Finding blog-life balance

Some of you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I last wrote on Tenth to the Fraser, though thankfully I have had Jen’s prolific contributions to carry the torch while I’ve been quiet. Sometimes I get quiet because life gets too busy to blog, and sometimes I just need a bit of space alone with my thoughts.

The last month or so has found me both very busy and more introspective than usual. In my recent efforts to create better work-life balance, I have found a new joy in embracing the time away from the Internet to better focus on the task at hand, whether it’s billable client work, scrubbing the kitchen or playing Lego with my kids. Along with work-life balance, I also struggle with blog-life balance. I often feel guilty both for spending too much time blogging and for not spending enough time at it. I am coming to accept that it’s just the way it is: there is a time to blog, and a time to step away from the blog and just live your life.

Today, we have more data than ever on what ‘ordinary’ people are thinking and doing, because we are now all able to leave our mark on the Internet. But as ever, this fails to account for a great many meaningful moments that never do get written down or uploaded to YouTube. And that’s OK too. I think that we risk becoming spectators of our own lives if we are too focused on Tweeting every thought and photographing or videotaping every milestone.

On the other hand, in some aspects of my life I find that I gain a great deal by taking the time to reflect on my thoughts and experiences and write them down. As I explain my thinking to others, I understand it more fully myself. Blogging, Facebooking and all the rest can be wonderful ways to connect with people and explore ideas, but what really matters is your experience in the world and the impact your life has on others.

One thing I love about the New Westminster social media community that has emerged over the past few years is that it isn’t just an online echo chamber. Over and over I see examples of people making friends (who they actually do see in person as well as online), businesses winning customers, our City engaging citizens and all kinds of ordinary people coming up with great ideas to make our town a better place to live – and organizing themselves to make it happen.

 

New West Hyacks the Web

A Twitter search for #NewWest
A Twitter search for #NewWest

A little less than two years ago, I went looking for an online community of New Westminsterites online. The virtual version of New West was a pretty lonely place back then. I found a few bloggers. A few more on Twitter. A handful of Facebook groups.

I was thinking of launching a blog about life in New West, but when I saw how little local activity there was, I wondered whether anyone would even read it. Then I found an active local photography group on Flickr, which was encouraging. Will and I decided to go ahead with the blog, just for the fun of it.

We created the first incarnation of Tenth to the Fraser on Blogger, where it’s easy (and free) to start a blog – and even easier to abandon it if you lose interest. But the more we wrote, the more fun we had and the better connected we felt to our community. We started making new friends, shopping at more local businesses, and taking more time to learn about local issues. We started to see New West in a different way. As we slowly started to meet more people online and we got involved in more civic events, we became not just residents but active agents in a changing community. We became empowered.

I created alerts for Twitter and Google for New West, and I reached out to bloggers and Twitter folk who wrote about our city. A few of them ignored me. But a lot of them became readers and some even became contributors to our blog. I learned that I had been mistaken. It wasn’t that New Westminster didn’t have many people online. It was that the people who were online didn’t identify themselves as being part of our community. The more that people Tweeted and blogged about New West, the more people started owning up to living here.

We wrote a lot about New West, and gradually we saw other people do the same. We started using the #NewWest hashtag on Twitter, and then our friends did too. Then their friends did, and their friends. Now the local newspapers do too.

There is a perception that blogging is passive. But through the last couple of years I’ve seen how it can be used to inspire change. Cheekily, we said the goal of Tenth to the Fraser was to “Hyack the Web.” By that, we meant to chivvy New West to hurry up and become a more digital city. What we didn’t foresee was the offline change.

Today, there is not only a parallel digital community in New Westminster that lives on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, but also new offline friendships and activities that would likely never have existed were it not for #NewWest.

A few examples:
@duckbeaver and @weskoop were inspired to become part of their resident’s association, and have live-tweeted council meetings. Both have also volunteered their skills to benefit local organizations.
@jenarbo changed her mind about moving to Vancouver Island and instead bought a house in New West. She also became the market manager for the Royal City Farmers Market – a job she likely wouldn’t have even known to apply for if she didn’t write a blog (and through it become a TF contributor, then friend).
– If I had never started Tenth to the Fraser, I would never have called together the committee that organized Summerfest in Grimston Park.

#NewWest is bigger than one blog, of course. We got the ball rolling, inspiring more people to represent themselves as New Westminster aficionados online. In the chain of events that followed, there were a bunch of cool things that happened because of what we did. But it’s even cooler that people no longer have to find Tenth to the Fraser to find #NewWest.

Today #NewWest is a vastly different place than two years ago. One big change is that there is now an institutional presence in social media.
City Hall and both local newspapers are active on Facebook (The Record) and Twitter (The Record & The Newsleader). Two councillors are tweeting (Jon Cote & Betty McIntosh), several comment on local blogs and Facebook pages, and many more at City Hall keep tabs on what #NewWest voices have to say about New Westminster.
– A number of local reporters are starting to use #NewWest for story leads.
– Local businesses and organizations like the BIA are also experimenting with using social media to connect with their customers.

Best of all, if the last two years are any indication, #NewWest’s online community-building chatter will inspire more people to get involved offline.

Twittering in New West

The mayor’s dream of citywide wifi notwithstanding, New Westminster is not a town that fetishizes digital culture. Until recently, we have not even had a visible local blogging presence (most local bloggers mark themselves as being in “Vancouver”). So you can imagine my surprise when four people in the small crowd at the recent Royal City Farmer’s Market AGM  told me they were on Twitter.  

Only about 1% of online Canadians are on Twitter, according to recent ComScore stats, but the service is growing incredibly quickly. According to Compete, Twitter grew an astonishing 752% in 2008, from about 500,000 visitors per month to 4.43 million by December. There’s something afoot.

Twitter is a funny little beastie. Think of it as a cross between instant messaging and a chatroom. Or, looking back a little farther, it’s like the old “party line” telephones, where everyone could eavesdrop on each other’s conversations.

  • When the party line is already in use, if any of the other subscribers to that line pick up the phone, they can hear and participate in the conversation. 
  • The completely non-private party lines were a cultural fixture of rural areas for many decades, and were frequently used as a source of entertainment and gossip, as well as a means of quickly alerting entire neighborhoods in case of emergencies such as fires.

Source: Wikipedia

There’s more. Messages are limited to 140 characters, the same as a text message

It sounds bizarre, I know, but try it and you’ll see: Twitter opens the door to serendipity.

Oddly enough, the constraints of the system help to inspire creativity. Some examples: Poets turn Tweets into art. Storytellers craft their tales in 140-character increments. Journalists use Twitter to find story leads and perform interviews. Companies and marketers are using it to respond to customer complaints. A non-profit raised $10,000 in 48 hours to build a classroom in Tanzania via Twitterthrough its “Tweetsgiving” campaign. Twitter was the best source of breaking news updates about the recent civic elections in B.C. The Red Cross and emergency planning departments are using it to keep people up to date on disaster response. And here in New West, neighbours are making friends via Tweetups (Twitter-coordinated meetups)

Just like the old telephone party lines, Twitter can help facilitate a sense of community:

  Though the lines lacked privacy, they helped build a sense of community. If several calls in succession to the same number sparked worries that something was wrong, others would pick up and listen in to find out whether there was anything they could do to help.

“It wasn’t really nosiness, it was neighborliness,” Helen Musselman of Hamilton County, Ind., told an oral history interviewer in the 1980s.

Now, she said, “it’s cold. . . . You don’t know what your next-door neighbor is doing.” 

Source: Privateline.com telephone history  

One rite of passage for new Twitterers is to learn the quirks of the system. Just like those old party lines that rang once for Joan and twice for Marjorie, on Twitter there are ways to let people know the “call” is for them:

  • @ = reply or attention (@duckbeaver indicates I’m either replying to something he said or that I think something I am saying will interest him)
  • # = keyword that indicates a tweet is part of a larger discussion (#motrinmoms, #NewWest, #flight1549)
  • RT or Retweet = forwarded message (convention is to include the original source, i.e. RT @source then write the message)
  • d = Direct Message (private between sender & recipient)
  • More than one symbol can be used at a time. Example tweet: josiejose @breebop RT @chronicbabe listening to “twitter for journalists” from columbia j school on blog talk radio http://is.gd/eUSN

While Twitter itself is a fairly basic, stripped-down service, its application programming interface (API) allows third-party developers build applications that riff off  Twitter data or improve the Twitter experience.  Some useful tools in the latter category include:

  • Twhirl – desktop client that allows you to tweet from more than one account, can select to be notified with a pop-up every time someone you follow tweets or replies/direct messages you.
  • Twitterfeed – Input your RSS feed to automatically tweet your blog posts
  • Twitterbar – Firefox extension to post URLs to Twitter from your browser
  • Twitterific & Twinkle – iPhone apps (there are others, these are just two examples)
  • Brightkite – Location-based social network that syncs with Twitter (has an iPhone app & website)

Finally, some pointers on Twitter etiquette:

  • Use your real name and add a photo. Companies can tweet, but it’s better if they are represented by an individual.
  • To find followers, follow others. Reciprocation is not required, but it is encouraged.
  • It is possible to tweet too much. Don’t flood your followers’ Twitter streams.
  • If you retweet, identify the source with @sourcename in your message. It’s ok to truncate the original message if you need to.
  • If you’re a business, don’t try to “sell” via Twitter. Use it to show your personality, offer special Twitter-only deals, reveal the inside scoop or respond to customer feedback.

If you have any other questions about Twitter, or how to use it, please let us know in the comments. And, of course, feel free to follow us on Twitter @10thtothefraser. If you Tweet about New West, consider using the #NewWest hashtag to aggregate local information.

Some other local Twitterati:

There are more, of course. If I have forgotten you, I apologize. Please leave a comment with your Twitter ID if you’d like to be added to the New Westminster Twitterati list 🙂 

And, once again, Saturday January 23, there is a New Westminster Tweetup for bloggers and Twitterers at 3pm at the Heritage Grill. Come on by and say hello.

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Northern Voice ticket contest – Newbies only

Ruth Seeley is giving away one ticket to the Northern Voice blogging conference (Feb. 20/21). The catch is that it has to be someone new to blogging and social media. I think it’s a great idea. NV is supposed to be for both established bloggers and people who just want to see what the fuss is about. When tickets sell out less than five days after registration begins, it’s much more difficult for the newcomers to get involved.

To enter, leave a comment on Ruth’s No Spin PR blog with either a link back to your blog (if you have one) or your email address. The contest closes Jan. 31 and the winner will be announced Feb. 3.

Here are Ruth’s rules:

 

  • You must be 35 or older to enter.
  • You must be an entrepreneur. Solopreneur is fine.
  • You must be truly bewildered by social media, but eager to learn.
  • You must enter the contest by posting a comment on this blog post, with either a link to your own blog (if you have one) OR your email address. (There’s neoLuddite and then there’s Stone Age – if you don’t have an email address and don’t know how to access the Internet from even the public library, you’re not quite ready for social media). 
  • Your comment should include some details on what you hope to learn about social media and why you think social media can help you with your business endeavours.
  • Your contest-entry comment must be registered on this blog post by midnight, PST, January 31, 2009.
  • You must be a Northern Voice/blogging/social media conference newbie. If you’ve attended a seminar on social media (blogging, podcasting, Twittering, LinkedIn, etc.) lasting less than a day, you’re still eligible.
  • The winner will be required to answer a simple skill-testing question designed to showcase his/her ability to use Google. Or a dictionary.

 

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