Spinning through the online media universe (geeky, social and otherwise)

Technical Online Communicators Workshop: Group picture

Group picture of the participants, resource experts and facilitator (Peter Casier, middle of back row, both hands raised) of the first CGIAR Technical Online Communicators Workshop, 27–31 May 2013, Rome.

Twenty-four technical online communicators (aka ‘web geeks’), representing 12 of the 15 centres of the CGIAR Consortium and 5 CGIAR partner organizations, along with a dozen or so experts in various technical web-related matters, recently participated in a five-day workshop at Bioversity International, a CGIAR centre based in Maccarese, outside Rome. This was the first such meeting of CGIAR (and partner organization) staff who, just a few years ago, would probably have been called ‘webmasters’, in the sense of technicians who design or maintain websites.

That designation has changed, however, splintering into dozens of specialities in recent years with the on-going explosion of social media and other online tools, vehicles and platforms. So ours was a motley group of people serving variously (and singly or in combinations) as ‘web developers’, ‘web designers’ or ‘web [or server] administrators’; as ‘social media coordinators’ or ‘content managers’; as ‘knowledge sharers’ or ‘workflow coordinators’. Some were more on the IT side, some more focused on user engagement; some were most interested in ensuring security, some in ensuring open access; some started as content designers, some as content writers; some are now specializing in web analytics, some in social learning. Interestingly, fully a third of the group still work mostly on originating online content (content still king?), while others now focus on ‘spinning’ the content through various social media channels (a task becoming a job on its own).

The online ecosystems in these agricultural research-for-development organizations are thus evolving rapidly. And the byzantine complexity of online expertise, staffing, monikors and structures in CGIAR centres is mirrorred in many other organizations today, some of which are now forming cross-cutting web management teams headed by ‘chief web officers’ operating at the level of chief information officers. What’s clear is the increasing need for better online strategies and coordination to further organizational communications, goals and missions. With CGIAR’s fast-growing online presence, the people who ‘pull the online levers’ should no longer, this group believes, labour in isolation but rather have spaces in which to share their trials, tribulations and successes in revamping websites, optimizing websites for search engines, making web infrastructure more secure, and so on (and on).

What the workshop also made clear is that ‘geeky’ (we have agreed among us that this term, rather than ‘nerdy’, best reflects the group’s persona*), while accurately depicting what might appear as odd or unconventional, as well as technically obsessed, behaviour (and worn as a matter of pride, I suspect, by this group), denotes neither social awkwardness nor social inferiority. The socializing among the group was intense—with the younger participants running a lively online digital conversation in parallel with the ‘real’ conversation in the workshop room every day, and with the online reporting as we went along instantly appearing seemingly everywhere on the web. And every evening almost everyone took the train into Rome—to consume its food, wine, street life, handicrafts, imperial antiquity—till midnight. And then managed the early train the next morning to Maccarese and the workshop. Unstoppable! Further demonstrations of the cultural/humanistic dispositions of these technical enthusiasts came in the course of the week in the form of spontaneous opera singing, a virtuoso violin performance, a love of fine typography, a passion for truffle cream, impromptu dancing and singing contests, and much more.

Peter Casier, the endlessly energetic (and endlessly energizing) Flemish man based in Rome (but self-described ‘serial expat’) who dreamed up, organized and facilitated this workshop, which was sponsored by the CGIAR Consortium, exemplifies the diverse approaches, expertise and passions of the workshop participants. Casier’s professional background is a kaleidescope of work experiences, from graphical engineer, to ecologist, to hightech IT head, to Antarctic explorer, to ham radio operator, to technical advisor for the Red Cross, to manager of relief operations for humanitarian organizations, to sailor of the Atlantic (or was it the Pacific?), to book author, to blogger and social media guru, to (currently) full-time online media consultant for NGOs . . . . With a knack for turning hobbies into professions, and knowledgeable about most of the topics raised in the week’s proceedings (and passionate about all of them), Casier changed ‘hats’ by the hour, going from chief organizer and facilitator to moderator to listener/learner to rapporteur to time keeper to evaluator to strategist . . . Throughout, he championed the work of the participants, calling them and their jobs the ‘orphans of the orphans’ of institutional communications and ICT departments. Time to change that, he thinks. (And he, being a self-confessed ‘agitator’, is probably just the man to do that.)

The purpose of the workshop, Casier says, was ‘to kick-start an active community of practice for this group of expert online workers in CGIAR and partner institutions, a network that each can rely on to help them address common challenges, such as in web management (web monitoring tools, cloud hosting, social media monitoring tools, web development tools and CMS platforms/plugins, web security), and establish common standards (e.g., metrics of reach, basic security measures).’

Among the topics covered in the five-day CGIAR workshop (dubbed TOCS, for ‘technical online communicators’) were:

  • Online media overview and strategy
  • Website revamp process and approach
  • Web usability, optimization and security
  • Online statistics, eNewsletter systems, search engine optimization, latest design technologies/trends
  • Online document repositories, intranets, hosting
  • CMSes (Drupal, Joomla, WordPress)

Links to 180 resources for online work mentioned or discussed in this workshop are posted on Delicious.

For more information, follow the hashtag #TOCS2013 on Twitter and Yammer and read the posts on blogs by Marina Cherbonnier and Codrin Paveliuc-Olariu, both of Young Professionals in Agricultural Research for Development (YPARD).

For a digital conversation running side by side with the physical conversation of the workshop, see the Twitter stream collected by Codrin Paveliuc-Olariu.

Or contact Peter Casier at p.casier [at] cgiar.org (check out his ‘home page’, My House on the Road; his The Road to the Horizon blog; his Blog Tips blog; his Humanitarian and several other news aggregators . . .).

* Antonella Pastore, of the CGIAR Consortium, offers us the following attempt to distinguish connotations of ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ (reminding us of the long period of attempts to reappropriate these terms). The piece includes this delightful, if unappetizing and cautionary, morsel:

The word geek is older [than nerd], starting out in the early 1900s to refer to a carnival performer whose only skill was the ability to bite the heads off chickens.’ — BBC News: Are ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ now positive terms? 16 Nov 2012.

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