Conference Review: Northern Voice

Review Northern VoiceNorthern Voice is a blogging and social media conference that has been held in Vancouver every late spring since 2005. It typically attracts a host of prominent and not-so-prominent bloggers, social media experts, and journalists, and some who wear all three hats. Canadians have always predominated at this event, which the organizers describe as “Canada’s first weblogging social media conference.” Even if Northern Voice is not about technical writing per se, it is about writing and it is about technology, so there is much that technical writers can find of interest.

I attended in June 2011, and this year attended one day (June 15, 2013) of the two-day event at the H.R. MacMillian Space Centre. Here’s a synopsis of the sessions I sat in on, with links to presentations and resources provided wherever possible.

Adam Gratrix – Ulterior Design

My first session was about Ulterior Design, and featured Adam Gratrix (@transpondency). He talked about how we must design content in a way that does not rely on narrative time. The culture is moving too fast to tell a linear story. He asks “How do we do storytelling without time?”


Using sources as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Kanye West, Adam explored the idea of the “eternal now.” I cannot say that I came up with a resolution from this presentation, but the ideas explored were fascinating.

Ingress – The World Around You Is Not What It Seems

Dr. Richard Smith and other panelists

The next presentation I went to featured a panel discussion about Ingress, a game devised by Niantic Labs (an internal startup within Google) and tested in-house at Google for six months. Ingress is described as an “augmented reality game massively multiplayer online video game.” I never felt I had a good understanding of what exactly was going on in the game, except that players feel compelled to visit as many locations as they possibly can and check in at these sites in order to take particular actions. In-person presence is very important. Many players have started walking 10-15 miles a day just to keep up with all the sites they have to interact with.

One panelist noted that the game seems to encourage Google+ usage, and perhaps Google even had this in mind when the game was invented. Ingress has created personal connections and a sense of community among many participants, perhaps like other MMO games such as World of Warcraft. I suspect that the devotion this game clearly elicits could be put to some purpose, but that purpose is not clear to me now.


Taking the Institution Online: Digitizin’ with the MOV & the Vancouver Archives

Jillian Povarchook and Sue Bigelow

Next, I attended a presentation about digitizing the Museum of Vancouver and the City of Vancouver Archives. I learned about their curation process for both written and physical objects. Sue Bigelow, the Digital Conservator for the City of Vancouver Archives, talked about Akoma Ntoso, an XML application that is particularly suited to capturing parliamentary and legislative proceedings. However, Akoma Ntoso does not yet have an adequate specialization for municipal proceedings. The goal, though, is to create XML markup versions of all print artifacts, in addition to photos. The big data possibilities are fascinating.


This presentation made me think about historical conservation at the company level. Even if a company has only been around for 25 or 30 years, or even less, the number of physical artifacts can feel overwhelming.  Yet, someone is sure to want to know some arcane bit of history sometime, and that knowledge might just be locked in someone’s head. This begs a question that might not be top-of-mind to technical communicators:  Have you developed a strategy for historical conservation of your company’s assets?

Manufacturing Authenticity

Anthony Marcos

Anthony Marcos (@anthonymarco) gave a presentation on “Manufactured Authenticity”. Anthony’s field of interest is podcasting, and he described how he had started out with carefully constructed scripts, but then one day poured forth a spontaneous rant with low production values. That rant turned out to be very popular. As pure technical writers, we may not worry too much about authentic voices, but the concept is very important on the marketing side. This presentation was thought-provoking, even if I have yet to decide what I will change as a result.

Review Northern Voice -H.R. MacMillian Space CentreVancouver: The Untold Stories

Dave Thorvald Olson, Hootsuite Community Manager

The day ended with a closing presentation by Dave Thorvald Olson, community and marketing manager for Hootsuite, who gave us a rundown of Vancouver’s historical music scene.  He went from punk bands like DoA, African-American musicians who found a warmer welcome this side of the border in the 1950s and 1960s, music photographer Bev Davies who has photographed almost every notable Vancouver concert for the past four decades, the sad state of late-night Vancouver transit after music shows, and more. Connection to technical writing? Minimal. But this was the most fascinating presentation of all, and that says something about the importance of a compelling story.

My Take on Northern Voice 2013

We have all heard about the rise of storytelling, gamification, and empathy—these have become buzzwords in our massively digital world. But all of these concepts were demonstrated in the sessions I attended at Northern Voice, without ever directly referencing those terms. I strongly favor the idea that technical writers should expand their knowledge base in numerous directions. And one way to do that is to attend thought-provoking conferences like Northern Voice.

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