Sunday, September 13th, 2009
They came from every domain; the dot-coms, the dot-nets, the dot-co-dot-ils. They came from WordPress and Blogspot and Tumblr.
With names like names like Muqata, Fun Joel, Rafi G, Kvetcher and West Bank Mama, those who tweet and poke and tag joined with those who consult and analyze and advocate in a conference center in the Jewish capital of the world for the International Jewish Bloggers Conference.
The 2nd annual gathering, sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Israel-based firm WebAds, drew 300 participants, nearly all of them recent olim, for whom the social media are a valuable new bridge to ideological connections, and potential livelihood, around the world.
Workshops discussed making money from your blog (upshot: you can’t), crash courses in Twitter and Facebook, defending Israel online as well as panel discussions. The lecture topics ranged from the impact of social media on the Jewish community, using it to network among olim and, again, how to defend Israel online (this time with pointers from a close aide to Bibi Netanyahu, Ron Dermer.)
There was also plenty of time for networking the old-fashioned way, without servers and cables, of which most bloggers seemed capable, although there was a fair amount of keyboard tapping during the sessions, and some used only screennames on their ID badges.
I knew I was in an interesting crowd when a guy who looked like he was trying out for the cover of Mercenary magazine sat down next to me, armed with both an AR-15 rifle and a pistol and dressed like a soldier of fortune. When I jokingly said I hoped he wouldn’t shoot me if my cell phone rang during the lecture, he replied, dryly, that he wouldn’t.
I later learned that I had been sitting next to Double Tapper Israel, a blogger who seems to have a dual obsession with guns and women of the Israel Defense Forces (”So sexy, so deadly.”) No explanation of his nom de guerre/plume, but it’s a safe bet it has nothing to do with dancing.
We listened as NBN spokesman Benzi Kluwgant discussed the organization’s hope to harness the “emerging media to facilitate aliyah.”
Then the editor of The Jerusalem Post, David Horowitz, discussed how blogs and free Web content were posing major challenges to his 50-year-old paper.
That was followed by a panel with David Kelsey (Jewcy), Jonathan Rosenblum (The Jerusalem Post), Orit Arfa (LA Jewish Journal) and Tova Serkin (JGooders) on how blogs and social media are changing our lives.
As I pondered how many possible media names can come from some permutation of Jew or J (Jewcy, Jewlicious, Jewschool, Jewsweek, Jewmanji, Jewkbox, Jew Made Me Love Jew, JBlog, JDate, JWalk, JBird …) Kelsey spoke about the changing face of the blogosphere. Once dominated by an anonymous and combative fringe, he said, it has now given way to more responsible set that does research and breaks news. “They are actually being cited and not just mined for information,” he said.
Rosenblum, who covers the Orthodox point of view online but insists he is not a blogger, said said he welcomed blogs that are critical of Torah life because “every society needs feedback mechanisms. The two best are democracy and a free market of ideas.”
Arfa discussed the social implications of Facebook, suggesting that it could cut into synagogue attendance by young Jewish singles. “It really accelerated my re-entry to the Jewish community in LA,” said Arfa, who lived in Israel for nine years but returned to the West Coast last year. “I wouldn’t choose to go to synagogue to meet more Jews. But having having contacts and old friends [on social media] is one way to re-enter the community.”
Asked by a flirty male audience member what it would take to get her to stay in Israel, Arfa said perhaps the right guy, or a constitution that is more like the US Constitution. Moderator Danielle Sheldon reminded her that Israel has no constitution at all, and Arfa did not elaborate on how her civil liberties had been infringed upon in Israel. She did, however, advocate for “some rules to be set in place” about Googling and Facebooking potential dates.
Serkin discussed how the Internet has changed the world of philanthropy. ”You can see the direct impact of your money carefully,” but also cautioned that social media are “not a magic bullet” and has to be used as part of a larger campaign.
The majority of participants were Orthodox men and women, on average between 30 and 50. Despite the term international, they appeared to be all North American. But their reasons for attending were diverse.
“Maybe I needed to be convinced why I should be using Twitter,” said Lurker, a 43-year-old oleh from Teaneck who posts on the Muqata blog and wouldn’t give up his real name. “I’m not a technophobe, quite the opposite, but until now I haven’t seen what the point is.” Is he convinced? “I’m going to try it out.”
Muqata, the name of Arafat’s resting place, was appropriated by pro-Israel bloggers to surprise those who Google the term. “It’s a blog about life in Israel,” says Lurker, who not surprisingly works in computer programming. “Not everybody who searches for [Muqata] may get what they are looking for.” Lurker’s favorite topics are the Dead Sea Scrolls and Israeli politics.
Fun Joel, aka Joel Haber, sees blogging not as a way to vent but to promote himself as a screenwriter.
“The amount of blogging or other social media I’ve done that I’ve tried to make a living from is not directly monetizing but more developing me as a brand, selling my services,” sad Haber 38, who graduated YU and took media studies classes the New School. He moved from New York to LA before making aliyah in March via NBN, and recently completed a screenplay on commission for which he was sent to Africa for research.
“I used to blog about film and screenwriting and made a tremendous number of contacts and tremendous number of friends via blogging. Now that I’m starting on Twitter, I’ll be developing that network as well.”
Margot Stern posts on the blog of the non-profit Leadel.net, which describes itself as “a media hub showcasing the rich variety of contemporary Jewish voices and expressions.”
“I’m not blogging as a career,” said Stern, 26, who made aliyah two years ago from Ft. Lauderdale. “We use blogging as an attribute in order to promote what we do. We spotlight Jewish initiatives and want to be the leading Jewish inspiration on the Web.”
The conference, she said, “brings a lot of people together in a niche market which you don’t usually have the chance to do.”
Danielle Sheldon, 20, who came to Israel last year from Los Angeles, blogs on Jewlicious about security issues while working toward a masters in Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and interning at the Institute for Counterterrorism. “I mostly blog about war-related things and every now and then something else that makes me angry,” she said.
Most of the bloggers didn’t seem to know each other — at least in person — but you got the feeling that for many, the event was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“The thing I like most about a conference like this,” said Lurker, “is attaching a face to all the names that I meet in a virtual way throughout the year.”