“NO ONE IS SUGGESTING YOU CAN CONQUER GAUL BY DEADLIFTING 4 PLATES”

Surely many of you must think I was being terribly, terribly unfair to the outdated mediocrities who organized the Mesh Conference. They’re great guys, and it’s really great that Toronto finally got its own great conference about Web 2.0, itself the greatest thing since push technology or Friendster. The conference sold out and everybody had a great time, so I obviously must be wrong.

Well, I’m not.

First, Robert Manne. Who would have thought that a public-relations peon from world-class Toronto would join the hallowed ranks of such eternally Googlable names as Harry Pforzheimer and Suraya Akbarzad in totally blowing it? Obviously the best part is that they all used to work for Edelman PR – Manne still does, but smart money bets on him pursuing other opportunities shortly – and what they all totally blew was the simple task of dealing with bloggers. Or a blogger – me – who has substantial journalistic credentials and an enormous body of published work (roughly 390 printed articles – my count is out of date – and a dozen for online periodicals; one book; original published research; and 1,600 blog posts and uncounted hundreds of Web pages, all dating back to 1999).

For those who haven’t been keeping score, like Manne or the Mesh organizers who signed up with Edelman, cast your attention back to April 2001, an era in which many of you were not even online yet. I attempted to ask Apple a technical question through official channels. After a mere 15 days of confusion, Edelman PR’s Suraya Akbarzad emerged from whatever mossy grotto she was living in and asked me to repeat my question. I did so with all the tartness you, or they, would expect. As I have no patience for fools, even fools with marketing degrees and timesheets, I don’t have to be nice to people who cannot or will not read a simple press request.

As a result, all of a sudden I had an Edelman vice-president, Harry Pforzheimer, sending along a misspelled and histrionic threat. (I was, apparently, “liable.”)

If you forgot all that, you might be given a pass because the original source – NUblog, an old Weblog of mine (I’ve been doing this so long I have old Weblogs) – was offline due to a database blowing up. It’s back now, and here are the relevant articles:

  1. Apple to NUblog: Drop dead
  2. Edelman to NUblog: You’re “liable”!
  3. All snot all the time!
  4. Phony Edelmania has bitten the dust
  5. Weblogs for public relations

But even a little Googling would have unearthed the press coverage of the event, and any PR agent or conference organizer worth his salt (and they’re all guys, so the masculine pronoun is apropos) could simply have referred to one of the few analytical books about blogging. It’s all documented.

From the press coverage, I understand that Edelman learned a little something from its mistakes. But I have no direct evidence: I never received an apology, and at no time ever in the intervening five years has Edelman initiated contact with me for any reason. Edelman seemed happy to abuse one blogger in its eleventh-hour haste to grab a dangling handhold on the Cluetrain caboose.

I was thus rather scandalized that Technorati got in bed with Edelman this year to survey bloggers. I even asked Edelman PR and David Sifry of Technorati on-the-record questions about Edelman’s previous fuckups. Sifry, ever committed to engagement with the blogosphere his company tracks, ignored my arse completely. I did, however, receive a reply from the PR agency.

From Richard Edelman.

Whom I have been keeping quite well appraised of the nonsense with Mesh – and of the actions of the petit fonctionnaire with the shortest career expectancy at Edelman, Robert Manne.

My problem with Mesh

Now to recap that topic, in case you haven’t been following along, which, given events to this point, seems likely. I began covering the abomination known as the Mesh Conference in March. I scoured the site for anything resembling a press policy; there was none to be found. On 2006.05.08, I applied for press credentials as follows:

I wish to apply for press credentials for the Mesh Conference. As you may be aware, I am an experienced journalist, editor, columnist, and author, with over 380 articles published in some three dozen periodicals, ranging from Toronto magazines and newspapers (I wrote columns in the Globe and Mail and the Star) to periodicals outside Toronto (everything from the Village Voice to the Economist). I wrote the book Building Accessible Websites.

I’ve been online since 1991 and have been doing what would now be considered blogging since 1999. I have years of experience in liveblogging conferences, where I am often the only person doing it.

My print and online journalistic credentials are extensive. Press accreditation would be used to liveblog the Mesh Conference.

A response to a request for press credentials is, of course, for attribution.

Two days later, I received a smug little rejection from the lowest rung on the Edelman totem pole, Robert Manne, as documented previously.

Credentialling

Let’s recap how press credentials work.

  1. While, in some contexts (e.g., police departments), full background checks and accreditation with photo ID are required, for typical events and in typical contexts it is enough to identify oneself as a freelance writer. On occasion, confirmation from an editor is required. (Sources have sometimes demanded it from me, then refused to believe it when it arrived in the form of a signed attestation on letterhead.)
  2. For self-publication, I know of no industry-standard practice, but I am in an unusual position in that I have unimpeachable qualifications from previous eras in my career. I apply for press credentials, which, in the case of an event, gives me free admission.
    • When it comes to “consideration,” that’s about as far as ethical journalists go; you may wish to look up the contretemps with the Toronto Star’s Wheels section, in which automakers’ practice of flying “journalists” to resort capitals for “exclusive” test-drives of new cars was finally brought into question. (The Star has long since terminated the sole policy change that resulted: It has ceased mentioning that the carmakers pay for the junkets.)
    • I do not go on such junkets (I turned down an offer from Sun Microsystems, for example) and I return all demo products unless we agree that I don’t have to. (Those tend to be low-denomination products like mice and keyboards, which explains why I have a box of those at my house.)

Hence getting in the door for nothing is the norm in journalism and has been since time immemorial. (Feel free to double-check that with other ink- or toner-stained wretches if you have any doubts.) It does not leave the writer beholden to the organizers, and it’s all I asked for in the case of Mesh Conference.

Now we talk about blogging and journalism

I already thought that Mesh was doing nothing right, nothing at all, and then I read the actual conference schedule, which strained credulity by proposing a session entitled “Are Bloggers Journalists?” We were having that discussion in – wait for it – 2001, when white middle-class males, always the last to know, finally discovered blogs. We have long since arrived at an answer to that asinine question. Some bloggers are journalists. Some are diarists, some are photographers, some are podcasters and videographers, and some are simply… bloggers.

The question “Are bloggers journalists?” may be a proxy for “Should we take bloggers seriously?” If so, the answer matches the answer to a question scarcely anyone ever asks: “Should we take writers seriously?” Sometimes yes, other times no. Sometimes when they aren’t taken seriously, they really should be, and vice-versa. Single-issue publications, like gay or Christian ones, have often had trouble getting press accreditation, often because event organizers are antigay or anti-Christian or because they have delusions of grandeur and want nothing smaller than the New York Times covering their events. Yet the White House press gallery was happy to include a gay prostitute whose sole “journalistic” affiliation consisted of a Republican-backed Web site. Mistakes can be, and are, made.

History has repeated itself with bloggers, some of whom are the dominant writers in their fields. (Do you really look at print media for news about technology – or do you read Engadget and Gizmodo? When was the last time you read a magazine like Popular Photography instead of checking Steve’s Digicams or Digital Photography Review?) Some topics are covered online almost exclusively, including several I write about, like accessibility.

We have surely progressed past the pforzheimeresque aspersion that blogs are mere “chat rooms” with no credibility as journalism. Sometimes they have credibility and sometimes they don’t. The discussion of bloggers as journalists is merely a discussion of how big an audience has to be before it counts.

For a conference ostensibly about Web 2.0, which is undefined but seems to encompass blogs (so much so that the organizers and the conference itself all run blogs), there simply isn’t room to dispute that bloggers are journalists and require the same accreditation that print newspapers and television get. A conference on blogging without bloggers covering the conference is a contradiction in terms.

Mesh ended up with next to no blog coverage. Instead of letting me in and allowing me to practise my widely-praised liveblogging skills (can you type 90 words a minute and accurately quote and paraphrase extemporaneous speech for hours at a time?), all Mesh ended up with were a few posts here and there telling us what a great time people had and how one or two speakers sucked. Why not just have Robert Manne write everything if that’s all you were willing to settle for?

Toronto mediocrity

And now we explore why it is that Edelman’s junior publicist, Robert Manne, turned me down. Toronto is a beehive of mediocrity in so very many ways, including Web development. The same kind of middle-aged wankers who were threatening to fuck up the Web in 2001 are threatening to fuck it up now via this Web 2.0 nonsense. It seems the only feature that differentiates the Mesh organizers from 2001-era wankers is that the Mesh guys don’t work in advertising. Like the rest of the Toronto “interactive” scene, they’re bereft of new ideas and are happy to celebrate established trends they only just got wind of. Instead of straining to become a second-rate New York, now we aim for second-rate Silicon Valley.

How exactly do small cities in New Zealand manage to operate successful Web-standards clubs, complete with invited speakers, while Toronto cannot? (God knows I’ve tried.) Tell me why the Toronto contingent of the Canadian New Mediocrity Awards was just as bad as everything else in the country. (Perhaps it isn’t just Toronto that’s mediocre, then. But I thought we were special, bigger, better, more cosmopolitan. Don’t Newfoundlanders move here for a reason?)

Why, I keep asking, do Web sites created in Toronto suck? Because we suck. Yet if you’ve been a staff writer at a newspaper long enough or have flipped enough Internet “properties,” you will have developed a big enough nest egg that you can set up a whole conference celebrating yesterday’s trends without ever realizing just how mediocre you really are.

Remember, I just got back from a conference in Iceland that was more on the ball than Mesh promised to be. And that conference was put on by a 27-year-old as the practicum in his project-management class.

So I called bullshit on Mesh. From what I can tell, I am the sole detractor of the Mesh Conference. But, literally and figuratively, this is not a popularity contest, and the fact that hundreds of people were willing to spend hundreds of dollars to have old news reiterated to them disproves nothing.

I brought into focus another effect of Toronto mediocrity: Unwillingness to accept criticism. Really, from book reviews to “Canadian” cinema to Céline Dion, practically nobody is willing to call bullshit. And when somebody finally does, the reaction is to ignore or ostracize, not engage. (Ask Ryan Bigge.) The instincts that take over are 20th-century, not 21st.

If Web 2.0 is about the conversation and Mesh Conference was about Web 2.0, then it takes colossal hypocrisy to exclude from the conference its greatest detractor. That isn’t a conversation, it’s a monologue, a mutual admiration society. Mesh and Robert Manne acted like quislings scared to death of a little dissent.

I call things as I see them. If your conference really is not shite, then I will duly observe that it isn’t when I’m there – and I’ll say so. Freezing out critics verifies their criticism.

I thought Edelman learned its lesson five years ago. I thought everybody knew by now that central media control only works in Middle East wars, and even then not very well. If you want to run a blogging conference, stop acting like a small-town newspaper.

Questions for Robert Manne

Richard Edelman has apologized, more or less in advance, and asked what Edelman can do to make things right. At this point, very little; Robert Manne tanked about as thoroughly as he possibly could. Still, I do have a list.

  1. Publish the press policy and explain why it was unavailable online. (The link to “media” merely led to a sales pitch for people working in the media.)
  2. Give the number of accredited press and their affiliations. (To avoid PIPEDA violations, personal Web sites can simply be added up and listed in totum. Incorporated media outlets are not people, so name those.)
  3. Give the number of other press requests that were denied, and the reasons.
  4. List the other media outlets and bloggers who were asked to pay for admission.
  5. Document how there was no space left in the conference rooms to accommodate one man with a laptop. (What were the rated fire capacities of the rooms, and what were the expected and actual capacities?)
  6. Explain why I was not offered press credentials as soon as I started covering the conference. (The organizers knew all about it; they sent me mail.)
  7. Demonstrate that these actions were not, in fact, taken in an effort to ostracize the conference’s harshest critic.

Such a response would, of course, be on the record and published. However, I don’t expect to receive one [I later did]. These people work in the public realm, yet seem to think they should be immune to public criticism and – dare I say it? – accountability.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.05.24 13:01. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2006/05/24/edelmanne/

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