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The Evolution of PodCamp Pittsburgh

on Thu, 10/10/2013 - 00:00

The Internet has seen a boom in alternative media opportunities during the better part of the Twenty First Century, enabling anyone with an opinion to impart, knowledge to share or a story to tell the ability to deliver their viewpoints to anyone in the world. Blogs give words meaning. Podcasts then give those same words a voice, while videoblogging can even provide them with a face. It was within this context of endless opportunities that the first PodCamp—an “unconference” where practitioners of new and social media can congregate, interact and learn from each other—was launched in Boston during September 2006. Since then, similar PodCamps haves been held in locales world-wide, with Pittsburgh hosting the second ever and beginning a Steel City tradition that continues to this day.

“I’ve been involved since the first PodCamp,” Norman Huelsman, one of the organizers of PodCamp Pittsburgh, explains of his association with the annual event. “Justin Kownacki, who started PodCamp Pittsburgh, asked me to host it. At that time, I was working at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and he was just looking for a space. I couldn’t provide the space that year but I helped him with some graphics and other graphic design support. And when I attended that year, I just felt like this is a really great forward-thinking event that is capturing what’s happening. Blogging and podcasting were really new at the time. I got involved by just helping out and just seeing the benefit of staying connected to this community and, for my own sake, staying in the know. Then I just got closer and closer to the center of it, more involved in planning over the years.”

Change occurs rapidly when it comes to Web-based technology, and PodCamp Pittsburgh has evolved since its inaugural outing in 2006 in much the same way that social media has as well. “The first couple years were a lot of people just getting together,” Huelsman says. “The community didn’t necessarily know each other. Facebook Events has changed the ways that people communicate with each other and get themselves organized, but before that, it was hard for people to find others who were doing the same types of stuff online. So during those first couple years, people showed up and were like, ‘Hey, I’m doing a podcast, you’re doing a podcast. Let’s get together and talk about it.’ Or, ‘I write a blog, you write a blog, let’s just get together and meet.’ So you had all these different disciplines and backgrounds and experiences just coming together and sharing that information.”

While podcasts and blogging dominated the early PodCamps in Pittsburgh, the advent of Facebook and Twitter changed the scope of the event from mere “new” media into “social” media instead. “I think the next couple PodCamps were, ‘Hey, Twitter is here, Facebook is here,’” Huelsman continues. “You know, what are the new social media tools that people are using and how to use them. Everyone was trying to figure that out and a lot of people were thinking and talking about it at PodCamp. And now that these tools have matured a little bit and people have figured out how to use them, the event is kind of taking stock of where we are and sharing what we know. And it’s more ‘come and learn’ rather than ‘come and talk about what you are doing.’ So that’s kind of how the event has morphed over the years.”

Although the organizers of PodCamp Pittsburgh have been able to continually transform the event in order to keep up with the latest social and new media trends, that alone is not the sole reason the event has been held in the area for as long as it has. “I’ve been to PodCamp Boston, Philly, DC and then all the Pittsburgh events,” Norman Huelsman offers as way of further explanation. “Everybody outside of Pittsburgh, they were all geared towards a business focus. Like, ‘How am I going to make money doing this stuff? How am I going to start a podcast and retire off of it?’ But in Pittsburgh, it was all about community building. Everyone was coming together, they had a hobby. Yeah, we talked about how to make money with it or how to monetize but not ‘how do you make your career this only.’ So Pittsburgh is all about getting people together, networking, making friends, meeting new people and having a lot of fun while we did all that. That’s why I think it’s had such a longevity, because people had that experience over and over.”

Just as the increased popularity of social media has changed the scope of PodCamp, it has also had an effect on the Pittsburgh social media community as well. “I think there was a social media community that was really tight knit back when all these tools were released, just getting off the ground,” Huelsman explains. “My favorite time on Twitter was the first year and a half of Twitter because you could say, ‘OK, this was the social media community of Pittsburgh’ because these were the only people on Twitter from Pittsburgh. And if you were from Pittsburgh, you were being followed by everybody else from Pittsburgh. And that was cool because everybody got to know each other very fast. But fast forward to today, everybody’s phone has Twitter.”

Not only that, but social media has evolved from a personal means of communication into a way for businesses to promote themselves, adding yet another new dimension to the mission of PodCamp Pittsburgh. “I think it’s everyone from social media managers to someone who is in a company and is like, ‘I want to learn the strategy for better content,’” Huelsman says of present-day PodCamp attendees. “Nowadays you can just hire a firm to do it, hire consultants to do it, but I think a lot of people get it wrong when they say, ‘I’m going to have our intern do it.’ Because social media is communication and interaction with other individuals, so if you’re just going to softball it up to your intern, you don’t understand that you’re creating lines of communication to your customer or your audience.”

Although PodCamp is primarily geared towards the latest advancements in social media, that is not necessarily the primary reason for one to attend the event. “It always surprises me how much people get out of PodCamp,” Norman Huelsman explains. “For me, learning about the ins-and-outs of the technology, I’m so close to it day-to-day that I don’t need to learn how. But people come to a PodCamp and I’m expecting them to focus on that, then what you get out of it is different sometimes. Whether it’s social interaction, networking. I even learned a grain of fact about goats and coffee earlier. That kind of stuff. The diverse groups of people coming together, that’s what makes PodCamp really exciting.”

And no doubt the primary reason why PodCamp has become a Pittsburgh tradition since that inaugural “unconference” back in 2006.

Anthony Letizia

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