Reflections on xPotomac, Civility, and Being a Hook

March 4th, 2013 | Shonali Burke | 40 Comments

xPotomac 2013xPotomac was a hit

Last week saw one of my first projects for 2013 – as well as what I think was one of the most unique conferences I’ve been privileged to not just speak at, but even attend – culminate. It was xPotomac; the brainchild of Geoff Livingston, who previously gave the DC area another great conference series, Blog Potomac, and Patrick Ashamalla. Since BP shut its doors, we have dearly lacked a conference (or unconference, if you prefer) of that nature.

Image: Isabel Saldarriaga via Twitter

It’s not the the DC area is lacking in conferences for our industry; far from it. In fact, these days you can’t move five feet without hitting some kind of conference, or happy hour, or tweetup, or something or other of the kind. But many of them are, in my opinion, very similar in nature, and I have not, for some years, felt the same level of excitement as I did previously for Blog Potomac and, recently, for xPotomac.

What made it different

Well, xP was terrific. I’m not going to do a post-mortem; more than enough has been written about it. Joanna Pineda did a wonderful video interview of Geoff at the event, Tinu Abayomi-Paul Storify’d it beautifully, and Mike Schaffer, Jamie Notter, Jay Daughtry, KiKi L’Italien, and Sohini Baliga have all provided extremely interesting and thought-provoking POVs. Here’s a lovely collection of photos of the day from Eventifier.

The one thing that everyone noticed, and commented on – and was our aim with the conference – was the high quality of interaction and conversation between everyone in an extremely intimate space. That is what is lacking from most conferences these days. It wasn’t a conference where speakers were speaking to the audience; they (we) spoke with them, and spent much more time hearing from them than vice versa.

A mini-storm in a micro-teacup

If you followed the Twitter stream, or even if you read some of the posts, you’ll have noticed references to Andrew Keen’s (the closing keynote’s) negativity. The focus of that negativity? Me.

You see, I closed my presentation (on social scoring) and kicked off the Q&A by reminding folks of how Dino Dogan (Triberr founder and someone who is just as effervescent IRl as he is on the screen) had closed a piece he’d written on xP prior to the event:

“When attendees could easily be the speakers, you know this conference will be the tits.”

And Andrew took exception to that. No, great “offense.” Because he’s the author of The Cult of the Amateur. So, staying true to form, he was offended by the notion (or comment) that anyone in the audience could have been a speaker.

Taking offense

So he then proceeded to lay into me. Twice. Four times if you count the additional two times he asked me my name (and still couldn’t get it right). I answered politely and sat quietly, though I was somewhat shaky internally. Occasionally I checked, and responded to, the Twitter stream, which was buzzing with outrage. And I have to tell you, that, as well as the outpouring of affection and support after the event meant a lot to me.

I was so, so tempted to try and rebut what he’d said during the Q&A, but frankly, I didn’t think it was worth it. Because the conversation by then had moved on to other elements. So I kept quiet and joined everyone in a hearty round of applause once Andrew had finished speaking.

The reality

After we cleaned up, and before the last few of us stragglers headed to the post-event happy hour, I saw that Andrew was sitting at one of the tables, working on his computer. I walked up to him and said, “I’m sorry I offended you, but thank you for coming to speak to us.” After all, I was one of the organizers, and it would have been extremely boorish of me not to thank him.

He looked at me, grinned, and said, “You didn’t offend me.” Twice. And then said, “I enjoyed your speech very much.”

I laughed, and said, “I know,” the first time he told me I hadn’t really offended him. And said goodbye, and went on to the happy hour.

Now, I don’t know if he really did enjoy my presentation or not, but instinctively I had known I hadn’t really offended him. I’ve never met the man before; had no interaction with him whatsoever; and while he is extremely opinionated and didactic, he also seems a mostly fair person. So how could I possibly have offended him, when we’d never come across each other before?

Being the hook

All I was, was a hook. A hook for him to kick off his remarks, and a bright one at that, dressed as I was in a black skirt and peach jacket (which he incorrectly called “pink”). It was not fun being made the butt of the closing keynote’s wrath, real or not… but all I did was serve a “higher purpose.”

Everyone has their own way of presenting, and the hooks they use. Their styles are different, and that’s why it’s interesting to see a range of speakers. Even though I was his hook, I’m not scarred for life (though I was for about a day), and if I saw Andrew in an airport, I would certainly say “hello” to him. I think it was terrific that Geoff was able to get him to close xP; I might otherwise never have heard him speak, and I’m glad I did.

But am I going to rush out and buy his books, or stand in line to see him speak (again)? Unlikely. And I think if you polled the attendees, most would say the same.

Civility builds community

I’m not a barfshiner, and I certainly don’t think social media’s impact on our world and lives is all sunshine and roses. But regardless of how erudite, or “famous,” or in demand one is, civility doesn’t go out of style.

Because at the end of the day, who would you rather be with/hear from/learn from: someone who you watched use the proverbial bully pulpit to be just that, or someone who was gentler in their approach?

I know my answer. What’s yours?

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Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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36 comments
shonali
shonali

@dbvickery Thank you!

shonali
shonali

@profkrg @jocmbarnett @ericamallison Belated thanks for sharing!

TomWillis
TomWillis

Funny....reading your recap & everyone's comments, then looking at my notes from Mr. Keen's portion of the day.  The first thing I wrote was "curmudgeon."  I thought some of the intellectual provocations were of value.  Personally, I believe there is something to be said about being cautious of "digital narcissism," and I've spoken with some frequency about the limits of digital community.  But everything has it's place & it's always a good idea to think about such things to keep as centered as one can.  That being said, I find his brand of emotional provocation kind of a waste of energy. He did use you as a prop of sorts, which was rather distasteful.  But of course you transcended it & it was not personal.  Geoff's use of the term "grace" I think is exactly on the mark.  Enough said.  I think the applicable legal term is "res ipsa loquitur," both in your case and his.   And yes, xPotomac was excellent! Thank you, again.      

dinodogan
dinodogan

I think you're 100% correct in that fact that it was a hook. 

You (or ummm, I, as it were) were correct. I went and researched every single attendee that was registered at the time of the writing my post. And I wasnt offering a platitude. The thing that struck me is that most of the attendees were in fact speakers and thought leaders in their own right. 

Great recap, Shonali :-)

FranciscaH3
FranciscaH3

@pashamalla @shonali shouldn´t act like Captain Hook.Rudeness is not an attractive quality..

pashamalla
pashamalla

There's something to be said about the ability to connect to the people with whom you're speaking regardless of their consensus around the point-of-view. 

Andrew Keen made a couple of thought-provoking and insightful points. He may have made more than a couple. I wouldn't know though because of the distraction he created by trying to single you out the way he did. 

Besides the fact that xPotomac wouldn't have been a success without you, I can only echo Geoff's comments in that your grace, professionalism and expertise stood in stark contrast to our closing speaker. Who, in my opinion, may have been more effective in playing the part of your character foil than your devil's advocate.

shonali
shonali

@onejillian Those hearts were too cute!

Liz
Liz

I pity the fool who joins his cult of one and buys into the schtick. His ego outshines his brilliance. You rose above but he didn't deserve that modicum of respect. There is a huge distinction between a shock jockey and Andrew Keen; Howard Stern never claims to be superior to the masses. Keen's superiority complex resonates nasty for the sake of and speaks louder than anything that could ever come out of his mouth. Geoff might be buying him coffee but I'd prefer that someone teaches him some manners. Last time I checked, the British Empire had fallen and former minions were no longer interested in bowing to a crown constructed of smoke and mirrors. 

geoffliving
geoffliving

Andrew Keen is the Howard Stern of social media speakers.  I think that's why you got that response afterwards. I also agree with you; though the message was powerful enough without the shock signal, and that you were unnecessarily taken to task.

One of the things I appreciate about the event was your grace. Believe it or not, the way you handled that made you shine far above any response.  And now you and Robert Scoble are in close company together ;) 

I receive criticism every day now online. Much of it is for being unavailable or not present or not on Facebook or elitist or... It's fine. I am just one man, and I am currently not paid to be a social media star.  This is part hobby/interest, part keeping the iron hot for when I do need it (always be marketing). 

But, like you, I rarely respond anymore,. I rarely address sideways remarks I see from a certain group of former friends, too, people who are less civil, and see me selling out. I cannot appease them.

By nature, I have found I am not civil.  Spiritually speaking though I cannot live with the pain of being uncivil, understanding mindfully the pain that it brings to the larger conversation. So I walk your road. It is the right road. 

As for Andrew?  I may have coffee with him next time. He did his job, and deserved the pay check.  I can surely find someone to deliver the same pointed criticism in a general way. As your colleague in the event, thank you for your grace, and please excuse our speaker's sacrificial mention of your words.

BTW, xPotomac would have failed without you. The same business that causes me to receive criticism would have caused the event to fail. You helped so much it's unbelievable.  Thank you.

shonali
shonali

@bdorman264 @kmueller62 @rtrviews @kdillabough @sandrasays Thank you for sharing (and commenting!).

ChatterBachs
ChatterBachs

@shonali You showed great decorum and are a true professional, Shonali. Glad you didn't take his comments too personally. #xpotomac13

ChatterBachs
ChatterBachs

@shonali You should great decorum and are a true professional, Shonali. Glad you didn't take his comments too personally. #xpotomac13

KDillabough
KDillabough

Civility never goes out of style, my friend, and taking the high road - as you did - is not the easy road sometimes...but it's the right road. Cheers! Kaarina

Sohini
Sohini

He wasn't actually offended? So he kinda picked on you more than once because ..... why? It's his shtick? Or he was an unintentional jackass because this wasn't a roast? I think Keen, a la the Onion, learned the crucial lesson of pulling off satire - to paraphrase someone from the twitterverse, it's like shooting an apple off your friend's head. If you missed, no one cares why you tried. 


KenMueller
KenMueller

Really wish I had been there, and sorry you had to go through that. But boy, he sure doesn't sound like someone I'd want to work with. I'm with you on the whole notion of civility. I've read some books on the topic, and particularly like the approach of Richard Mouw, particularly in relation to people of faith.

Latest blog post: 2013-02-24 08.04.26-1

Liz
Liz

@TomWillis Huh. I believe that deep down, curmudgeons have a likeable quality. Hence, Keen is anything but. Look I don't disagree with some of Keen's hypotheses, but rather, his ego-driven, narcissistic delivery and holier than thou attitude. And as someone who was a target of that when I asked what I believed to be an interesting question, all I can say is that IMHO, he put a damper on an otherwise provocative, engaging day. 


Shonali
Shonali moderator

@TomWillis Oh, I completely agree on the digital narcissism issue (and, actually, the substance of most of what he said). It was the way he did it that clearly rubbed a lot of us a long way... but hey, as long as he gets to sell books, right? ;) I'm very glad you came and enjoyed the day, Tom!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@dinodogan Your research was what blew me away about your post... that you had taken the time to do that. And I think that level of attendee is what made the day so special. Thank you so much for coming to speak, and I'm looking forward to seeing you again soon at #soslam!

OneJillian
OneJillian

@shonali he's my squeeze :) i hated to miss the event, your recap makes me all the more jealous of the attendees! cc: @dinodogan

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@Liz I have to tell you, as I read "I pity the fool" I had Mr. T in my head... or, rather, you *doing* Mr. T and it was delicious! Thank you for your support, Liz - it meant and means a LOT to me. And your last line just cracked me up!!!

Latest blog post: The Arrogance Of Being Right

shonali
shonali

@bowden2bowden @geoffliving @shashib @erinmfeldman @barrettrossie @shellykramer @seanmcginnis @leaderswest Thank you for sharing!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@geoffliving Oh, I'll definitely have coffee with him, if we are ever in the situation where he'd invite me to do so. But he's paying. ;)

You are very kind to leave such a thoughtful comment - thank you! And really, I LOVED working with you and @pashamalla on xPotomac - it was an unbelievable event and such an honor to be associated with it. Kudos, Geoff!

Latest blog post: The Arrogance Of Being Right

KDillabough
KDillabough

@shonali @bdorman264 @kmueller62 @RTRViews @SandraSays Of course! You handled the situation with grace

shonali
shonali

@civilination Thank you!

shonali
shonali

@chatterbachs It was tough, but commonsense told me that was just not the case! Thank you. :)

TomWillis
TomWillis

@Liz @TomWillis  I completely understand.  As I recall his comment to you was a particularly dismissive "Spoken like an American."  Not pleasant.   It was an interesting experience - I had never heard him speak before, but my immediate reaction to his opening comments about being offended by Shonali's comment was to think this was part of his shtick & I mentally prepared to peel away the message from the messenger.  A wise man taught me once "Never let negative people rent space in your mind." So all in all I fund his style annoying, but it was water off a duck's back for me.  I probably just have way too much experience dealing with egomaniacs..... And its easy for me to say because he ignored the one comment I made, so i was not a target as were you...     

TomWillis
TomWillis

@Shonali @TomWillis Indeed.....  I guess he is a master at the craft of provocateur.   Not my thing, I just don't choose to devote the energy to let it bug me. As my old workmate Sam from the former Yugoslavia used to say (imagine heavy slavic accent) "Tommy, life too short."     

shonali
shonali

@onejillian Awww. I was wondering but didn't want to presume. @dino_dogan is very sweet!

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