When VancouverisAwesome.com founder Bob Kronbauer told me he’d be sharing a personal story about sturgeon fishing in the Fraser River at an upcoming CreativeMornings event, I said I’d like to attend. Too bad, he said, the first 50 tickets became available at 11 am and they were taken in 30 seconds. Two subsequent ticket releases, at 4 pm and 9 pm the same day, were also snapped up.
Admittedly, it was a free event and included a breakfast (thanks to Arc'teryx, a sportswear company in search of creative employees), but the story was familiar. I remembered a similar event I attended in January that was also sold out, with 400 people, mostly under 40, gathering to hear eight story-tellers talk about “What Feeds Us” at the spectacularly renovated Salt Building in the Olympic Village in southeast False Creek.
It was hosted by Rain City Chronicles, run by two women who have volunteered their time to organize 11 storytelling nights since Dec. 2009. All but the first event have sold out, featuring a diverse roster of largely unknown Vancouverites telling stories around themes like “Luck”, “Surprise!”, “Mixed Messages,” and “Border Crossings”.
“From your favorite actress to the guy who sells you coffee, we believe everyone has a great personal story to tell,” says co-organizer Karen Pinchin (Can you tell she’s a former journalist?). “Our mission is to provide a community space for sharing these stories…long stories, short stories, music, and beverages.”
Graphic designers (a group that connected to many of these events) Jane and Steven Cox have a similar goal with their Pecha Kucha Night in Vancouver events, which they describe as “thinking and drinking.” That’s hardly a new combination, but the new-ish Pecha Kucha format is. Like CreativeMornings, it’s an imported international formula for bringing people together in person and showcasing outstanding personalities. Originating in Tokyo in 2003 and now used for presentation nights in cities around the world, it allows each speaker 20 slides for 20 seconds each—giving the audience a glimpse into someone’s world in less than 7 minutes. The Coxes have now hosted 21 Pecha Kucha Nights in Vancouver in venues as big as the 2,700-seat Queen Elizabeth Theatre. They have all sold out ($12 a seat).
Then there are former Mayor Sam Sullivan’s Public Salons, now in their third year, packing them in at the 670-seat Playhouse. His format is reminiscent of Pecha Kucha and Rain City Chronicles: 7 or so disparate high-profile speakers at the peak of their game, telling stories. In his case, it’s an outgrowth of small dinner salons he has hosted for years, bringing together accomplished people from varied backgrounds to talk to other guests about their personal passions.
The wildly popular TED Talks on “ideas worth spreading” are another variation on this theme: scintillating speakers in a tightly-scripted format with a live audience. It’s probably no coincidence that the only Canadian city holding auditions for the 2013 TED talks is Vancouver, where twin sisters Katherine and Janet McCartney of North Vancouver-based Procreative Design Works are directors of operations and events respectively for the international organization. Last November, a TEDx local event in West Vancouver featured, again, a series of amazing people sharing their stories and passions.
And this is just the headliners. Simon Fraser University (SFU) has been organizing Philosophers Café gatherings since 1998. They’re on almost every night in cafes around town, offering “comfortable surroundings for vibrant street level discussions on burning issues of the day. No formal philosophy training required; real life experience desired.” The SFU City Program and Centre for Dialogue just launched an ongoing lunch-time series of “city conversations”. In a matter of months SFU kicks off a major Public Square initiative—still more in-person engagements on today’s broader civic and cultural issues.
Every event hosted by SFU’s Centre for Dialogue is full. Every monthly lunch hosted by Rick Peterson’s invitation-only Burgundy Luncheon Club (three speakers at 10 minutes each in a downtown business club) has sold out.
This new craving for face-to-face discussion has piqued the interest of the City of Vancouver. They’re tapping into a group called Gen Why Media with smaller-scale Re:Generation, “an intergenerational event series” where people of different ages “tell their stories of challenge and triumph in pursuit of sustainability and resiliency in their communities.” In one event young people were invited to “Bring Your Boomers”. City staff come and listen and take notes.
What’s going on here? Business people have long been keen on in-person networking events, and networking for jobs and contacts is certainly in full swing at these events — CreativeMornings puts aside 20 minutes for small-group discussions. But the younger people who typically throng to these events have other concerns. While they’re partly driven by a craving to get out of their screens — and sometimes tiny living quarters — and into the real world of physical contact, they’re also working around a dissatisfaction with traditional political and media discourse, according to Mark Winston, director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue. Newspapers and TV don’t bring people in touch with each other like this.
Almost all these events feature a heady mix of creativity and humanitarian causes — the TEDx talk featured people like Seth Cooper, the Creative Director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, who uses video games to solve difficult scientific problems. And Aaron Coret & Stephen Slen, who head up a crew of scientifically inclined skiers and snowboarders “dedicated to safe progress in action sports.” Audiences tend to leave uplifted and stimulated. Steven Cox says the goal for his Pecha Kucha Nights is for each attendee to “leave with a sense that Vancouver is a cooler city – then we’ve done our job."
It’s not a coincidence that many of these events are linked to the strictly-upbeat website vancouverisawesome.com. It’s dedicated to “sharing positive stories about arts, culture, lifestyle, and everything awesome about Vancouver. No bad news.” Younger generations face a dark future on many fronts. Getting together to meet other people who want to celebrate the positive can provide welcome relief.
Ironically, the same social media that reduce our electronic exchanges to acronym-laden banalities make these events incredibly simple to market. At no cost, in a matter of hours, an event organizer can get the viral word out to thousands of electronically-connected people and process RSVPs, seat reservations, and payments automatically. Intermingling these events with the Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and blog worlds creates a pulsing, self-organizing, marketing blob that can book a room in seconds.
Some people, like blogger Nathan Morris, trace the craving for personal contact to being raised in the suburbs: “While the suburban cul-de-sac lifestyle offered the safest environment the planet has ever seen, it also produced the most isolated and disconnected environment,” he writes in Placemakers and Newshakers. “Today’s children rarely have the freedom to roam beyond the cul-de-sac, ensuring their social lives are determined by the quality of friends on the same street, together with the nature of their scheduled social interactions beyond their neighborhood."
“The net result? Generation Y wants to be more connected and less isolated than previous generations. They manifest this desire in their full-on embrace of social media and their desire to live in places where they can be around others; i.e., the densest, most active, areas of cities.”
This might explain how these in-person gatherings address the one problem identified by the Vancouver Foundation as the biggest social issue in this city of newcomers, transients, and ethnic silos — isolation. When so many people in a city are from somewhere else, when more than half have mother tongues other than English, the craving to connect with local history and personalities gets people out.
“There’s a great interest in thinking more deeply and reflectively, as well as networking and community building,” says Mark Winston. "We feel less isolated when we’re physically in touch.”
Welcome to the new IPO: in-person-only events. There is hope outside the screen.