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I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at Content Strategy Forum 2012 which was previously in Paris and London, and this year went to Cape Town. I used to be a content bloke; in fact, I now realise that at The Law Society I was a Content Strategist, there just wasn’t a name for it in 2008.
But that was four years ago, so for this conference I was firmly out of my [American accent] “comfort zone”. Fortunately, I had a preparatory natter with Rellington Annett-Baker to ensure my introductory HTML5 for content specialists talk was likely to hit their sweet spots and tickle their fancies. (It seemed to work.)
The conference was headlined by Kristina Halvorson, and Luke Wroblewski, both of whom seemed to disagree with each other. I’m not well-versed in Content Strategy schisms to have an opinion either way, although Luke’s assertion that we now have a write-read web rang true. Kristina is the godmother of Content Strategy, so her talk was a “state of the nation” speech from paper notes (she’d lost her laptop), largely about how she’d grown her agency to 28 people and then laid off all but five.
Other notable talks were by Razorfish’s Rachel Lovinger who talked about structuring content for re-use, using standards and responsive design in Content in the Age of Promiscuous Reuse.
Relly Annett-Baker’s “Guerillas in their midst” was a fun, British talk about guerilla content strategy. Relly is a black belt at on-stage swearing (I was on best behaviour; these are her friends).
Richard Ingram did an interesting talk about visualising data and recommended the really good Scraping for Journalists book which taught me loads in the first chapter.
John Alderman gave an entertaining talk on how to use Big Data. In it, he spoke about meet-ups where people discuss data they’ve collected about their own bodies. (Yup.) He’d probably be interested in Pete Fletcher’s sneezecount project documenting his sneezes since July 2007 (also see his 5 minute Ignite video On the Counting of Sneezes) and Manu Sporny open-sourcing his genetic data on GitHub.
Great thanks to the organisers: Kerry-Anne Gilowey, Rian van der Merwe, Nathan Blows and Irene Walker. Organisation was perfect; they even managed to get a Cheetah!
I’m no Content Strategist, so I might be entirely wrong, but it felt that this conference was somehow a pivotal event in the solidifying a community. It reminded me of the @media conference of 2005, in which loads of UK web developers first met each other and realised that there is actually a community of UK front-enders and we’re not just a collection of lonely weirdos who read A List Apart. Friendships began; businesses were formed, networks opened and a community came of age. I wonder if Content people in Africa will look back at CSForum 2012 like that.
I stuck around in Cape Town for a while, hobnobbing with the great and the good, doing five press interviews, giving some tech talks for developers and business people at Saatchi and Saatchi and the workplace of an old friend Allan Kent who’s Head of Digital at South Africa’s leading media group, Primedia.
An impromptu meet-up was arranged by a Sean O’Connell, a front-end dev, and hosted by Paul Cartmel at New Media Labs (thanks chaps). It was over-subscribed, and too many pizzas and beers were bought; we soldiered on, drinking too much beer and eating too much pizza. (Banana on pizza is wrong, by the way).
I did a talk on why standards are great and good for business (sorry about ugly slides; there wasn’t much time and I preferred gawping at penguins, Chapman’s Peak and brunching with beautiful people to wrangling presentation software!).
In amongst meet-ups and press interviews I did some sight-seeing, mostly under the kindly protection of Allan and saintly Wendy who drove me round to look at Cape Point, Simons Town, Kommetjie, Boulders and other gorgeous places. Their hospitality meant I saw so much I wouldn’t otherwise have done. Thanks so much to both of them.
On my last day, I skived emails after the last press interview and went to Robben Island where the apartheid-era political prisoners were kept. Having been to Auschwitz and Cambodia’s killing fields this year, I didn’t need another reminder of how vile people can be to each other. One redemptive thing about Robben Island, though, is that there are still ex-prisoners and ex-guards living on the island, giving tours around the prison.
On my last night, South Africa’s leading pointillist painter, Gavin Rain, picked me up in his posh car and we drove to Camps Bay where all the beautiful people go. Unfortunately, I was so affected by some twilight Death Pollen that I had to wear my shades all night (not uncommon in Camps Bay). But it did mean my attempts at mild flirtation with the gorgeous Kenyan waitress came to naught, as she doubtless thought Gavin and I were a gay couple splitting up and that I was crying in grief.
My guidebook – which should be renamed “The Alarmist Guide to Cape Town” – had cautioned me never to step out of my hotel or I’d have my kidneys removed. I never felt at all threatened in Cape Town’s CBD. In fact, just the opposite; it was vibrant, friendly and fun.
I don’t know what I expected of South Africa. I suppose I imagined lots of grumpy Afrikaanas trying to pretend they’d never been racist, and desperately poor black people. There certainly are many desperately poor black people; white South African households’ income is six times higher than black ones according to the latest census. And it seems to me that the elder statesmen like Mandela, Sisulu etc are gone, leaving a outrageously corrupt group governing the country.
But it felt to me (from my admittedly brief visit, cocooned in nice hotels in a prosperous city) that South Africa is on its way up, rather than down to Zimbabwe-like failed statehood. The workplaces I visited were highly multi-racial, as you’d expect given the demographics but as you might not expect given the recent history of the country.
Cape Town is probably the most beautifully situated city I’ve visited, with excellent cuisine (mmm, ostrich steaks and Bunnychow). All that, plus I got to talk to interesting people about cool stuff meant that I had a splendid time. Thanks so much to all those I met who made it so memorable.