luckily, SMWTO is taking steps to bring real life online, then off-line again.

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