Social media is the new Olympic event, with the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games giving Vancouver’s fast-growing social media community a chance to showcase its talents and technology.
While the Olympic movement is taking small steps into a world where conventional news services share an online space in which everyone is a publisher and producer, Vancouver’s grassroots social media is already seen as a forerunner.
The upcoming Games are giving rise to a range of social media offerings from the official 2010 hosts to contributions from citizen journalists, tweeters, bloggers and online video producers who will share their city and their Olympic experience with the world.
April Smith is already a winner and the Games haven’t even started.
Once homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the 24-year-old Smith — known as AprilFilms on Twitter — has turned her life around, thanks to a mentoring program that taught her new media skills ranging from web design to mobile video. Equipped with a video-enabled cellphone, Smith will be participating in the Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition, part of the 2010 celebrations.
“New media has meant a new life for me,” said Smith, who has co-founded AHA Media, a fledgling startup that fosters new media learning among Downtown Eastside residents.
“Back in the day I lived in and out of the most horrible places you could think of. I was living on the edge. It really has been the saving grace to do computer work and have a home where I can lock the door.”
The stepping stone for Smith came in the form of the Fearless City Mobile Project, an initiative in which residents and artists of the Downtown Eastside receive training in mobile media and use their new-found skills to document stories and issues in their neighbourhood.
“There was support for me that helped me change my life,” said Smith. “I’m now teaching basic media skills to others to help them make the transition, to go on to a different future.
“It opens doors for them.”
As a Fearless City Mobile project coordinator, Smith is participating in Fearless City’s CODE Live and Bright Lights editions. The projects will include streaming videos created by local residents and shown on giant screens at W2, a community media arts centre opening this winter as part of the Woodward’s development.
It’s that community conversation — a dialogue — that separates social media from conventional media and it’s a transition that the International Olympic Committee is grappling with. Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP Group, one of the world’s largest advertising companies, recently told the IOC that interactive online content is crucial in attracting young audiences today.
In one project here aimed at local youth, 24 students will become social media reporters for the upcoming Games. Student LIVE, launched by the West Vancouver School District, the British Columbia Education Leadership Council and Vanoc, is encouraging Metro Vancouver and Sea to Sky region students from Grade 8 up to submit applications using social media tools.
The Olympic movement is adding its own contributions to the social media offerings, but it is a step forward that is not without its stumbles. Most recently, the IOC sent a cease-and-desist letter to Richard Giles for sharing photos from his trip to the 2008 Beijing Games on Flickr. While the IOC was quick to defend its position, the incident is a sharp reminder of the pitfalls and challenges facing both sides in adapting to new technologies.
“It really comes down to fair play,” said Graeme Menzies, director of online communications for Vanoc. “If somebody is trying to take advantage, then that’s not okay. But if people are saying we love this, we think it’s great, we want to talk about it and share it, that’s awesome stuff.”
Menzies said his organization is recognizing the popularity of social media tools and integrating them into its newly relaunched website.
While the global Olympic movement is starting to shift attention to social media, critics say progress is slow and opportunities to showcase Vancouver have been missed.
“Vanoc has been reaching out to the community to better understand social media, but it has been slow to adopt it,” said Kris Krug, a W2 director and Fearless City Mobile mentor, who participated in symposiums at both the Turin and Beijing Olympics on how new media is changing coverage of the Games.
“Citizens, athletes and corporations will all be making media, whether it’s part of Vanoc’s official strategy or not.”
Krug, along with Dave Olson and W2 executive director Irwin Oostindie and other new media veterans in Vancouver, is organizing the True North Media House, a grassroots campaign aimed at encouraging social media coverage of Olympic sporting and cultural events.
“I have done quite a few presentations on how grassroots media-makers can embrace the Olympics,” said Olson, who said the 2012 Summer Games and 2016 Winter Games organizers are already demonstrating a “more progressive” approach to social media.
“I have been saying, come on Vancouver, we can help facilitate this sea change in the way media is consumed,” he said. “The motivation for me is because I work in this field here in Vancouver, but also as an Olympic enthusiast.”
Olson said the True North Media House has garnered international attention but it faces funding challenges.
“We have talked to the BBC, CNN — people from all over the world are contacting us,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of interest in a grassroots project like this.”
www.twitter.com/2010tweets: updates from the Vanoc communications team.
www.twitter.com/CTVOlympics: updates from 2010 broadcaster.
www.twitter.com/TNMH: Twitter profile of the True North Media House, a project aimed at giving social media practitioners a centre for the 2010 Games.
www.facebook.com/Olympics: official Facebook page for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, with link to Torch Relay interactive site.
www.twitter.com/W2Woodwards: updates from W2 Community Media Arts, a participant in the Cultural Olympiad.
http://www.youtube.com/vanocwebteam: Vanoc’s YouTube site.
www.netvibes.com/studentslive: website for student social media participation in the 2010 Olympics.