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LONDON — It’s exciting to be in a room — well, actually a glitzy BBC TV studio — with a group of top media executives, consultants, think-tankers and gadflys for a day of discussion about We Media or citizen journalism.

Much of the discussion was about how Big Media is embracing the new democratization of media online with citizen-shot photos and video, weblogs and the inclusion of diverse voices. But ironically perhaps, the idea for the conference to be a global conversation — or at the least, a conversation in the room — was much more difficult because of the setting and setup.

Rumor has it there were 200 BBC staffers behind the scenes putting on this TV show of a conference at the BBC television headquarters in White City on the west side of London. Attendees were spread out at tables around the room, and panelists were up on stage wearing clip-on microphones. There were even commercial breaks where sponsors were interviewed from the “trade show exhibits” in the back of the studio.

While there was plenty of time for the audience to jump into the conversation happening on-stage, it was a bit disconcerting to have a TV camera crew and stage lights shone onto you while throwing out your question or comment.

One of the BBC presenters (a.k.a. anchormen), Nik Gowing, was especially abrasive to people stepping into the conversation. For example, I got up at one point and asked this question to a “Leaders Panel” of mainstream media mucky-mucks: “The great thing about we media or citizen media is that anyone can start a blog or podcast and do journalism — it’s a grassroots thing. People in the blogosphere see this conference as Big Media folks trying to grab onto a trend and show that they ‘get it’ and are just trying to co-opt what’s going on by launching blogs and such. How do you respond to that?”

Gowing turned to the panel and said, “Exploitation — how do you respond?” The responses were pretty tepid, not surprisingly.

Consultant Suw Charman was one of many in the room who were frustrated by the split personality or disconnect happening here. “There are really two conversations going on, one up on the stage and one out here, and they aren’t listening to each other, really.” As for the exploitation angle, Charman dubbed the event “Me Too Media,” for the way the mainstream media was trying to show they were hip to the trend without actually bringing many independent people on stage who are practicing citizen media.

You can count on bloggers to excoriate this dynamic, and they did it in spades. Just one example came from Jack P. Toerson, who didn’t attend the conference but slammed the idea of “Digital Assassins,” where the We Media conference brought in “real people” who were shutting off old media for new media in their lives. These folks spread out at each of our tables, and we questioned them as if we were in a psych lab. As contrived as this idea was, I have to admit this was the first time I really did have a group conversation at the conference because our table got to talk privately for awhile.

“There are some amazing things coming out of blogging,” Toerson wrote on his blog critique. “Reports from war zones, personal stories, and information that never would have reached a wide audience. But these, for me at least, are symptoms of just how badly the old media has failed. Necessity is the mother of all invention and people that have been ignored by the old media have taken matters into their own hands.”

Other folks at the conference (names deleted) were astonished that there was so little talk about Web 2.0 technology such as social networking, photo-sharing and online video — and so much emphasis on old arguments such as journalism vs. blogging. One high-profile consultant on the scene said, “This day was so 2005. If this was taking place in the U.S., they would have been trashed.”

On the Plus Side…

But at tech conferences, blog sniping — and all other on-site sniping — is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s a nice sport and so easy. But credit is also due to the conference organizers for pulling this whole thing off, and at least getting the idea of citizen journalism out into the world, largely with the huge help of the BBC, which was running TV story after story on the trust-in-media survey, flawed as it might have been.

In the middle of each panel discussion, the moderator would cut away to Brian Reich, who was monitoring what people were talking about online in the We Media chat room and on other blogs. Reich mentioned at various points that people online were calling panelists “elitist” and “smug,” and while the panelists and moderators tried to laugh it off, the points were made. Again, it had a contrived feeling to it, similar to what you see on CNN and their blog reports, but it was at least a nod to the real world outside that was not always looking at the conference kindly.

Also on the good foot, The Media Center think tank that’s putting on the conference paid 13 “We Media Fellows” to come to the conference from various places around the world and live-blog the conference’s sessions and speeches. It would have been nice to have some of these folks up on stage, but at least they’re here.

I have a lot of hope for the second day of the conference on Thursday, which will take place at the new Reuters HQ in Canary Wharf with a bit less glitz, and perhaps a more unified conversation. The lineup includes panels on how citizen media is changing culture in hotspots around the world, from Asia to the Middle East. Stay tuned for more reports then…

UPDATE: One thing I forgot to mention about the first day’s affairs. At one point, Brian Reich mentioned someone in the chat room critiquing the panel. The moderator then asked for the person to stand up and tell the panel directly what was wrong and what her complaint was. Eventually she stood up sheepishly and seemed to soft-pedal her criticism. I hadn’t seen this type of “outing” someone doing online chat critiques and making them stand up to talk about it in the room.

Whether it was a good or bad thing is unclear. I would guess it might chill the online complaints somewhat, but it would also bring out some counterviews to a panel where everyone was basically congratulating themselves. What do you think about that type of outing someone’s online chatter?

Photo by Annabel Blair — BBC Global News