What have I learned from all this? Part II: The Blogging Experience

So. I’ve been blogging since mid-January. While it’s been something I’ve had to do for class, it hasn’t gone exactly as I thought it would. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the way things have unfolded. But I can say that I think I’ve learned a few lessons.

First of all, I should revisit my blog goals, which were originally stated here.

  • Learn and write about at least 10 things I am not familiar with
  • Write about at least 10 others that I already have some knowledge of, but would like to share (and perhaps expand on what I already know)
  • Get others (outside of BSMRCCE, not including spammers) to notice my blog — I had noted seeking external feedback in the blog comments, or via email, or by someone else referencing my blog, with a target of 5 instances.

It’s safe to say that while this post gives me 20 (really 18, not counting two tiny posts that were not on topic or for class), I did not meet these goals. There were actually only 11 total posts on my topic. And I tended to write about things that I already knew, or could research and expand on, so the equal split did not materialize either.

And as of this moment, I only received a couple of references to the blog from people outside of class (not counting friends who viewed my posts). There were readers, +1s, and a few external commenters, but the “shares” did not materialize. And what I was really looking for was external comments that raised a question or made a point of discussion, and that didn’t happen.

But the point was to learn. Here are a few things I picked up:

Subject — It would have helped to have one that was more defined. Writing about an entire city may just be too broad.
Audiences — I really didn’t know who my audience was. People interested in Hamilton represent a large one, but there are segments within that audience and I didn’t focus my attention on any particular sub-groups. It would help to find a niche among a group of people who are engaged in a subject that interests me.
Topics — I intentionally stayed away from contentious stuff. But those are usually the juicy topics in this town that bring out the opinions and debates, which might have led to more shares or comments.
Depth — Perhaps I went a little too deep with my points. Simple sells. Finding a way to make a good case in fewer words is a worthy goal.
Frequency — Blog often… this was a fail. For much of the term I averaged about 1 post a week. You can’t build and maintain an audience if you’re only writing sporadically. While I played catch-up very late in the term, the aim should be regularity, not quantity.
Marketing — Lead readers to the blog. I was using Twitter and later Google+ to do this, but Reddit scored a much higher number of hits for one post. I should have been doing more, in more places.
Planning — While I had developed a list of topics, I didn’t keep it fresh and lost interest in some of them. It may have been worthwhile to start writing a few to have stuff in the hopper, even just listing points that could be expanded later.

Blogging is fun, and for someone like me that enjoys writing it’s a good way to let the creativity out. More forethought and attention to certain details would have helped get that out more often, more widely, and in a more focused way.

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Lots and lots of lots

There are a lot of parking lots downtown. Lots. Lots of lots.

The lot on the south-west corner of John & Wilson streets (photo taken on a Saturday afternoon)

The lot on the south-west corner of John & Wilson streets (photo taken on a Saturday afternoon)

In days gone by, homes and buildings once stood on many of these lots, but they were leveled and the properties were assembled and used as places to store cars. In some cases, this happened decades ago.

Other people have used satellite photos to highlight just how many surface lots there are in Hamilton’s downtown and how much land they represent. Here’s an example from Raise the Hammer — the article is going on 6-years old, but not much has changed in this picture:

Now, I’m not against parking per se — I own a car, and I need to park it, and I’m willing to pay for the privilege. And maybe these lots are heavily used from 9am to 5pm. But from 5pm to 9am they sit mostly empty, and on weekends too. Is this an economic use of land? Land that in most downtown cores would be considered “prime”? It’s the urban context of these lots that is of concern to me.

I can recall the debates about Copps Coliseum before it was built. Some of them dealt with how much parking was available within walking distance to serve people who would attend big events at the arena. Parking is often a key consideration in planning rules and regulations as well — so many spaces required for buildings with so many units, etc.. The point is that the city places importance on this issue (and in fairness it’s not alone; other cities do the same).

But have city policies made it too easy for these lots to exist? Are the property taxes set at a proper economic rate to encourage more desirable land uses? Or are they too low for the type and location of the land, creating a stronger incentive for the lot being created and used for parking for too long a time?

Some people have also argued that the city’s policies on demolition are not strong enough, allowing property owners to take down structures and replace them with empty lots that persist for years, without forcing those owners to actually build something on the land within a reasonable span of time.

Additionally, does the city itself own any of these lots? If so, shouldn’t the city find ways to get the properties into the hands of people who would create something great on them?

As downtown continues to re-awaken, these lots represent an opportunity, and most often a better one than simply demolishing and replacing an existing building. Parking can still be provided beneath and within new structures, so if there’s a plan to do something on these lots, parking need not be a major concern. There still needs to be a good case for constructing whatever those plans may entail. But in my mind, we won’t be able to consider that downtown has “arrived” until many of these lots are filled with urban life once more.

A bird’s eye view of history

One evening last week I was at McMaster Innovation Park, coincidentally the same night an event was being held for the latest Art in the Workplace exhibit. I saw a lot of amazing pieces created by local artists, as well as many that are owned by the City of Hamilton.

In particular, several “bird’s eye view” pictures from the 1800s caught the eye of this eagle. There were only three examples that I could easily find online, from the McMaster University’s library and the HenleysHamilton1 blog. The two from Mac weren’t among the pictures on display at MIP, though the third picture from 1876 may have been (not being able to find the city’s pieces online says something about public access to its art collection, but I digress). There were no dates for the first two, but judging by the depictions the city appears smaller, so they must be older.

These kinds of pictures aren’t produced today, not that I’m aware anyway… we are in an era of aerial photography and Google Earth satellite images. But it’s interesting to look at how the city appeared back then through the eyes of the artists. Also of note, how factory chimneys were prominent in some of these pictures, with trails of smoke pouring out — they indicated industry, and communicated prosperity.

As Hamilton grew, its industry did as well. In fact, for many decades the latter was the reason for the growth of the former. Steel rose above all else by the mid-20th century, defining the city and providing jobs in its plants, business to its suppliers, and materials to the users of steel products. Steel and related industries were a huge part of the local economy, and important to other sectors of the Ontario and Canadian economies as well (the automotive industry, for example). The Spec has done a few stories about it, like this one marking a century of steel-making in the city, and this one discussing the present state and future of steel in Hamilton.

By the 1980s, smokestacks no longer inspired as much pride. Industry had affected Hamilton’s image — grit, smog, and the smell of sulphur were all things people associated with The Hammer, and the steel mills dominated the views from across the bay and atop the Skyway Bridge. The environmental impacts of industry had accumulated over time and pollution became an important social issue, and when the plants started cutting back on their employment or closing outright it dealt a big socio-economic blow to the city. Unfortunately, the engine of growth had become viewed by some as an impediment to Hamilton’s future.

Those artists of the 19th century could probably not imagine the scale that Hamilton industries would attain. But would they still consider it prosperity if they could see it today? Perhaps, while steel and heavy industry do play a smaller role in our economy, we should recognize more often how they helped build the city and continue to provide benefits for it.

Social media: how will it change events?

Back in early March, many of the BSMRCCE students attended Hamilton’s first “Geek Breakfast“. In fact it was the first of its kind in Canada, and even made the local news. These events have been happening in the US since late in 2007.

It was an opportunity for people who are active online to actually and informally meet in the real world, discuss social media, network with each other, and share the experience online while they were doing so in person. The class attendees really seemed to enjoy and benefit from the event, and shared a lot of great feedback both in discussion and blog posts they wrote; many provided suggestions for making the next one even better, such as having a more formal intro and some kind of meet-and-greet icebreaker, signs pointing the way to the geeks, how it would be useful to have personal objectives for attending, and more.

Unfortunately I did miss it, figuring there would be other opportunities in the weeks that followed. I didn’t find any, and have to admit that I didn’t look very hard for them either.

But after a bit of pondering, I do have some of my own thoughts about how social media is not just giving rise to new types of gatherings that are tailored for it, but altering the events we’ve always attended: shows, seminars, town halls, conferences, conventions, and the like.

The positives:

Immediacy — Social media allows for real-time updates of an event from attendees to their networks, and this sharing makes the event more prominent and useful to more people more quickly. It also allows for more updates from organizers to attendees as an event is under way.

Access — Information is available on demand, as presentations and discussions happen. And not just restricted to what the event offers, but what can be found with a quick search, or a link shared back by someone paying attention to an attendee’s posts.

Networking — Could social media make business cards passé? Why not exchange e-profile info instead, or better yet, get “LinkedIn” on the spot?

Staying in touch — Social media provides a means to remain connected with the home base, whether that be the office or family and friends.

The not-so-positives:

Distractions — There’s a big risk of people not paying full attention because they’re too focused on their mobile devices and social media apps. Will that change the way events operate? Fewer formal presentations, more sound bites and mingling and interactivity? Or will presenters have to find new ways to grab and hold the eyes, ears, and minds of an audience?

Bad etiquette — When should people put their devices on silent mode? Should a host be able to request that devices be turned off? Judging by what happens in a lot of meetings, many people don’t seem to know how to be polite about their personal technology, and social media activity may amplify this problem.

Staying in touch — With respect to work, that connection to the home base may end up being more of a chain than a channel.

The final thought:

Social media is here to stay, and technology will only evolve further to make new things possible. Many events will need to evolve and adapt too, to take advantage of the opportunities social media presents.

What have I learned from all this? Part I: The Big Picture

One more class remains. And so it’s an appropriate time to ask what I’ve gained from BSMRCCE.

Recall that way back in Week 2 the class was asked to write a blog post regarding what we expected to get from the course. I had hoped to:

  • Gain an awareness of social media tools and how to use them strategically in public relations
  • Become comfortable (perhaps savvy, I dare say) in the use of social media applications, particularly those that are still foreign to me
  • Develop my ability to communicate effectively using social media, and understand potential pitfalls and issues
  • Expose myself to new ideas from the instructor and classmates, and perhaps share back some of my own

It’s probably safe to say that all four have been accomplished, though I’d drop the reference to “savvy” in the second point, and with respect to the third my abilities are still very much in development. I’m definitely more aware of how these tools can be used and coordinated together, and my comfort level has increased. A lot of great ideas were shared in class too.

We also listed a few personal questions about social media:

  • How can one find balance between using social media in a broad way and not being overwhelmed by it?
  • How can one maintain relevance amid the vast quantity of information afloat on the seas of social media?
  • What can be learned from some of the social media successes and failures?

These have been more of a mixed result. Balance is still not something I can define, and as for maintaining relevance that comes down to interesting content (a lesson I will touch on in Part II of my “learnings”; it is easy to say that it’s all about interesting content, but in my experience it is more difficult to practice). We discussed success and failure quite a bit in class though, and there are a number of lessons to remember. I’m sure I’ll forget a few and have to re-learn them the hard way.

The experience of getting to know my fellow students is worth noting as well. I’m sure I’ll see many of you in other classes, but if not I hope we’ll continue to interact online from time to time… and it was a small world even before social media made it smaller, so perhaps our paths will cross again.

When I enrolled in McMaster’s PR program, I had only intended to take one social media class. But my interest has been piqued, and I will be taking the more advanced course as well. Perhaps I’ll also consider using social media in assignments for others if it is advantageous, but what I’ve learned will ultimately be useful over the long haul, and I have BSRMCCE and our instructor Jared to thank for that.

Dundas: a town within a city

I’ve always liked Dundas. The Valley Town. Hockeyville. The Cactus Capital of Canada. A university town within a university town. Walkable, with everything you need close by, and everything else within a short drive. An interesting place with a long history. A great downtown, including some of my favourite restaurants and pubs. And a beautiful setting, flanked by the Niagara Escarpment on the north and south, and natural areas to the east and west.

Dundas_King_Street

Downtown Dundas, along King Street

Dundas is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario. Historically, it was the more important place in the region. Industry began here because the local streams were perfect for mills, and later flourished as the Desjardins Canal provided ships with access from Lake Ontario. But Dundas was landlocked, and the construction of the railways later in the 19th century and growth of Hamilton’s harbour lessened the town’s importance and gave rise to its bigger sibling to the east. At the time it was probably disappointing to local business leaders, but looking back today that evolution was likely fortunate — imagine how different the town (now a big city, instead) would be: the natural areas built over, busier roads and highways running through, more homes and buildings and people, and heavy development all along both sides of the escarpment. We would probably never have known the Dundas Valley Conservation Area, the Royal Botanical Gardens would be a whole lot smaller if it existed at all, and Cootes Paradise would likely have been dredged out to create a deeper port. This park would probably not be a possibility today either.

Dundas_from_Hwy8

Dundas, and Hamilton beyond, from the top of Highway 8

Suburbanization did hit a while ago, especially during the 1980s and ’90s when a lot of new homes went up on the western part of town along Governors Road. It’s mostly built out now, with some intensification occurring in the centre of town. Despite that growth and amalgamation with Hamilton, Dundas has not lost its “town” character or its individuality as a community — Dundas will always be Dundas.

What does its future hold? Probably more of what’s been happening lately: small changes in the town centre, with buildings being re-purposed, and a modest condo rising from time to time. It would be a real shame if the character changed too much though, something that I really hope the local planners and politicians bear in mind.

Yeah, we know… it’s not actually a “mountain”

Hamilton Mountain. That 100-metre high wall of limestone and shale that is a huge part of the topography of our city.

There are those who laugh that we call it “the mountain”… and rightly so. Visit the Canadian Rockies, or the Coast Mountains of BC, or the Laurentians in Québec, and there you will see what a mountain is. Even by Ontario standards, ours isn’t (see this, and this, and this; note that this is really just the same thing as ours, just much higher, with ski runs).

Hamilton Mountain, from Wentworth Street. Is this a mountain?

Escarpment_Wentworth

What about when viewed from the south end of Kenilworth Avenue?

Escarpment_Kenilworth

The Dundas Peak. Surely this must be a mountain?

Escarpment_DundasPeak

Seriously though, what else would people from elsewhere have called it had they lived here? The Bump? The Cliff? The Big Step? The Ledge? Or how about The Top Shelf?

No matter that the misnomer is a bit of Hamiltonia to which most locals don’t even give second thoughts in conversation, our mountain has really defined the city in so many ways.

Geologically, it’s a section of the Niagara Escarpment — one of southern Ontario’s major natural features. You can read more about it on the websites of the Niagara Escarpment Commission or the Bruce Trail Conservancy, or on Wikipedia.

Geographically, it has shaped Hamilton’s urban growth, its slopes making it easier for the city to stretch west-to-east before it grew north-to-south. And even after the city began to develop above the escarpment, it remained a line dividing old from new, and marking a boundary for demographics and politics. It gave us electrical power. It presented a major transportation challenge — while it was conquered by long-gone incline railways and a number of mountain access roads, occasionally Mother Nature has shown us who really is the boss (the Claremont and the Sherman Access being the most recent examples) and she will surely do so again. It also affects patterns of air flow, and sometimes the weather differs between above and below.

The mountain has been Giver of Waterfalls and Mother of Trails. It is scaled by stairways. It used to provide a couple of inner-city ski hills. Visually, it is a rocky and leafy backdrop for the skyline of the lower city, and from the top it’s just a great view of the city and beyond.

It’s hard to imagine Hamilton without The Mountain. It would certainly be a different looking city, with a different street pattern and a different layout. But there’s probably so much we would miss. A few laughs from outsiders is a small trade to make.