Changing the world with Facebook

There are some things you get to do in your life that are unforgettable. Being invited by Facebook to London to participate in their first ever European Communities Summit was certainly one of those things for me.

Having seen an ad on Facebook to apply, I duly did so, not expecting to hear anything back. We had to use an example of a group that we admin that makes a difference in the community. I admin the group Inform Bundoran which is essentially a community noticeboard so that people are aware of what’s going on in our town in the north west of Ireland. A few weeks later I received an email to say I had made the shortlist and would I be able to schedule some time to do a video interview with a member of the Facebook staff. We did, and during the interview, I outlined fairly passionately my reasons for establishing the group and putting so much effort into maintaining it.

I would get notification in the new year of 2018 if I had been successful – there had been thousands of applicants and I had made the shortlist for Ireland. That was a good enough result – Inform Bundoran was and is just something I do – I don’t think of it in terms of being a community leader or it making a difference – it’s just something that’s there to communicate what’s happening and occasionally help people find a job or a lost dog. But low and behold the email popped into my inbox in early January. I had been selected to go to London with a guest for the summit – they must have liked what they heard.

Fast forward to Thursday February 8th.  I’m sitting in Dublin Airport with my colleague Taralouise and we’re waiting to board our CityJet plane to take us to London City Airport – in all my visits to London I’d never actually flown into it. Through a flurry of emails and being made members of the “summit attendees” group, we had gotten into our heads a fair idea of what was going to be happening over the coming two days but still we were unsure as to what lay ahead.  We had both signed up for various workshops and the design sprint but we weren’t sure we were going to make it as we were tight with time between the flight landing, getting to the hotel and then getting to the venue. This was a huge opportunity for both of us and we didn’t want to miss a single second of it.

Coming into land at London City
Coming into land at London City

We landed on a beautiful sunny (but cold) day in London’s City Airport and made our way to the arrivals area where sure enough there was a man in a suit carrying an ipad with my name on it. When we were both handed a branded summit luggage tag to put on our bags, I knew we weren’t dealing with anything small scale. I knew this already before of course, but small things like this only help to concrete this fact in my mind.

Arriving at London City Airport
Arriving at London City Airport

We got to the hotel, checked in and quickly jumped into a car to bring us to the design sprint. This was being held at the Lee Valley Velodrome – better known as the London Olympics velodrome where Team GB dominated the track cycling competition winning seven out of a possible ten gold medals plus one silver and one bronze 6 years ago. It’s great to see that the venue is still used full time today – a nice legacy of London 2012.

With the table 6 team at the Design Sprint
With the table 6 team at the Design Sprint

So we were there for basically a large brainstorming session where participants were asked to talk about their groups with each other and then come up with suggestions for ways that the functionality of groups could be improved. It was really great to see the process of an idea for Facebook and how it could potentially come to life. We were on the clock all the time so the pressure was on but we managed to come up with some pretty decent ideas – some of which you’ll possibly be seeing on Facebook soon. There was lots of post-it notes, sharpies, white boards and coloured stickers involved – my ideal brainstorming session!  It should also be noted that this process normally takes about 6 months… we did it in 2 hours . 

At the design sprint
At the design sprint

Oodles of chocolate bars and soft drinks (as well as fruit and water!) were on hand to keep us from being famished as we worked through our ideas. Ironically I was placed at the same table as Gina who was one of the other Irish guests and lives just one hour’s drive away from me in Letterkenny, County Donegal and looks after a page called Donegal Down Syndrome. A small world… a small community … but I guess that was why we were there!

Me with Taralouise on Day 1 of the summit
Me with Taralouise on Day 1 of the summit

By the time the design sprint was over the effects of the extremely long day were beginning to kick in – although we hadn’t been up as long as some of our fellow travellers! Back on the bus and back to the hotel where there was just time to drop our bags to our room before we were shuttled to our dinner location. Being a picky eater I’m always a little bit apprehensive about eating when I’m away – I need not have worried as we were brought to an amazing venue called the Giant Robot near Canary Wharf. Think Street Feast indoors – a multitude of different vendors like “Burger and Beyond”, “Thunderbird” and “Yum Bun” with food of all types – there can’t have been anyone disappointed with the choice! I went for waffle fries, a classic burger slider and BBQ wings and washed it all down with a chocolate ice cream cone from “Chin Chin Labs”. Delicious.

Some of the delicious "branded" food at the Giant Robot
Some of the delicious “branded” food at the Giant Robot

As we sat eating and taking in the great atmosphere, we talked to our neighbours and also to the Facebook staff who kindly floated and sat with us to make sure we were enjoying ourselves and also to find out more about our groups and communities.

Giant Robot - photo via official Facebook photo album
Giant Robot – photo via official Facebook photo album

At this point it felt really late, however it was just touching 9pm but we knew there was a long day ahead on Friday so we opted for the bus back to the hotel where we were back in time to watch the final episode of “Derry Girls” – a great way to wrap up an amazing day!

Derry Girls (pic - www.channel4.com)
Derry Girls (pic – http://www.channel4.com)

Friday….

Breakfast at the hotel was nice. Again we got to meet more of our fellow summit attendees and chat about our various groups before it was time to Here East for the day’s events. We followed the “paddle people” to the bus and were on the road to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park by 08:15.

That's a paddlin'
That’s a paddlin’

Arriving just before 9 we got checked through security and made our way up to the first floor to the venue for the day. Here we would watch the keynote speakers and take part in the various workshops of the day. We would also get the chance to talk to Facebook staff, many of whom we had met at dinner the night before, to find out about the various “products” that they offer – when Facebook say the word “product” they mean things like “Facebook Live”, “Groups”, “Pages” etc.

The Facebook Live booth at the summit
The Facebook Live booth at the summit

As there were only a few of us from Ireland, it had been arranged that we talk to a journalist from the Irish Times and also from Joe.ie – we would do that at lunchtime but we wanted to gather for a chat which we did with James who was working with Facebook for the event. As we were there so early, there was also time for me to record my weekly video which goes out on the Discover Bundoran Facebook page every Friday and looks ahead to the weekend. Watch it here.

At the Facebook Communities Summit
Broadcasting from the Facebook Communities Summit on the Discover Bundoran Facebook page

We were shuffled into the auditorium where we would watch the keynote speakers Nicola Mendelsohn – VP EMEA, Chris Cox – Chief Product Officer and Ime Archibong – VP, Product Partnerships. Watch the video here.

Nicola Mendelsohn
Nicola Mendelsohn
Ime Archibong
Ime Archibong
Chris Cox
Chris Cox

Food and drink were not in short supply with as much as we wanted on hand right throughout the day. They came in handy as we weaved our way through the workshop track – Managing Your Community & Handling Conflict, Engaging Your Community and Growth. All of these very extremely interesting and gave a lot of tips and advice on how we could improve our own groups and pages. The speakers were all very knowledgeable and passionate which made them all very easy to listen to. Between workshops and over lunch there was a chance to network with attendees and chat to the different Facebook staff who were on hand to answer specific questions we might have about the various products that are offered.

One of the workshops at the Facebook Communities Summit
One of the workshops at the Facebook Communities Summit

During lunch we also had our round table interview with Ciara from the Irish Times and Kate from Joe.ie so there was very little downtime. Another nice touch from Facebook was that they had a photographer there taking portrait photos of any attendee who wished. Never one to shy away from a camera, I hunted down Jennifer Leahy and we went out to the terrace and got some really great shots with East London in the background.

Shane Smyth Facebook portrait by Jennifer Leahy
Shane Smyth Facebook portrait by Jennifer Leahy

As the evening crept in, it was time to return to the Velodrome just a few minutes away on the bus where would be having dinner.  As we pulled into the parking area, we spotted the famous Olympic rings on a nearby hill and an obvious photo opportunity.  We took a stroll over and got our photos in the bitterly cold chill of an east London evening before we headed indoors to see what was ahead of us.

The Velodrome at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London
The Velodrome at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Facebook and the event organisers did not fail to disappoint once again as tables were set for around 400 of us (attendees and Facebook staff) and there were lots of fun photo opportunities laid on including a photo booth and a London backdrop which proved very popular for the evening.

With Taralouise and Gina at the London Wall
With Taralouise and Gina at the London Wall
On an important call!
On an important call!

Brave attendees (who hadn’t consumed any alcohol!) also had the opportunity to cycle around the velodrome. I let them at it.

The Velodrome all set out for dinner
The Velodrome all set out for dinner

Before we sat down for the dinner buffet, it was time for one last presentation from Chris Clare – product design manager at Facebook. He thanked us all for being there and then told us that the engineers who had flown in from Menlo Park and Seattle had been burning the midnight oil the night before and right through the day and had been working hard on some of the suggestions that we had come up with the day before in the design sprint! Some of these ideas they had ready put into the prototype stage for development.

Chris Clare of Facebook announces some of the ideas that will be prototyped
Chris Clare of Facebook announces some of the ideas that will be prototyped

With that, it was time to let our hair down, eat and mingle with more of the attendees and Facebook staff who had made the previous 36 hours so enjoyable.

All set for dinner
All set for dinner

I couldn’t praise this event highly enough. For someone who uses Facebook as much as I do, it was a huge and amazing opportunity to meet and connect with likeminded group and page administrators from all over Europe and also to connect with Facebook staff and see how they operate to make the world’s largest community that bit better every day. I have a lot of experience of organising events but generally on a much smaller scale and generally in one language!

Chatting with Adam and XX from Facebook
Chatting with Adam and Mike from Facebook

Whilst I was impressed with the whole organisation of the summit, I forgot at time that English was only one of the 21 languages from 24 countries that were in attendance – that was a lot of translation of printed materials as well as actual translators on site making sure that everyone could understand what was going on. So bravo Facebook. Thank you for an amazing few days in London and an experience that we will never forget. Let’s bring this world closer together….together.

Much love Facebook xx
Much love Facebook xx

Shane recently joined John Breslin on Highland Radio to talk about his recent experience at the Facebook Communities Summit in London

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