The 140 Characters Conference, internet entrepreneur Jeff Pulver’s free-wheeling presentation of the endless ways that Twitter and social media are transforming contemporary life, returned to New York’s 92nd Street Y, June 15-16, with its usual frenzied combination of visionary social transformation and no-nonsense marketing strategies. Among the many and varied presenters this year were Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, N.J.; Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley and Ian J. Spector, the web entreprenuer, cognitive neuroscientist, and author, who wrote a series of books based on hilarious fake facts about actor Chuck Norris that have sold millions of copies.
Like Twitter itself, the 140 Characters Conference offers a succession of nugget-size informational packets—in this case short presentations by entrepreneurs, social activists, teachers, business people, celebrities and politicians; really almost anyone—all giving testimony to the wave of social change wrought by Twitter and social media in general. Presenters have 10 minutes (panels sometimes get 15 minutes and the beginnings of “Exodus” is played when presenters go on too long) to share their experiences and show how social media has provided new opportunities for fulfilling dreams or enabled them to connect with like-minded individuals they would have never been able to meet otherwise.
Something of an internet prodigy, Pulver cofounded Vonage, the voice over internet protocal telephone services provider, long before he launched the140 Characters Conferences as a kind of traveling carnival of Twitter phenomena , presenting these conferences in cities all around the country. Pulver is a big dude, both physically and emotionally, and PW (like everyone he greets) got a big hug from him when we introduced ourselves. Pulver peppers his conversation with words like “disruption,” and “disintermediation,” and it can be difficult to resist his very well documented spiel on all the ways that Twitter has brought disparate people together to create something new, whether its bringing attention to the homeless, selling low-sodium meals, helping the IRS (@JAOrquina and @IRSNews) serve taxpapers or working to end corporal punishment (designer @MarcEcko’s Unlimited Justice movement) in public schools.
Although we missed Booker’s presention, PW arrived in time to hear Krupali Tejura (@Krupali), a radiation oncologist, who told a heart-rending story of blogging and Tweeting about a terminal cancer patient’s desperate hope to live long enough to make it to her wedding anniversary and see a concert by a favorite classical musician. Thanks to Twitter, the musician, the Dutch violinist Andre Rieu, I believe, heard about her plight, contacted Tejura and provided VIP tickets and backstage access to the patient who indeed managed to live and see the concert. “Twitter is amazing,” she said, “The world is listening, it cares and it wants to help.”
Reaching out to get or give help is always a theme at the 140 conferences, especially in education. Presentations by Kim Sivick (@ksivick), a Philadephia k-12 teacher, outlined a typically inspirational story of using Twitter and blogging to connect with a dirt-poor rural village in Uganda. Sivick eventually visited the village herself, bonding with the teachers and the students and provided the village computer teacher with both a new computer and a real connection to her and to the students in her classes. Much like at last year’s 140 conference, Twitter’s ability to get students involved in class projects as well as help educators communicate across states, cities and countries, continues to impress. Hadley Fergusson (@Hadleyif), a middle school history teacher, uses Twitter and Skype to connect her students studying Japanese culture to a Japanese Buddhist priest, while New Jersey teacher Patrick Higgins (@pjhiggins) said, “there are so many way to use social media to turn your students into real apprentices. If you’re studying astronauts, then you can use Twitter to actually talk to one.” And fairly charismatic Syracuse University professor Anthony Rotolo (@rotolo) presented “college in real-time,” and showed how he turned his class in information science into twitter-driven course with a following far beyond Syracuse. “All devices are allowed in my class,” he said, “any technology the students want. Twitter is always on a big screen in the class and the class (#rotoloclass) has a big following on twitter. Twitter increases student engagement.”
Calling himself Tiajuana Jackson, Romany Malco (@romanymalco), the black actor in the hit film, The 40 Year Old Virgin, posed as a hustling ex-con—sentenced to prison for smoking while siphoning gas out of a school bus—turned successful motivational speaker. He was so entertaining, in fact, Pulver had to point out a little later that it was a joke, just before “Jackson” interviewed Patrick Starzan (@starzan), marketing v-p at Funny or Die, the wildly successful comedy web video site, onstage. And Ian Spector (@IanJSpector), who indeed has a degree in cognitive neuroscience, outlined how he turned a goofy idea (“write a book with 400 fake facts about Chuck Norris”) into an internet and book publishing phenomenon. (After the first book sold like crazy, Norris sued him over copyright/trademark infringement. But after settling the suit, Spector said, Norris’s lawyers quickly asked “when are you going to write another book?”)
Twitter and social media have been just as revolutionary in their impact on business but this is where the 140 conference gets a bit schizophrenic. Twitter’s impact on branding and marketing has been tremendous but the gap between, say, a presentation by homeless advocate Mark Horvath (@hadlynormal), who spoke about Invisiblepeople.TV, a video/blog outreach project to help the homeless, and brand and marketing gurus like Hank Wasiak (@hankwasiak) and Jay Ehret (@themarketingguy), can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable. The brand strategists are certainly smart and effective, pointing that social media has had a revolutionary impact on business, allowing companies to find out what consumers actually think of their products and services, directly from consumers. But marketing and branding strategies focused on social media can quickly descend into the murky, zen-like platitudes of an infomerical—Truth, Transparency and Trust!—becoming what seems to be an annoying mystification of business strategy, at least to this reporter.
Of course there are always exceptions and digital marketer Eric Weaver’s (@Weave) campaign to raise consumer awareness of food producer Knorr’s low-sodium prepared food is one of them. He created cute “emotional” characters—an adorable anthropomorphic salt (and pepper) shaker—and featured the character in YouTube videos, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SaltysLife), following its very funny adventures looking for a new life when the family stops using salt. Knorr sales rose 24%; the company sold 20,000 of the shaker figurines and the videos attracted more than 375,000 views on YouTube, “customers want to engage with the products they like and they will purchase more if you engage them,” Weaver said.
But the emotional centerpiece (along with Horvath's Invisible People project) of the first day of the conference was Andy Dixon (@andydixn), an ex-convict who served 27 years in prison. Dixon was on last years program but it doesn’t matter, his mission and message—he works to keep juveniles out of prison—will get to you. Working with writer Brett Henley (@bretthenley) and photographer Geo Geller (@GeoGeller) as part of a project called, socialsculptures.com, Dixon and his wife Linda are working on blog (Iamconvicted.com, “a community of narrative reinvention”) they hope to turn into a book about their lives and their support of the incarcerated and those who have been incarcerated. “65 million Americans have been in prison and are starving for someone to pay attention to them, “ Dixon said, “they need jobs and they need help to keep more people out of prison.”
So whatever you’ve heard about Twitter and social media changing the world, spend an afternoon at a140 Characters Conference and you’ll likely come away a believer. It’s very hard not to like Pulver, who told PW that the biggest change he’s seen in the 140 Characters Conferences is, “diversity. We’ve got people and presenters from 17 countries around the world.” Last year, Pulver said, he tried achieving, “world domination,” and launched 140 conferences in 10 cities, including London. But he’s backed off a bit, he said, “we’re letting local people do things now.” Nevertheless he plans to launch, 140Edu, an education focused 140 conference, in New York City in August.
“Using Twitter, we can document our lives in real-time and people can get to know people they wouldn’t have before,” he said. “And we don’t believe a tweet can be silly, because we think everyone matters.”