The Porcupette goes to a conference

It’s starting to become a bit of a joke that I begin all these blogs running late for events. I’m afraid that all you Quill friends are going to start to think that I am one of those terrible, loosey-goosey, often-late people. I assure you, that is not the case at all! In fact, I am the exact opposite: I am devotedly punctual. Let’s chalk the repetitious nature of my introductions up to a preoccupation with lateness, a fear of being late, if you will, which makes me fret about being late on a regular basis.

I hate to admit it, but last Thursday as I was zipping through the streets of downtown Toronto on my way to the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) conference, I was actually late (and not just anxious about being late—this was the real deal). It all started with a catastrophic misunderstanding, comically punctuated by a scene in which my ride downtown came to get me early Thursday morning and I was still in my pyjamas. You will be happy to know Quill friends that, thanks to a benevolent Toronto cab driver, in the end I did indeed arrive in time—just in time—and was able to successfully sign in before the opening addresses commenced. Believe me, no one was more relieved than I.

At this point, you may be asking yourselves, what is the OMDC? And what was this conference about? And what in god’s name was our dear Porcupette doing there, anyway? Well, the OMDC is a publicly funded initiative that strives to provide support for Ontario’s media cluster—that is book publishing, film and television, interactive digital media, magazine publishing, and the music industries. You might know of the Canadian Bookshelf, which is an online database and network of Canadian-authored books—it was funded in part by OMDC. You may also know of the Trillium Book Award, which OMDC runs on an annual basis.

The conference in question was called Digital Dialogues, and it featured several leaders in media in Ontario. The panels at the conference all focused around topics of digital media, social media, and, surprisingly, social gaming. While none of the discussions had anything to do with books (and very little was even said about books) there were still a lot of interesting points made in the discussions of the day. Emceed by author and satirist Terry Fallis, that morning as I took my place in the conference hall, I felt as if I was part of something important.

Mr. Fallis said it himself in his introduction early that morning. Following the opening remarks, the hashtag for the event was displayed up on the two large screens at the front of the room so that we might tweet about the conference throughout the day. Mr Fallis laughed, saying that “double-screening” (as I later learned it was called) wouldn’t be too hard for this group. At this, I turned to look at the people around me, and Mr Fallis was right. Everyone had a smart phone, iPhone, or iPad in hand. Everyone was connected. And everyone was typing. I looked to the front of the room where a screen was set up next to the OMDC-dedicated tweeter, displaying the results of the OMDC hashtag on twitter. Already the page was filling up with a steady stream of comments. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore: I was in a room with Ontario’s leading media experts. And they were all tweeting / texting / emailing / browsing. So I did what anyone does when they find themselves in a room full a people grossly more qualified and experienced than they are, I grabbed my phone and started tweeting right back. Check out our twitter page to follow my tweets for the day, hashtag OMDCdd2012.

While things like twitter might be fun, the implications of all this emerging social media are actually quite serious. Social media is changing the way we run our businesses, market our products—and even whether or not we stay in business at all.

The pinnacle of the innovations in social media seems to be gamification (either that, or people just like saying the name), which is essentially using game design techniques in order to engage audiences. It is generally applied to non-game processes, and can be used to encourage users to engage in certain desired behaviours. By adding rewards and incentives, gamification can get people to do their chores, keep track of their sleep cycles, take better care of themselves, and even do online banking.

Related to gamification, in my mind, is social gaming. We heard from a lot of social gamers at the conference, including Jean-Francois Arseneau of ODD1, Nathon Gunn of Social Game Universe, and Ken Seto of Massive Damage. Their social games are all “free-to-play,” meaning it costs nothing to download the game and beginning playing. However, certain aspects of their games are monetized. For example, you may pay a small amount of money to upgrade, bypass a level, or acquire tools. Like gamification, social games use a system of incentives to grow their audiences. They will reward their players for convincing their friends to join. Also interesting about the social game designers at OMDC was the way they described changing their games to suit their audiences. With the use of analytics, they are constantly plugged into their games. They can see when their users are playing, how they are playing, and what levels they are getting stuck at. And if a level is too hard? They can go in a make it easier.

This is all well and good for social game designers, but as Arts & Crafts general Manager Kieran Roy pointed out, it’s no good for people in the music industry. They can’t perform market research on a newly released album, discover that listeners usually fast forward through track seven, re-record the track to make it “punchier,” and then re-release the album. Not only would this be impractical (imagine getting a recall on the new Feist album), but it also isn’t what the music industry is about. When an artists creates a song, what they create is an entity in and of itself. It has meaning and purpose, understood by the artist and hopefully conveyed to the audience. If you go in an change the song from its original form to suit another purpose, it loses that meaning, and you preclude the possibility of learning anything from it. And I think the same can be said of books in the publishing industry.

Throughout the conference I was racking my brain, trying to see how all these new forms of media were applicable to us here at the Porcupine’s Quill. At this point, I was with Mr. Roy of Arts & Crafts—I just couldn’t see how that kind of marketing could work for us. However, my answer came at lunch in the form of Choco-locate. Choco-locate is an app for the iPhone created by Lalita Krishna and her team at In Sync Video. Ms. Krishna is a documentary filmmaker, and her work has been broadcast on all the major networks in Canada and shown at festivals all around the world. So why is she making an app that helps users locate the nearest chocolate store? Choco-locate was a project that began alongside the development of Ms. Krishna’s newest documentary, SemiSweet, which explores our relationship with the universal indulgence. Ms. Krishna and her team decided to develop the app in order to create a community of chocolate-lovers, all of whom would be invested in their film when it was released. And that is exactly what they have done. If you visit the Choco-locate website you will find an exhaustive resource of all things chocolate, including information on the upcoming film. And all of this is immediately brought to the attention of anyone who downloads the Choco-locate app. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want an app on their phone that directs them to the nearest chocolate store?

Watching this presentation, it seemed to me that Ms. Krishna and her team had found a way to use social media to leverage their product, without compromising its integrity. The social game designers had all been talking about the importance of community. They offer their games as “free-to-play” in order to create a large community of players. No one would play their games if there wasn’t anyone else to play with. Similarly, no one would log onto facebook if there weren’t other profiles to visit, and no one would tweet if there weren’t other people to tweet back. Even as we move further away from traditional community models, the connections between individuals is still important. Users of the Choco-locate app are more interested in Ms. Krishna’s documentary because they feel a connection to her and her team.

And so it gives me hope. For the same reasons that Ms. Krishna created the Choco-locate app, I write these blogs and tweet back to all our followers on twitter. I want to reach out to our readers and assure them that, yes, indeed, we here at the Porcupine’s Quill are real. Perhaps in the face of so much change, social media will ultimately serve to bring people closer together in this increasingly computer-dominated world.

Until next time … Porcupette out!

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.