It’s well over a week that my first experience attending SXSW Interactive ended, and a blog post is just wriggling out. I wavered, wafted, and decided on a different, lazy (lame) strategy… to just soak it all in and write something prophetic later. Well, this will likely fall short on most accounts.
And this is also a year when I am trying a few conferences out of the normal education technology realm, so I was wanting to be more reflective and… okay, I am lazy.
The idea of doing detailed sessions posts was not all attractive; earlier in my blogging I would try and do session blogging, but am not enthralled at being a stenographer. Second, I decided on a new tech strategy- I left the laptop in the hotel, and “lugged” (meaning slipped it in a pocket), my new iPod Touch. The hangup there was the wireless network at the Austin Convention Center got bogged down, so even a quick tweet was a long affair.
So first impressions- the size and scale of SXSW is immense to say the least and makes one dizzy. It filled the entire Austin Convention Center, which must be itself a few city blocks (except for one bridal expo which must have caused some interesting cross conference hybrids). The keynotes in the main ballrooms must have had 1000+. Even the “smaller” sessions had audiences of like 100. The printed program weighs a good 3 pounds or so.
Some small things I liked was after registering you could go to another room and pick up your giant bag full of crap and the program, or as recommended to me by (?Christie I met in line?) you could pick up just the program and get the bag later; which I did on the last day.
There are a smattering of education folks here, but nicely a niche group. There are way more advertisers, media companies, start ups, software firms, artists, social activists, blog nuts, people who use the word “monetize” often, game players and makers, graphic artists, others under the web2.0 umbrella…
If I were granted some SXSW god-powers, I would outlaw the shameless self promoting people do when they hog the mike for a question.. “Hi, I’m Alan with Online Pickles.com and I blog at HowIWillSavetheEarth, and my new book on Filched Design is open for autographs at 3pm… so my question is really about me but…” How lame is that? How transparent?
SXSW has a civilized morning schedule- sessions started at 10:00am… well civilized only if you don’t fill the evenings with the string of parties, those alone are like a second part of the program. Austin is… well, a place that lends itself to late night antics. As I was here primarily for some NMC meetings later in the week, I was at a hotel far from the action, and those $35 cab rides got dull.
So forget trying to “take it all in” and just try and make some good guesses. They had video cameras in just about every session and one hopes eventually a lot of that goes online. Sessions where great (see below), but unlike a lot of the edu cons, the activities that hum are not so focused on the sessions- there is the hall talks, the expo, the book readings, the game play, the music, the parties, the long lunch breaks– all of this affords the chances to randomly meet someone, which might be Jeff Bezos or Herbie the Storm Trooper. I found a lot of people really approachable with a simple “Hi, I’m Alan…”
Also an interesting observation was above the now not so unusual live conference twittering, was the proliferation of people doing live video streaming from mobile phones, using tools like Qik — in the keynotes, there were usually 2 or 3 hands held up the entire session with a Nokia video phone in hand. If I were to create a gizmo to get rich, it would be some sort of head band rig to hold the camera so the arm and hand dont need to do all that work.
For some session highlights, I had blogged the first session I saw on “Filching Design: When the Shoe Fits” where apparently some twitters thought was not the verb I heard. It was a great mix of panelists on the concept of “borrowing” (e.g. filching) design or code- it was rather lively as they had the audience play “filch or fair”. Next, I was half listening to “The Suxorz: The Worst Ten Social Media Ad Campaigns of 2007” which lambasted some of the lamest/worst efforts of companies trying to do “cool” new media. The room was packed, I was sitting on the floor and could see 80% of the screen, not the panel. Again, it was fast paced, with lots of voices, not the typical educon PowerPoint droning. My come away from that was, what kind of “ad agency” experts suggest strategies of underestimating their audiences ability to use the net to peel away their fakery.
The keynotes are again at a reasonable spot in the schedule, 2:00 PM, most people can wake up by that time, eh? On Saturday, the open remarks featured Steven Johnson (“Everything Bad is Good For You”) and Henry Jenkins (MIT). No slides at all, just Steve and Henry sitting in chairs, quasi conversational. Henry clearly was a bit more in the spotlight, almost like he was the interviewee, but he was spot on in passion, examples, and candor. I’ve heard him speak several time over the years, and hes always got a different angle, even on the same topics. Oh I did manage to blog this session too, I forgot already.
A memorable part was when Johnson noted that a few years ago, TV was looking like a dying media, yet in 2008 we are seeing emergences of higher forms in shows such as “Lost” and “The Wired” (he called it “Hill Street Blues on Steroids”) and then asked Jenkins to say which one he liked best! So he did the right thing and asked the audience to vote (hard to measure, it was close) and then in Solomon like wisdom did not split the baby, “The Wired is best show ‘in the box’; Lost is best show outside of the box (all of the web tangents, online work such as LostPedia, as a transmedia extension)”
In the afternoon, I sat in on “Cross-Media Cross-Pollination: Mashing Up Video Games and ARGs” – hoping for inspiration for my long term dream of designing an educational Alternate Reality Game. That too got blogged already mainly as I found I made some great contacts by getting up to the mike and asking a question. I got some good comments there by one of the panelists, Dee, who was part of World Without Oil, and had great conversations with a few others afterwards.
After the big session, I met up with a group of people I had only met in Second Life, so we got to see what our Real Life avatars were like, meeting Jeremy Koester, Joe Sanchez, James Morgan, and two others I am forgetting, sorry.
We opted to get out of the center and head to Freebirds World Burritos for some good giant burros (and free wifi, I had to pop into SL to help run a session). Then, we walked past a line that wrapped around a block for the Google party, and in lieu had some beers at an Irish joint on 6th street. I had to bail early for a commitment, so I missed the Saturday party scene…
That was one day. There were more…
First up for me on Sunday was “Making it So: Learning from SciFi Interfaces” (which unfortunately was opposite another cleverly titled one on “Everything I Know About Accessibility I Learned From Star Wars”) — which was a fascinating look at the types of interfaces in scifi movies going way back and how these influence modern software/web/media design. There was a 3D map type thing in an XMen movie tat directly influenced an engineer to create a real dynamic terrain modeler based on the same type of display. Or that that the Star Trek communicator was a long lead in to the first Star-Tac flip phone. As the presenters suggested that SciFi movies set in our minds deep seated expectations for later interfaces (e.g. the screens from Minority Report?).
What I liked about the session, beyond the mind opening concept, a snazzy presentation tool (I thought one of them said it was built in Director), lots of video clips, was that one presenter was Nathan Shedroff who’ early early web work on Experience Design and the Unified Theory of Design was a huge influence on me in the early web days (mid 1990s). You can download a PDF of the SXSW presentation.
Not being all keen to slobber over facebook, I opted to skip the Mark Zuckerberg keynote, which apparently became the fiasco event of the conference with some over zealous ego headed interviewer. Videos are all over the net — lesson for those going on stage- you shall be YouTubed. I saw instead some tired session “Logos: Why They’re Irrelevant and Can Actually Hurt Your Business” where graphic artists were arguing the merits or non merits of graphic logos for companies. It bordered on academic quibbling.
In between was an interesting demo of the guys doing bloxes simple cardboard cutouts that were folded into cubes which in turn locked together like legos to make art-like pieces. Got a free t-shirt, woot. Innovative concept!
And then the big highlight was the session by Kathy Sierra on “Tools for Enchantment: 20 Ways to Woo Users” – her blog is sorely missed after last years bizarre string of personal attacks. Wow, she is a super dynamic speaker, with lots of oomph (wanting us all to help our users “kick ass”) a little YouTube sample — see the more detailed notes at http://blog.brian-fitzgerald.net/?p=159. And she closed by wanting to introduce someone who really did it all- Gary Vaynerchuk of http://winelibrary.com (see video of this segment).
What a powerful session!
The first thing I got to on Monday was the panel session on “True Stories from Social Media Sites” which was “moderated” in a seriously over-the-top fashion by Guy Kawaski who just kept it all going in a fun and lively pace. Also refreshing was that the panel he assembled as almost all women who had either started social media sites or been uber active/successful in them. I was most eager to see and meet Rashmi, co-founder of Slideshare as she had several times responded directly to some suggestions I made on their site (alas, I was late for a lunch meet up, so I missed her, but sent an email, and got a nice reply).
The rain was coming down hard, but the folks from Zappos.com were smart in giving our rain ponchos. A largish bunch including Hilary Mason, Rachel Smith, Henry Segerman, Joe Sanchez, and a bunch more ventured out for lunch at that nifty..um south american place I cannot recall the name of.
We got back in time to catch the 2:00 PM keynote from Frank Warren on the fascinating PostSecret project which combined old and new media forms. Frank solicited, passed out postcards to strangers and asked them to send it to the self addressed address and share a secret they had never told anyone. He has gotten thousands of these, and people have shared the entire range of human experience, from quirky humor, to deep painful sadness, to revenge, to thankfullness, to anger, to pleasure, to revenge… and he has posted many on his blog and also in a published book.
Stories, real ones, in postcard form, were just fantastic human expressions. Sorry Miguel H for maybe getting in trouble for following the link after I tweeted… he reported seeing “inappropriate images” that was more like “50 Ways to Get Me Fired” (clever guy). I was probably snarky when I tweeted back, “Dont Look”. But look past the visual titillations to see the depth of story here, my friends.
I love the concept.
After that was a break to roam the exhibits, which had great stuff! I met the guys behind Animoto (and thanked them profusely), the top dude at utream.tv, istockPhoto, creative commons (stickers and t-shirts!). I was snarky at the Google booth, “So what is it you guys do?”.
And then it was great to bump into my Vancouver friends from Raincity.com I had seen recently at Northern Voice– Kris, Roland and Dave- and got a early invite for their Monday night party. Kris got a photo of us with his giant 1000 pound uber camera and I got a pretty good one with my nearly busted PowerShot. Of course, he was busy the rest of the week hanging our with rock stars (see his amazing photos) but is always very gracious in person.
At 5:00 PM I had to show up to see Beth Kanter’s part in the “Pimp My Non Profit – Real Non-Profits Kicking Ass with Online Technology” and wow, she is a rock start among the non-profit crowd- must have been 150 in the room. The panel had lots of energy, all decked out with their furry hats and big fake gold chains.
Beth and I have been crossing internet paths for years, and we finally got to meet in person, yay! We got to have lunch on Tuesday.
So it was off to a fabulous special dinner and then back downtown for the Raincity party “South by Northwest”. Those tickets did not get us to the front of the line, but we got in early enough to get a spot on the top floor. Wow, was that place rocking! And woot, those guys paid for everyone’s drinks… late late night blurrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Okay, long blog post. Cannot recall what I did Tuesday morning– mostly met and chatted with folks. The real, real highlight (beside lunch with Beth!) was the keynote by Jane McGonigal on “a game designers perspective on the future of happiness”– she started with a bit on how she was researching “happiness” and proposed rather convincingly that “multiplayer games are the ultimate happiness engine””
Is it a game or is it real life? When you get right down to it, is there really a difference? Learn about the growing popularity of ARGs from one of the most innovative minds in this industry. Jane McGonigal explains what it is like to be a puppet-master of this exciting new genre.
She has pretty much blogged her talk better than anyone else could including her presentation on slideshare. Especially intriguing was were concept of “How alternate reality games amplify human happiness” with properties she outlined as
- open authorship
- ping quotient
- signal/noise management
- cooperation radar
Her energy was contagious, not over the top, but vibrant, and her message was moving- “Games can change the world”.
And she closed by doing the Soulja Boy dance.
And with that high point of the conference, I cannot blog much more.
There was much more to this experience, take this as some highlights, but I had a super uber mega time at SXSW.