Photo by jonny goldstein via flickr

Care to share

The theme of this year’s conference was Perestroika, a term coined as the Soviet Union gradually opened up to the world. From the panel topics to the participant-led “unconference sessions,” Supernova was all about transparency, openness and sharing.

A very passionate Jeff Pulver marveled at how millennials will eventually be able to reconstruct their youth by sifting through their Flickr photos, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates. He insisted that social media is an opportunity to connect and share across geographic and generational divides, noting that in a networked world “we often know more about strangers than we do about our own family.”

Wharton’s David Hsu led a discussion on the increasing importance of networks for entrepreneurial innovation, while plucky media critic Jeff Jarvis and charismatic privacy researcher danah boyd (she never capitalizes her name) engaged in a spirited discussion about shifting notions of public and private.

Citing the gay rights movement and his own public battle with prostate cancer (and the emasculating after-effects), Jarvis made an ethical case for living a radically transparent life. Boyd cautioned that what people are willing to share depends on perceived expectations of privacy; it’s when a person or brand like Facebook violates those expectations that they get into trouble.

In a fitting compromise, Supernova organizers assigned each participant a forwarding “email alias” to foster post-conference collaboration without divulging confidential information.

Listen up

The flipside of sharing is listening, and several Supernova presenters acknowledged the increasing importance of what Bob Garfield calls “Listenomics.” Entrepreneur Anil Dash and Lifehacker founder Gina Trapani presented ThinkUp, a crowd-sourcing tool that the White House will use to give citizens a voice in US policy decisions.

Calling it “a clinical trial of a million voices,” Wharton researcher Shawndra Hill talked about sifting through online medical discussion forum data to learn about the potential side effects of medication. The ever-quotable Chris Brogan suggested that companies start asking customers, “How much do we suck?” because “listening to people is better than marketing.” And digital consultant Deborah Schultz warned brands that it’s no longer sufficient to engage with customers at the Superbowl, on Valentine’s Day and other intermittent occasions. “We’re no longer living in an episodic world,“ she said. “We’re living in a continuum world.”

New media and old media are converging

After last year’s Blogworld conference I noted that digital and legacy media were finally ready to work together. At Supernova, they were almost indistinguishable.

The conference’s main sponsor was Comcast, the U.S. telecom giant whose service portfolio includes cable TV, high-speed Internet, video on-demand, and 3D television. In a live interview with festival organizer Kevin Werbach, Comcast’s Executive Vice President David Cohen said the company has “evolved from being a cable company to being a technology company.” And with its pending acquisition of NBC Universal, it’s also poised to become a content company.

Another panel took on the loaded question, “Can social save media?” Channeling Henry Jenkins, Transmedia producer Anita Ondine suggested Facebook and Twitter were making television into a social experience again. Addressing monetization concerns, co-founder Dina Kaplan revealed that she had just mailed a $123,000 cheque to an independent producer for a show on her online-only network.

“Media needs no saving,” concluded Jim Bankoff of sports website SB Nation. “If anything, it needs taming.”

From click to brick

One of Supernova’s most fascinating motifs was the notion of bringing online experiences into the physical world.  For instance, Anita Ondine explained how online story worlds can incentivize people to discover new physical (read: retail) spaces.

Jim Bankoff endorsed the geo-targeted Where app, which sent him coffee coupons as he walked by a Starbucks on the way to the conference. One of the best ideas came from an astute audience member who wondered why airlines or hotel brands he’s engaged with online don’t recognize him at the check-in desk. Good question.

Bridging the digital divide

As educational psychologist Idit Harel Caperton noted, Supernova 2010 was an overwhelmingly white, male and American event. It was an important reminder that as intellectually and professionally diverse as the discussion was, there were still some key voices missing.. During his panel on networks and innovation, Wharton researcher David Hsu explained that ethnicity, gender and other cultural factors can hinder an entrepreneur’s access to finance and support networks. This is a problem, Hsu said, because “people who look alike will probably think alike.”

The Internet isn’t necessarily the great equalizer, as danah boyd put it, but it could be. And if we truly expect it to be an engine of global wealth, it ought to be.