Live-Blogging Conferences, Sketchnoting, Live-tweeting: What’s Best?

Last week was SXSW. I wasn’t there, but I saw my twitter stream fill up with livetweets, sketchnotes, storifys, and the odd blog post. Over the last few years, I’ve tried them all and even made my own twists on them. It seems like a good time to reflect on them and the pros and cons.

At the beginning: Blogging

It’s funny to think of blogging as an old format, but in relation to some of the trends in ways to share information, it is.
I’ve done blogging on and off for ages. When I moved to the UK I told myself I’d never attend an event without writing it up (whether this was an act of insanity, I’m not sure. But I have generally done it!).

The biggest problem with blogging is time. I came to the conclusion that if you didn’t write about an event that evening, or at most 24 hours after it happened, you’d never do it. (This is particularly had with Newcastle events and the expectation of drinks afterwards!) I also had a particular baptism of fire after taking on the crazy task of doing conference blogs for Johnny Holland starting with UX Australia 2009—with the caveat that the daily report needed to be up the day before the start of the following one. (I did one other conference solo, but thankfully  was part of a team for the others ).

Looks Good: Sketchnoting

Sketchnotes have been around for a while, but recently started picking up steam with Eva Lotte-Ham’s beautiful examples and subsequent books.
I started flirted with sketchnoting in my pre-iPhone days back in NZ, when I was often stuck at a lecture without a wifi connection.

Sketchnote

Sketchnote from Sustainable Outreach 09, also see my blogpost on the Locus Research blog

It is fun, particularly when you start messing around with media. I later found a way to do digital sketchnoting, and had a lot of fun with making a typeface of my own handwriting and then making Illustrator PDF sketchnotes with type and a Wacom. (You can see the results in my posts from BHCI 2011)

Jayne Wallace

Notes from BHCI, also see PDF

However, no matter which way you skin it (physical or digital), there’s a lot of double handling and extra preparation involved (be it having a Wacom and space with you, or a good camera and lighting to snap shots of your sketchnotes).

I’ve also come to realise that they are, as per the name, sketchnotes, beautiful looking notes, but notes all the same. As great as they look, it can be difficult to pull out the overall gist of a talk beyond the illustrated pullquotes, and near impossible to see the flow of the story if you didn’t see the talk.

Live-tweeting: great with a computer, but watch for that 140.

I’ve been doing live-tweeting since Web09 in 2009 (which I did also blog about). I even did a writeup in 2010 about live-tweeting.

Twitter

2011 me haz l33t tweeting skillz. (Also, remember when we all used Tweetie?)

It is a useful way of pushing info out, and if you’re fast on your fingers you can also grab links for later. Still, part of the struggle becomes keeping an eye on character limits. And up until recently, you were keenly aware that your tweets would effectively disappear after a couple of weeks. This is where storify became useful….

Storify: great with many voices, a bit silly otherwise

I’ve also compiled presentations with storify (both as myself and other people). These are particularly interesting when you start to have a backchannel discussion about what’s going on.

Storify

Example of storify reporting, here for two doctoral students

But when used lazily, they are just a collection of tweets, and I find that the effort used to give context between tweets can sometime be better used just writing a blog post, particularly if you’re the main person doing commentary on a piece. Still, it can be a useful means of pulling information together, particularly when there are a number of talks one after another. On one particularly insane conference, simultaneously live-tweeted and storified talks, which I then used later on to write short reports. Suffice to say I was pretty shattered after the event.

What I Do Now

So, having done all of these things, what do I do now? If I’m at a meetup or something without too many talks, I tend to tweet salient points and images, and then write a proper report after. If I have no wifi I’ll just write notes in Evernote and then write it up (as many of the meetups I go to are in evenings, I’ve had many an occasion of my iPhone dying on me!). If I’m at something that’s pretty intense (i.e. a full day conference) and have my laptop, wifi, and power, my workflow consists of simultaneous twitter and storify (particularly if others are tweeting as well). Depending on how interested I am in writing up the event, I’ll either just give some narrative structure to my storify links, or use them as a basis for writing blog posts.

I still admit that this is a pretty torturous process, probably as I’ve never really done journalism training let alone live reporting. I’ve seen at two pros (Ben Kepes of Idealog at Web09 and Martin Belam of Emblem at EuroIA11) live-blogging conferences and consistently publishing posts about a speaker by the time the next speaker was about to start (from what I saw, Kepes wrote as he went and published during the talk, whereas Belam listened and then wrote a succinct summary in the coffee break).

What I Haven’t Tried

I’d be the first to admit that this isn’t a complete list by any means, I can name a few other means of reporting that I haven’t tried.

I’ve kept an interested eye on the communal notes that have been taking place at Webstock for the last few years. While they’re interesting (particularly during the conference, when you see the document literally shifting before your eyes), what I have noticed is their similar resemblance to sketchnotes: they’re notes, not a commentary, and often with questions as they go along. They also suffer from the feeling of not being cleaned up as say a Wikipedia article might be.

There are audiovisual options as well. I’ve seen people excel at doing vox pop style interviews (Christian Payne aka Documentally’s use of Audioboo comes to mind). It could be that there’s a niche for short audio/video summaries of talks and the like, particularly as the videos from conferences usually take a few months to appear.

Finally, there is a growing redux culture in local areas after a conference, or more recently, to wrap up a conference (though in regards to the latter, a talented plenary speaker will often weave in comments based on what has already happened in the event—Bruce Sterling is pretty good at this). I’ve never been a fan of five-minute madness style endings to conference, but was interested in this year’s Interaction conference getting three people to give summaries/slidedecks of what they considered the conference themes.

My Concerns: We’re Losing Narrative

One thing that worries me with the ever growing popularity of sketchnotes is the triumph of note taking rather than reporting (or at least an attempt at it). Of course, people have always taken notes, just keeping them to themselves in the past. My worry is that we’re creating a mass of data without much reporting—how many people really look at all those sketchnotes/unannotated storifys after an event?

As it turns out, I’m not the only person worrying about disappearance of blogging in relation to design events and the like. In a recent interview, Jeremy Keith spoke of the change:

Nowadays, most people have given up on blogging and just tweet stuff, so now is the perfect time to be establishing yourself as someone who can write. When I think about all the people I admire as designers, they tend to be really good front-end developers (and I don’t think that’s a coincidence) but also great writers. When we’re hiring at Clearleft, I always look to see if someone has a blog. If someone writes about design – or whatever they’re interested in – that’s always a few bonus marks in my book.

If I had one plea to the design and tech crowd, it’d be that as amazing as tweets and sketchnotes are—in fact, they’re an amazing way to find out about and follow events you aren’t able to attend—they are no replacement for making sense of what you’ve heard in some sort of redux, be it a blog post, audio recording, or presentation afterwards.

Design Interest March 2013

My notes from last night’s Design Interest are on their blog. (As Posterous is shutting down, the group is in the process of moving to Tumblr, hence the temporary domain). This month’s talks consisted of Jules Quinn of The Teashed, animator James Taylor of Arcus Studios, and artist and arts co-ordinator Lauren Healey.

In a related note, one thing I’ve noticed as a blogger (*cringes* sorry I had to use that phrase!) is how Posterous, Tumblr and the like really do aim at the micro-blogger rather than the blogger. If you write detailed posts with header tags, quotes, tweets, and Youtube embeds, WordPress really does spoil you to the point that you can’t go back (I particularly miss the wordpress shortcodes that allow you to merely insert a twitter or youtube URL for it to automagically turn into an embed, responsive at that).

Theming With WordPress Multisite

I was recently asked to do some WordPress development on a set of two sub-sites that would nest under a main site. It seemed like a good chance to try out WordPress multi-site. However, as per everything, there are gotchas that you find out when actually implementing a new feature.

Why use Multisite?

There are a lot of good reasons why not to use WordPress Multisite, mainly if the functionality is going to change a lot between sites, or there aren’t many common users. However, these sites were a good opportunity to do it: shared domain (though you can map to different domains if need be), a custom theme that would only change in colours any minor imagery between the sites (though this wasn’t quite as simple as I assumed), and a combination of people working on only one site, or needing access across the board.

Range of sites

 

Setting it all up

The Multisite installation is well documented and relatively painless (once you’ve enabled wp-config.php to allow for multisite, you can even make new sites from the WordPress Dashboard!) . The main difference is that when logging in, you become the Super Administrator able to switch between sites and able to activate plugins and themes (see below).

Multisite

However, there are some annoying quirks of the system probably stemming from the functionality originally being a plug-in.

Uploads don’t Share Across Sites

This is probably to be expected, but I mention it anyway. While it does mean in some cases you may have to upload a media asset several times, it also means that administrators on each site can delete files without fear of it breaking one of the other sites.

Custom Upload Paths? Er, No.

I was ecstatic when I found out earlier this year how to get uploads out of that obviously ‘made with wordpress’ wp-content file folder. (Yes, I get excited about strange things). However, if you try and do anything like this with Multisite, you’ll just end up with errors, as far as I can tell. (The files will save, but the media library won’t accept them). So, you’re stuck with paths looking like /wp-content/uploads/site-1/IMAGE.JPG. It’s not ideal for people who’d rather play down the WP aspect or try and safeguard file hacking by moving the folders out of the obvious places, but I guess that this is one of the teething issues for a website becoming a CMS.

Mapping Sub-sites: All Or Nothing

Similarly, the WP folder rewrites are pernickety. As far as I can tell, you can’t have a non-Wordpress top level along with non-WP subfolders.
I was hoping to have the multisite work as subdomains, but couldn’t due to hosting constraints. So, it came down to using subfolders. They actually work reasonably well (you just need to set them in network settings). However, my original plan to have two subfolder sites and a top level static page were quickly scuttled. In short: if you want a top level site and subfolder ones, make them all run as WP sites, even if the top level one is a single page.

The multi-site setup

Plugins and Themes Don’t Have to Be Network Activated to Be Available

Another weird thing to get your head around is the Network Activation settings. From what I can see, Multisite strips administrators of individual sites of the ability to add themes and plugins. However, from the Sites Settings as a super-administrator, you can allow these to be specifically available to a site. This is different from Network activate which makes a plugin/theme available to all sites.
Another interesting point is that you don’t have to activate a parent theme when you activate a child one (useful if you’re worried about people messing with the parent theme and causing all end of trouble).

Themes and Plugins

Theming

Child Theme or Roll Your Own?

In the past, I was inclined to use my own defaults when it came to theming. However, now, I’m more inclined to use child themes, particularly when it comes to WordPress. This is because WordPress changes incredibly quickly, so I assume that their themes should be more likely to make the most of new developments. (Also, to be honest, WordPress has always had great themes, far more so than Drupal, which could often be overkill).

Cancelling things out in functions.php

However, there are some gotchas involved with using these themes. One of the nefarious ones I noticed was the “powered by wordpress” footer appearing as an overlay on the page. These things are easily rectified in functions.php however.

No Grandchildren Allowed

Unfortunately, you can’t have a child theme of a child theme (which you can do in Drupal and is incredibly useful). So, if you want ways to get around this, you have one of three options:

  1. Duplicate themes and activate for each site only. This would be the most painless way, but obviously involves duplication, particularly if you’re making global changes to how the theme appears on both sites.
  2. Use the theme options for each site. To be honest, this is probably the official WordPress way, but I would rather not do it, as it means that your admins can change the colours (thanks to another annoying WP default, anyone who you need permission to be able to change widgets also gets permission to change themes and theme options). In this situation the sites were also highly designed down to the colours, so it made sense to be able to hard code the options.
  3. Use body classes to target specific sites. I preferred the idea in this case of being able to target different sites with CSS overrides and thereby use the single theme as a master theme. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is nothing in the body tags that lets you target a specific site on a multi-install. I ended up adding in a class through functions.php. function add_slug_body_class( $classes ) {
    global $post;
    if ( isset( $post ) ) {
    $classes[] = $post->post_type . ‘-’ . $post->post_name;
    }
    return $classes;
    }
    add_filter( ‘body_class’, ‘add_slug_body_class’ );

On hindsight, I’d probably change this to be ‘site-1′ etc as this is less likely to change than the site title (which is what I hacked it from at present).

Other thoughts

The risk of editing themes and other administrator power. As I mentioned earlier, it’s irritating that by default editing widgets also means that you can edit the theme. However, I’ve been helped out by an unexpected benefit: the hosting we use has strict settings when it comes to editing files on the server in that it has to be manually unlocked.

All up, it is pretty cool to see a single theme used in different ways on a multi-install site. And it’s handy to be able to tell clients that they can delete whatever they want on their subsite without worry of ruining everyone else’s. Still, I think it still is early days in regards to WordPress Multisite, and would be happy to see them both improve their upload file system, and allow grandchild themes.