Over 200 bloggers and entrepreneurs from around the state converged upon Rollins College’s Bush Auditorium to hear speakers from around the country come to talk about blogging, social media, and the evolution of the internet community. This was the second year of BlogOrlando, an unconference. Last year, there were 90 attendees. This year, the registration was closed when they hit 290 and the organizers (basically . I was honored to be there and met some awesome people doing some very awesome things.

Shel Israel started the conference out with a keynote bang. I was a few minutes late so I missed his early points. He had a great talk about international blogging based on information he has been compiling. I really came away from that realizing, even more so, the affect of writing, and how empowering it can be to those who are oppressed. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (one of my favorite reads of all time), Dietrich Bonhoffer’s writings, or the apostle Paul’s letters (most of which were written while in prison), blogging is a way of getting the word out. Those less fortunate than most Americans are starting to use blogging in ways that we can’t. Of course, we are seeing that right now in Myanmar where the central news was getting the bulk of their information from a single blogger. The militants grew so paranoid about his reports they pulled the plug on the entire internet in the region. This is the power of the written word and the internet is enabling it instantly. Shel is an interesting guy with a long history in all things webified.

Laurie Mayers, the Senior Vice President of Hass MS&L, a public relations company tasked with General Motors’ internet communications (among other things) spoke on managing GM’s five internet blogs they help GM to maintain. I was stunned to learn that GM has approved over 18,000 comments on one of their blogs! That’s after deleting spam and foul comments. They truly are opening the discussion with their consumers directly. Their most popular blog is known as the FastLane Blog. They’ve had this blog running since January 2005, almost three years. How about you, small business owner? Where’s your blog?

Laurie pointed out a fascinating event that took place between the New York Times and GM after the NYT published a scathing editorial about GM’s offer to lock-in gas prices for two years for purchasers of certain large SUV’s as an incentive to purchase. The NYT gave GM a complete run-around in allowing them to publish a formal response. In the end, GM published their response on their blog, along with all of the NYT’s emails giving GM a run-around. One blogger I met, Jake McKee, pointed out astutely how the real issue of whether or not GM was not addressing the gas conservation issue became water under the bridge once the word got that the NYT was playing “hard to get” with GM. You can (and should) read the thread. It is a fascinating look at the balance of power shifting away from traditional media and into the hands of “the little guy”, even when that Little Guy is a billion-dollar company. Here’s GM’s initial blog response to the article the day after. And here’s their behind-the-scenes (not so much anymore) email thread attempting to get a formal response published in the NYT. And when the NYT published yet another column by Thomas Friedman, this time in response to GM’s initial blog response, GM responded again on their blog.

Laurie spoke on the challenges of running such a huge blog and on dealing with the various parties and their interests: GM owners, GM prospects, union auto workers, the media, and more — all having one giant conversation in the same room, so to speak. In private, some bloggers expressed to me disappointment with some of GM’s policies which made their blog a little less, well, bloggy. However, I pointed out, as much as we might want GM to improve a few key areas in terms of openness, look how far they are from not only their direct competition, but most other companies in America. I’ve said this before, but I recommend any business, including my clients, to read The Beginner’s Guide to Business Blogging, by Debbie Weil (or buy her entire book, The Corporate Blogging Book). If more companies were doing what GM was doing, we wouldn’t have seen some of the communication fiascos we saw the past year.

I ended up having lunch with the same Jake McKee from above, one of the speakers at the event. Jake spent five years of his life toiling away at LEGO, trying to get them to open up and embrace their consumers. He saw success near the end, but spent a lot of that time in misery, as old cogs in the wheel kept chipping away at his progress. He’s well-valued for his understanding of the relationship that companies have with their consumers, as well as the relationships bloggers have with their readers. One thing I liked about Jake. He used the marriage analogy often. We’ve all heard those who want to start a business and immediately rake in the bucks. Or start a blog and be the Robert Scoble of the blogsosphere. Except that those “overnight” businesses are never created overnight. And Robert Scoble spent years in the trenches developing relationships before seemingly busting out into the big wide world. In addition to Jake’s business Ants Eye View, he has another fantastic blog regarding all sorts of issues. Add it to your feed. I’ll be talking more about some of Jake’s talking points in a future post.

Gina Welker and her brother Evan joined us for lunch. Thanks to her recommendation of a true Spanish restaurant in Ye Olde Winter Park, I had my first taste of blood sausages. Boy, were they ever delicious. I can’t recall how many times I discarded recipes for blood sausages playing World of Warcraft, but I see now that was a mistake. Gina works for a PR firm in Tallahassee and had come down to get some insight and inspiration into the blogosphere as it would pertain to her job up there.

One of the last conferences I participated in was a lively one. Led by Lish Dorset, a blogger who runs HandMadeDetroit, the discussion was over the separation of our internet lives from our real lives. And if you do so. And should you do so. And if so, how?

The discussion ended up being a bit of free-for-all with opinions ranging from “be real online all the time, even if it hurts you sometimes in the real world” (kind of my position too), to “have two totally distinct personas and never the two shall meet”. It’s a huge topic these days. Some great folks contributed to the conversation. William Couch and Etan Horowitz, both from the Orlando Sentinel, obviously have to deal with this in their jobs working for a public entity like a newspaper, but at the same time, being a real people with thoughts and ideas that may or may not complement those of the Sentinel or its readers. Very challenging. JoeyPrimiani, an 18-year old web designer and blogger, had some very keen insights as well. One lady, Nichole, worked for a PR firm by day, but runs an interesting blog that may not be to the tastes of some her firm’s clients. How do you wrestle with that? Do you give up blogging and have no online presence? Well, obviously, no one at this conference was suggesting that, but many people in the world do make that choice. Is it the right choice? Are they just being paranoid? Or are they stifling their own inner-writer/creative persona in favor of an employer’s legalistic policies? Good questions all, and a great discussion.

The talk that probably inspired me the most was the one that Tommy Duncan, of Sticks of Fire, gave. Tommy runs a “hyperlocal” blog about the Tampa Bay area that has become a virtual news source. He’s been doing it for four years and he truly encouraged me with his talk. A lot of great questions were asked. I’ve jumped on two major projects upon my return, mostly due to the inspiration of seeing what he is doing in Tampa. Tommy gave the interesting story about how when he first moved into a neighborhood in Tampa, he passed out flyers inviting all his new neighbors to a backyard BBQ at 2:00 on Saturday. Only one guy showed up. I think I would have been discouraged at that point and just stayed home and watched cable TV forever. But, Tommy started working on a localized blog about Tampa Bay events and within a short time was getting more than 30 comments on some posts. He looked at it like this: Hey, not everyone can make it to a backyard BBQ and get to know each other, but they can log onto a website on their own time and start to get involved with the community. He now has a few people working with him on the blog, and it gets over 30,000 visitors a month. Yes, the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times are not thrilled with him.

Rumor has it (and of course, by rumor, I mean only to inflame it further by repeating it here) that next year’s BlogOrlando could encompass 500 attendees. I wouldn’t be surprised. Once registration for next year is up, I’ll post it here.

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Thanks Lawrence for a great wrap-up of BlogOrlando. I was there as well but stayed glued to my seat in the Tech room. Great to hear things that went on elsewhere. I t seems like GE at least has some forward thinking on the development and progress of their company. I am glad to be working for a corporation that allows me to post on their behalf and get the community involved in the conversation. There is a lot to learn and a long way to go for corporate America to open up and “unconferences” like BlogOrlando are a great start. Already looking forward to next year!

Hey Lawrence,
excellent summary! It was great meeting you, and I too was inspired by the sessions, especially Tommy Duncan’s talk on hyperlocal blogging.

Great summary!

Glad you found the hyperlocal topic inspiring. I really believe in the tools of the internet to bring community back to the community (I know, that sounds so odd). Please keep me apprised of your efforts…

Well, this would certainly explain a number of things, like why you’ve been ignoring me!!! Me, me me!!! Now, now now!!! Whatever. And why wasn’t I given this wrap up directly, Seymour?

I wish I had gone with you, sounded like it was a great event just based on what you had to say. Also, I just wanted to announce that I read this (comments included) in three minutes under the estimated time that you list. Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.

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