18 March, 2007

Synergy: The 2006 Milblog Conference

Andi has put out a challenge to last year's MilBlog Conference attendees: describe the experience. It's not easy, but I'll try...

Although the conference was attractive to me from the beginning, I struggled with whether to spend the money. It seemed self-indulgent. Though a blogger, I was just a milblogging hanger-on in my view; I couldn't see it as anything more than a social event for me. Nothing wrong with social events, but in my cash-strapped life I couldn't justify the expense on that basis alone. But when a gift of airline miles and the chance to share a hotel room came up, I grabbed them. Still, I had doubts.

With the expense thus reduced, I decided to go for it. Without a doubt, it turned out to be the best $150+ I have ever spent. Seriously. On personal, educational, blogging and volunteer levels, the conference was priceless.

On a personal level, there is nothing like finally putting a face to a voice that previously existed only via distant phone lines, or finally feeling the warm arms of someone on whom you've electronically leaned for so long. The power of meeting someone you've prayed and cried over but never actually seen is indescribable; Carren and I discovered we had months of hugs stored up and kept putting our arms around each other that Friday night at Fran's. Chuck, whom I'd rarely emailed and spoken to only once (he was recovering from his wounds), took one look at me and demanded I spill my guts about what had been bothering me. In a nutshell, we all discovered that these seemingly ephemeral electronic bonds weren't ephemeral at all; in fact, they were rock-solid.

Educationally, this civilian learned even more about milblogs and the military men and women I was supporting as a citizen, volunteer and blogger. The sessions themselves were lessons in history, honor, politics, sociology, information warfare and big ideas. I heard echoes of the past and whispers that were prophetic. In the hallways, I watched the milblogging leadership corner the major from CENTCOM and give him a polite but emphatic earful about PAO failings (in the year since, CENTCOM PAO is becoming the military model for use of the new information technologies that are shaping our world). And sitting around the table in a bar I heard war stories, saw the unspoken bonds, and laughed my head off at mutually-applied jokes and snarks.

As a blogger, I began to see how I fit within the community, that my tiny voice had power--the way the flapping of a single butterfly can begin a chain reaction that affects the world's weather. I was only getting about 40 visitors a day, but when we talked about the impact and reach of milblogs we realized that our interconnectivity allowed small voices like mine to speak up and have a big impact. John Donovan pointed out the developing Fran O'Brien's story: my post at the Castle had gotten linked by Fark.com and the story took off; Little Ol' Me had started what soon became a blogswarm on Hilton. This level of potential impact from one little person comes from the connections and networks we have among the milblogs, connections and networks that were newly-discovered or strengthened that weekend. The knowledge, contacts, skills and creativity in our assembled community were stunning, and I think we all left the conference invigorated--excited about our collective potential, full of ideas, and rededicated to our goals of both supporting and giving voice to the military community in this new media age.

On the volunteer front, it was huge for Valour-IT. I spent so much time talking to various reporters that I actually missed most of the afternoon sessions and had to merely wave at people that had been on my "Must Meet" list as I looked for a quiet place to talk to yet another reporter. We got our first big break when the BBC reporter eventually wrote a beautiful article after I'd spent the 4-block walk back from lunch chatting him up. I wasn't the only one who found it "professionally" productive: tons of networking and idea-sharing occurred as civilians and militalry-types applied their collective wisdom to issues in organically-forming groups outside the structured sessions.

Every person who attends a MilBlog Conference will have different goals and different potentials, will come away with different benefits for having been there. The conference was nothing that I expected, and yet everything I could have possibly dreamed. I've used the word synergy to describe what happened there, and I think that's the only way to encapsulate it: there is no substitute for people bringing their knowledge, experience, passion, ideas and personal connections together in one location to stir the pot and see what happens. I don't know how it works with other groups, but with milbloggers... it's magic.