Blurring the lines: Twitter and the RAFW social media experiment



To say the Spring/Summer 2009/2010 edition of Rosemount Australian Fashion Week whizzed past in a blur, is an understatement. Beyond two beatups which did the rounds of several Australian media outlets – the model pay story and the GFC-led downsizing of what turned out to be an exceptionally busy event, with no downtime – arguably the biggest controversy of the week has surrounded the event’s social media coverage. Given that I find myself at the epicentre of this controversy, I thought I’d just post a few observations from the eye of the Twitter storm. And a warning here: buckle up, this time it's a little more than 140 characters.

First, some background.

I am a Sydney-based freelance journalist and I have covered Australian Fashion Week since the event launched in May 1996.

Having commenced filing to the New York-based Womens Wear Daily/Fairchild News Service in, coincidentally, the same year, I have covered the event for WWD in one form or another since that time. This has included event wrap stories in the daily newspaper and a plethora of other WWD news stories and WWD supplements throughout the year.

Over the past 14 years, in tandem with the WWD coverage, I have also covered the event in a freelance capacity for various Australian news outlets, from Channel 7’s Today Tonight to 7 news, as well as print outlets, notably The Australian, The Sun Herald and The Sydney Morning Herald.

As, moreover, the erstwhile fashion reporter for the SMH print edition, the SMH’s online arm smh.com.au and later News Limited’s Australian online news portal NEWS.com.au, I also blogged the event for the latter two online media outlets for three consecutive years from 2006 through 2008.

The first smh.com.au fashion blog in 2006, launched to cover the Spring/Summer 2006/2007 shows, was one of the first dedicated fashion blogs reporting from within Australian Fashion Week, if not the first. It was also among the very first fashion blogs attached to a mainstream newspaper anywhere in the world. The landscape changed very quickly over the following six months. After that initial blog, I then went on to blog three consecutive, four-city Ready-to-Wear runway seasons, from New York to London, Milan and Paris, for initially smh.com.au and then NEWS.com.au.

I launched my own independent blog in July 2008 and this year was the first time that I blogged Australian Fashion Week independently. I did cover September’s New Zealand Fashion Week (which slipped my mind when talking to Kiwi blogger Hannah McArdle last week).

As explained to McArdle, having blogged at Fashion Weeks for three years, I knew there was one place that I did not want to be this year – and that was stuck in the media centre composing reflective posts while I missed a lot of the action.

Unfortunately, it is either one or the other with these events. If you are working solo, it is just impossible to see absolutely everything that is on schedule and also file normal news stories and features on deadline. You have to make choices. I’ve filed to a daily newspaper from the event. And once again this year, I watched my print peers left in the media centre working on stories for their various outlets while I and others headed off to shows. Sure, you can see the photos afterwards, but it’s not quite the same as being on the spot.

AN RAFW SOCIAL MEDIA PRIMER

Blogging certainly upped the ante at Australian Fashion Week in 2006. As pointed out to McArdle, at the time I was mobile blogging or “moblogging” from my BlackBerry to the SMH – however not filing directly into the blog template. The posts were quickly added, complete with pictures, by smh.com.au staff. You would call those blog posts “as live”.

But Twitter made real-time reporting a reality.

Certainly, various free blog platforms such as Blogger allow mobile blogging via email, however prior to this year, I was not blogging independently directly from the event – and nor, to my knowledge, were many other indie bloggers.

I believe NEWS.com.au may have been the first Australian media outlet to use Twitter at Australian Fashion Week – back in April/May 2007. It may well have been the first media outlet to adopt the microblogging service at any major fashion week.

Twitter was introduced under new NEWS.com.au editor David Higgins who, in April 2007, had just been poached from the same position at smh.com.au. It was Higgins who in fact got me blogging for Fairfax at the previous year’s event.

In April 2007 I was three months away from being called over to join Higgins at NEWS.com.au. That month, I covered Australian Fashion Week for smh.com.au. I was at the time unfamiliar with Twitter and recall thinking how daft the Tweets of the NEWS.com.au fashion reporter, Lisa Bjorksten, looked on their website.

I was signed up for Twitter by NEWS.com.au upon joining the outlet, in July 2007. But it was very early days and few in fashion, myself included, could get their heads around the true value of the then one year-old microblogging service via which people communicate in 140-character alerts.

This time last year I began using Twitter on a semi-regular basis.

At the beginning of this year, I started to use it daily and realised what a truly remarkable invention it is – one that facilitates a kind of global water cooler conversation into which absolutely anyone can tap, unlike the cliquey, semi-private service Facebook.

Over the past 12 months – and notably, over the past four – Twitter has exploded, experiencing quadruple digit growth.

As noted on this blog during the FW0910 collections in February and March this year, FW0910 was the first season that Twitter truly impacted on the fashion world, with most major fashion outlets establishing Twitter feeds. Several among them, for example The New York Times’ The Moment and Womens Wear Daily, attracted thousands of new followers over the course of the following weeks.

The difference in the Twitter coverage between the FW0910 season and what we have just experienced in Sydney is that those reporters Tweeting from the New York, London, Milan and Paris shows, were largely communicating via text.

As components of much larger media outlets, other parties added photographs, slideshows and notably, analysis. Of all the reporters Tweeting for The New York Times for instance, the paper’s chief fashion critic, Cathy Horyn, was not among them. Horyn penned her daily news stories and updated her blog, usually no more than once a day. Another chief NYT fashion scribe, Guy Trebay, in fact dismissed the Twitter phenomenon in one of his stories.

By the time the FW0910 Milan leg came around, two weeks after the initial Twitterburst at New York Fashion Week, some professional reporters were also uploading photographs onto TwitPic direct from the runway, Australia’s Marie Claire among them.

With Australian media outlets and industry players piling onto Twitter in the intervening months, we saw quite some TwitPic coverage of the inaugural Swim Fashion Week in February. It passed largely unnoticed by the wider media community.

On the eve of RAFW, it seemed that every Australian fashion media outlet had established a Twitter feed, with numerous fashion publicists and even some designers and retailers also joining up. In the case of Vogue Australia, this was a matter of mere days beforehand – after several parties had established fake “fan” Vogue Australia feeds.

In my opinion, the price paid by Vogue Australia for its tardiness in jumping on the Twitter train is that it had negligible brand presence on Twitter at RAFW.

Appointed as recently as mid 2008, Vogue Australia’s very first online editor, Damien Woolnough was, I understand, also responsible for the Twitter coverage. Woolnough would have been up to his ears writing show reviews and producing multimedia galleries. So were Marie Claire and Oyster, whose brands were unmissable on Twitter last week. Both outlets thought to dedicate at least one reporter to Twitter.

Last week witnessed a veritable avalanche of Twitter coverage.

Yes, FW0910 was a test run, but such was the impact of social media at RAFW, IMG reports that the company’s head office in New York has requested an immediate debrief in order to better understand social media. Julia Knolle and Jessica Weiß from German website Les Mads also report that they have been approached by IMG to collaborate on some form of social media initiative. IMG FASHION's next major event is Berlin Fashion Week.

MY RAFW GAME PLAN

Anyone signed up to Twitter, who was armed with a phone capable of taking, and emailing, photos, uploaded images from the runway last week. Some chose text-only Tweets. I used a combination of both.

I went into the event with a clear strategy: to report as I went in real-time or as close to as I could get. Yes, it was an experiment and I do apologise for not clarifying this in the event leadup.

I assumed that the new format would be self-explanatory and now appreciate that although I had already blogged at the event for three consecutive years, and moved on this season to something newer and faster, many readers are still coming to grips with the blog phenonemon.

“I checked your blog and I can’t find any reviews, just pictures and a few words” noted one international friend who has an iPhone because he thinks it’s chic - but still cannot fathom how to use the (very simple) email function. The end result is that we have to spend a fortune communicating in absurdly overpriced international SMS costs.

Quite obviously this blog adopted a different format last week: a temporary rolling news format.

I attempted to address the fact that not everyone uses, or even understands, Twitter, by integrating most of the Twitter coverage into the blog, in emailing photographs simultaneously to two locations: Blogger (ie this blog platform) and TwitPic, a web application that is integrated with Twitter.

TwitPic is a personal photo gallery, which anyone can view, irrespective of whether or not they use Twitter. I have now included a permanent link to it at the top of this page.

Some of the coverage was exclusive to Twitter.

To provide easy access to all the reportage – and commentary - for those who don’t follow Twitter, I opened up a Twitter widget on the right-hand side of this page, showing the most recent 20 “Tweets”. I agree that it looked messy. However without the resources for a more sophisticated purpose-built website, it seemed the only way to integrate the coverage. Many bloggers have their Twitter feeds permanently integrated into their blogs' home pages. I figured it wasn’t that difficult to follow.

I also downloaded a live streaming video application called Qik onto my BlackBerry. Qik is free software, one of in fact several live streaming video applications that are currently on the market. Over the past few months, Qik has been enjoying quite some publicity via Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. It surprised me that nobody else thought to use it at the event.

In spite of the fact that Qik advertises an integration with various social media platforms, including Blogger, not all seem to function properly and I only managed to integrate a Twitter alert every time I recorded a video, so that you could click that to view the video:

“New live video cross from #RAFW”

I had to manually embed the videos after they were recorded, whenever I had time back at the media centre.

All up last week I recorded 37 videos, 20 of them 3-4-minute interviews with designers and other industry players such as The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman, Fashion Design Studio director Nicholas Huxley, Fashion Wire Daily's Godfrey Deeny and e-tailer Sarah Pavillard. So far the videos have been viewed almost 3000 times, with at least three of the videos to my knowledge embedded into other blogs. I would have done many, many more videos however realised on Day One that I would have needed two spare BlackBerry batteries to get through every day, such was the degree to which video chewed up the (very slow-to-charge) BB battery.

I posted 140 photographs, many of them with key details attached in the form of garment descriptions, trend alerts and information about models (eg “the unstoppable Rachel Rutt – just starred in her second runway vid in as many says for Gary Bigeni”).

I have not counted how many Tweets I posted, but it was many, many more than that, with 30-40 posts (ie blog/TwitPic posts or text-only Tweets) going up every day. These included show preambles, show commentary, post-show thumbs-downs and industry gossip. One year at the event, while still at The Sun Herald, I penned gossip snippets to accompany the SMH's main fashion story each day (the latter written by Jackie Lunn). These Twitter snippets are no different to what I would have provided the SMH or indeed any other newspaper.

The one thing I did not do was develop longer material for the blog on an ongoing basis throughout the week. I did it once with the news story about Chic Management threatening to pull star Australian model Myf Shepherd from the Kate Sylvester show 40 minutes from start time, after Chic discovered that Shepherd was not opening the show.

I broke the story on Twitter, then developed it on the blog – and in the process of securing right-of-reply etc from Chic and Sylvester, missed the Aurelio Costarella presentation. Unfortunately this was unavoidable - and precisely the type of scenario I had hoped to avoid. But I really did need to get a response from Chic and flesh the story out to be fair to both sides.

I make no claim whatsoever to be a professional photographer.

But that said, in effect I approached last week as a journalist, a photojournalist and a videographer. The last time I checked, television journalists were also journalists. I had a fulltime job as a researcher, producer and occasional reporter at Network Seven from 1996-1999 and have worked with other networks (including CNN). I saw the Qik videos as an extension of this work and also the multimedia work done in the interim with smh.com.au and NEWS.com.au.

To my knowledge I made one mistake – doubling up with the captions from the Diet Coke Little Black Dress show, mislabelling an Alice McCall dress as Kate Sylvester’s. It was quickly corrected. I thoroughly vetted the names of all designers and models etc before emailing the images.

All up, the blog’s traffic doubled – and on one day nearly tripled – with several hundred new Twitter followers piling onto my Twitter feed. Blog subscribers also increased.

THE BACKLASH

I must admit I have been somewhat taken aback by the reaction to the social media coverage of RAFW. It really does appear to have polarised opinion.

Some have noted how much they loved the feeling of being at the event. Others have slammed the quality of the photographs and, in my specific case, the lack of longer-form commentary and proper “journalism”.

I worked incredibly hard last week seeing in fact more shows than I would have had I had to file news stories, features, or longer blog posts. I was happy to keep the coverage moving, trying to see every show and clocking every designer – including those in the often much-maligned group shows.

Many of the latter designers walk away from AFW with no publicity at all. In the first Ready To Wear group show, I was delighted to discover Anaessia. I posted three images of the brand, with commentary that in my opinion, it was the show highlight.

On Day One I had nothing but great feedback, with people sending Twitter replies saying how much they loved the coverage and retweeting posts, images and videos.

Day Two got off to a great start with Dion Lee’s impressive debut solo show in the claustrophobic basement of a Kings Cross carpark. Somehow my Twitter pictures and show review comments managed to get through the concrete bunker but sadly, Qik video transmission died after a few seconds into the post-show interview I did with Lee.

Back at the OPT venue, just prior to the start of Zimmermann, I flicked Qik back on as the power went out and I captured live video footage of Simon Lock standing on the runway addressing the troops in mid blackout. Lock is standing in darkness, his face occasionally illuminated by camera flashes and it’s a fairly amusing video – especially when he asks attendees not to take the goodie bags.

Moments later I was backstage, recording an interview with Nicky Zimmermann, talking about the mayhem. Her professional guard dropped in the midst of the pandemonium, Zimmermann was flanked by her son, with her young daughter on her hip, and she was remarkably candid and relaxed.

Shortly thereafter, I became aware of a Twitter backlash that had been initiated by The Sydney Morning Herald’s gossip columnist Andrew Hornery – with all of it, ironically, unfolding on Twitter.

Unimpressed by the barrage of blurry photos and drawing specific reference to Twitter images tagged as “first looks” (something I was certainly trying to do at each show), Hornery announced that he was going to start 'unfollowing' people.

Sun Herald columnist, media commentator and blogger Mia Freedman chimed in that she was also fed up with the low Twitter standards.


Paul Hayes, a News Limited editor - and blogger - later countered on Twitter:

“print journos issuing instructions on How To Do Twitter Right. Hilarious! #rafw #CrankyOldMedia”

The following evening, when I went to take my seat alongside Hornery at the Jayson Brunsdon show and joked – lightheartedly - about the Twitter backlash, he snarled, “I can’t tell what’s in your pictures”, adding, words to the effect, that I should not be publishing them.

The following day a series of anonymous comments were left on this blog (an Australian designer has since owned up to the first one). The comments echoed very similar sentiments.

Given how swiftly the coverage was moving, they were quickly lost to view. But here they are again:
“patty the twitter thing sucks !! id rather wait to read some reviews and see sonnys photos than your average black berry images with no show reviews , Drop the twit please x”

Followed by:
“If anything, this week has demonstrated the failure of new media. For the past few months, debates have raged over the place of bloggers and twitter-ers in the (fashion) media landscape. I, like many, have supported the new generation of information outlets.

Sadly, this blog, like the majority, have sacrificed journalism for mini tweets and grainy images. The mainstream media outlets are uploading photos within the hour, so we can look at high resolution versions on these websites. Frockwriter is one, if not the only, source of high quality, critical fashion journalism in Australia, and this week we've barely seen more than a 'tweet' and said blurry phone photos. Perhaps its time we moved back to newspapers and magazines, for they have written content with strong visual imagery. The new media landscape has proved it can't integrate both, despite the pace of upload”.

On Saturday, the RAFW special edition of Hornery's Private Sydney column was published.

Given that I have been a financial member of the Australian Journalist’s Association (now the MEAA) for 24 years, that I earn a living selling news to mainstream media outlets and that moreover, RAFW is a trade, as opposed to a public, event, I was amused to find myself - along with the event's other bloggers - being described in the story as a “citizen critic” and “self-anointed fashion arbiter” who had to “scramble” for front row seats. The inference was that the latter were scraps vacated by the more august members of the media pack.

In fact, with few exceptions, all the front row seats I had last week were allocated to me by the various designers.

But the tone of this story should not come as any surprise, given the overall experience of many new media reps that I described in a story about social media in the April edition of The Australian’s WISH magazine.

And perhaps the seeds for Hornery's discontent had already been sown back when the WISH story was first published.

I recall its publication prompted a series of Tweets (perhaps since deleted - I was unable to locate) in which Hornery lamented the poor, "titillating", quality of new media when stacked up against the institution of print news and his concerns that if advertising revenue continues to drift towards social media, who will pay for journalism in the future?

His complaint, echoed by several other commenters over the past few days, is that I failed to write enough about RAFW last week.

At the end of each day, I was thoroughly exhausted and just did not have the energy to go home and compose a 1000-word daily verdict of the day’s events. In hindsight, I could have generated more exclusive blog content, perhaps at least three more solid posts each day and will definitely take this on board for the next event.

As for the blurry runway images, what can I say? Yes many of them are extremely blurry. And frankly, who cares? At least we were all happy to have a crack at it. It wasn’t compulsory to look at the photos and it certainly did not cost anything to view them.

The ‘new media douchebag’ contingent at RAFW joked that perhaps we should christen this new photographic genre of Twitter art as “Bluralism” – and possibly even stage an exhibition. This contingent included Matt 'Imelda' Jordan, Helen Lee, Isaac Hindin Miller, Sonny Vandevelde, Marian Simms, Melanie Hick, Alyx Gorman, Jade Warne and McArdle.

While I concur that some of my runway images last week were very ordinary, on Day Two, I started to get the hang of it and twigged that it was possible to take a vaguely-interesting shot which, although largely an Impressionistic blur, could nail a key clear detail about the garment in question. I felt like I was back in life drawing class, attempting to capture the essence of a model's pose in a few, fleeting pencil strokes. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if noone else likes them but I’m quite fond of some of the shots which eventuated. They were, of course, captured by complete fluke.






By the same token, there is an element of beatup to the photo kvetching.

The negative buzz overshadows the fact that at least some of the shots produced by all parties at the event were in fact crystal clear. Under the right conditions, it is remarkable how much clarity even an amateur can achieve with a mobile phone camera. Here are a couple of examples from my TwitPic gallery:




I almost did not cover last week’s event – at least not on the ground.

I have a series of now quite urgent deadlines for paid work and taking the entire week off to cover the event meant those deadlines were pushed back. It was a luxury in other words, not a necessity and in the current economic climate, with freelance work becoming harder and harder to find, it was possibly not the wisest decision.

This week I will file on RAFW to both WWD and The New York Times but did I really need to be at RAFW every day from 9.00am until 9.00pm, in order to complete that coverage? The answer is no. I covered the event on the ground for this blog. And for many it seems, that just wasn’t good enough. I'm sorry about that but I gave it my best shot.

Andrew Hornery asks who is going to pay for journalism as the world navigates through unchartered media waters, with a flotilla of lighter, nimbler, high-tech sloops scrambling around the waterlines of the dead tree galleons.

But surely what he really means is, who is going to continue to pay him and his salaried colleagues to produce journalism?

Because while Hornery expects to receive a fat salary and full benefits for his journalistic contributions, he has absolutely no qualms in demanding that an independent blogger such as myself pump out considered, high quality analysis of an event that they have already exhaustively covered, in detail, from the bottom up, via a constellation of vignettes - for absolutely no payment whatsoever.

And he's not alone.