Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Medium is the Message

This past week I tuned into the Climate Reality Project, a 24-hour, virtual global event to share the truth about climate change. I lurked for the content primarily, but also curious about how the event was designed, wondering if it would reflect the content of the message.

Several years ago, Live Earth - Al Gore's previous event to raise awareness about the climate crisis - appealed to the music fan in me, but left the event professional in me wondering if the message was compromised by the format of the event. With simultaneous concerts held worldwide and Al Gore himself traveling between host cities during the event I couldn't help but observe that a disconnect existed between the medium and the message.

So what about this new event? What does the Climate Reality Project teach us about the future of events?

We have the tools. Day by day we are eeking closer to a more seamless virtual event experience that is expanding our event design options. No, technology will not replace face to face contact entirely, but The Climate Reality Project proves it is possible to create a relatively error-free online event experience. The 'technology-isn't-reliable' position seems to be fading as an argument in support of face to face.

The medium and the message must go hand in hand. Following Live Earth organizers were criticized for the scale and footprint of the event, in spite of efforts to green venues and event management practices. The Climate Reality Project's virtual platform suggests the event team learned a critical lesson: the event medium must align with and reinforce the message, not contradict it. This is an important takeaway for those organizations that seek to align their operations, and therefore their events, with their corporate responsibility strategy.

Evaluation forms are no longer the sole barometer of event critique. Social media, forums and chat functions, enabled for the Climate Reality Project, provide live, dynamic and raw feedback. With this comes huge opportunity, significant risk and an evolved responsibility for event planners. How can we and should we moderate this kind of commentary? Can we improve it beyond a fairly fragmented stream of 140 character shout-outs to use online media at events more productively? To listen to what constituents are saying? To truly integrate social technologies with an event's aims so they support dynamic conversations that improve, expand and reach beyond mere education and communication about an issue?

Social does not assume productive, or personal. Throughout the Climate Reality Project realtime social media feeds and chats became near overwhelming as participants attempted to absorb information and express interest. I experienced these things with a sense of detachment, the string of texts moving too quickly for me to follow while I simultaneously tried to listen to the session content. The nature of the conversation (if it can be called such) seeming to me to be less productive and more souvenir, as if many were writing their name in the sand to show they'd been there. Those attempting to converse appeared either troll or fervent supporter, in many respects their interactions only intrenching the debate and divide the event sought to bridge.

Form follows function, always has, always will. So does the Climate Reality Project event design achieve it's ultimate intent? Well, yes, and no. Organizers have demonstrated one of their aims through their own actions: we are all responsible to use our influence to adapt and become more resilient to climate change in our everyday lives. That includes us, as event producers. To not plan this event using a virtual design would have been hypocritical and deny personal responsibility for the changes required to live in this new reality. But this message is subtle at best, and I would think possibly lost on an audience who don't often realize there is an industry behind the black curtain.

The more important question: did the message really reach the intended audience? And if yes, was it transformational? Did it work as intended? Did those who have been living in denial about climate change until now, in the words of the organizers, 'choose reality' having participated in the experience?

I'm skeptical.

But while event design may have a role to play, I hesitate to assign fault to the production and logistics team if the event is judged to have fallen short of its aims to convert climate change disbelievers. Rather I applaud them. They've demonstrated evolved approaches. The medium was innovative. It was aligned with the message. And it was relatively smooth and error free.

My disappointment lies more with the un-empathetic tone of the event's singular message. A message that at times mocked and shamed climate change 'deniers' as a group living detached from reality. And setting my own acceptance of climate change aside, who wants to listen to what you have to say when that's your message? But that's another post, for another day.

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