2011 was my third go-round at SXSW Interactive. After three years I feel like I have a decent understanding of the event, and the overwhelming excitement of the conference has worn off. Usually, when people write about SXSWi, it’s a race to see who can write and press “Send” the fastest. This year, I decided to wait a little bit before I wrote up my thoughts. Giving myself a little bit of time and distance allowed me to analyze things, to see what really stuck with me and what things were just the hype of being in the moment. I took copious notes throughout my time in Austin this year, and going back through them two weeks later, it’s easy for me to see which panels made a permanent dent in my brain and which are forgettable.
A huge part of SXSWi is of course, the parties. You won’t find any reporting on those. Is there anything more boring, and self-indulgent than reading about a hoedown your weren’t at, who was standing next to what internet famous person and how much free booze someone can drink? Maybe watching an hour long video of pair programming can induce the same boredom level. I’ve decided to get into reporter mode, and share the panels, speakers and events that I experienced.
SXSWi 2011, compared to the other two I attended broke the bell curve in my eyes. The things that were amazing, were more amazing than in years past. Conversely, the things that were poor and mediocre were more so. I saw more terrible panels then in years past. The bad stuff, was really, really terrible. Overall, the entire conference was just massively overcrowded. There wasn’t a single panel, talk, party, food truck or restaurant that didn’t have a massive queue. It got to the point where even if you showed up early, there was a decent chance you wouldn’t make it into the event. For instance, it was near impossible to see the keynotes live. The lines were massive, and space was limited. I ended up watching the keynotes on video screens at the Hilton.
The crowd in attendance was a different breed as well. The whole event was lousy with way too many marketing people, dragging along massive street teams and bizarre promotions to attract attention that didn’t make any sense. It was a circus with way too many rings, and not nearly enough ringmasters. Sadly, almost none of these attempts at marketing struck a chord with me. They all blended into one massive ad, I can’t even remember the products that were being pitched. Gowalla had a pretty nifty passport idea. You received a great looking, physical, paper passport, and you could get stickers for checking in at places around Austin. Chevy was also offering free rides in some of there new vehicles. I took a ride in a gorgeous Camaro convertible, which was a blast. Other than that, it was more of the same boring stuff. Follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook, Check-in on Foursquare. Nothing to Tweet home about.
This is just my biased opinion, but anecdotally, there were many more women in attendance than ever before, so that seems like a positive change. Sadly, there were fewer geeks than in years past. The number of code slingers and developers seemed very low. That’s too bad, because code monkeys are what makes our whole world turn when it comes down to it.
The highlights for me are seeing friends I don’t get to see often enough, and geeking out over a few beers. This was, and will probably always be the best reason to attend SXSWi. Despite the carnival atmosphere, the crowds and hard-sell insanity, talking shop with some of the smartest people on the planet is the big draw. The rest of this post is my recap of what I saw and heard at SXSW 2011.
‘Help! A Giant Meteor Is Headed Our Way!’ I usually steer clear of Core Conversations at SxSw. The idea behind Core Conversations is that a small (20-50) group of smart people get together to have an informed and informal discussion about a timely topic, agreed to beforehand. The moderator is there to get the conversation started, do housekeeping and keep order, as well as bring up additional discussion points to make sure that the conversation doesn’t grind to a halt. A good core conversation isn’t supposed to be about the moderator. I avoid Core Conversations, because my experiences have been nothing like the ones described above. I’ve found that the moderator often uses the conversation as a bully pulpit for their own biased agenda. The “give and take” with the crowd is quickly dominated by 2-3 loud, Type-A social media experts and no one can get a word out. Several times I’ve attended Core Conversation where a recognizable social media “Guru”, who is also speaking on their own panel, dominates the discussion and people, including the moderator, are too intimidated to shut them down.
I’m happy to report that ‘Help! A Giant Meteor Is Headed Our Way!’, moderated by strategist Brian Reich did not fall victim to any of those issues. I love a good disaster flick (“Towering Inferno” or “Airport” anyone?) and I’ve always secretly wanted to become do-gooder and put my PR skills to good use at a Not for Profit, so I thought this Core Conversation might be worth it. Overall it was, and Brian Reich was a solid moderator who did his job well.
The main topic was how can we stop the world from heading for a mass catastrophe, using the amazing technology that has developed over the last 10 years. Since information can now move so fast, how can this be of benefit to make things better? The Japanese Tsunami had just occurred, so it brought a sense of immediacy and reality to what everyone was saying. I wish I were able to recount the questions and answers from the session in detail. There were some very smart people speaking their minds. I took away one major theme, that nearly everyone, regardless of industry affiliation seemed to bring up and agree on. There is a major disconnect between the people running things, in the form of national governments, and the people living in these places. Everyone who spoke agreed that as people with access to information, and the means to distribute it, we need to take this obligation more seriously. Concisely, we need to make it clear to our governments that eradicating threats to our lives like pollution of the water supply, threats to the food supply and wasteful energy policies are a top priority for our ensured survival. That was my big takeaway. We should all use these great social media tools to make sure the people in charge don’t wreck the joint. Nothing groundbreaking, but since this was a Core “Conversation” the value was in the discussion, which is difficult to recreate in a blog post. “You had to be there.” I was surprised at the overall civility, quality and intelligence of the discussion. This session actually changed my overall opinion of what a core conversation can be, which came in handy later in my 2011 SxSw adventure.
Future of Collective Intelligence: Location! Location! Location! For a panel supposedly about “The Future”, the panelists were certainly stuck on the present and the past. This panel was billed as a “sneak peek” into what will be the next generation of location based services and applications, and how all this data will lead to amazing things. Led by Dr. Tero Ojanperä of Nokia, and featuring Claudia Lagunas, Owen Thomas and Naveen Selvadurai from Foursquare, I was expecting to hear about some location based tech that was going to get me excited with all these insiders up on the stage. These are the people who created the first big wave of location services to hit the mass market, and are supposedly busy creating the next. I was absolutely disappointed. I’m no expert on the location based web, but there wasn’t a single idea or technology they discussed that was even remotely new to me. New features in Foursquare that were rolling out the next day? Mobile phones that let you make “smart” purchases? Ads that can access your buying history at a store and tailor offers specifically to you? These are some of the brilliant “futuristic” ideas that were discussed. If these are the benefits of collective intelligence I want my slice of brain back.
I’m not certain if the panelists were unprepared, not allowed for legal reasons to discuss the new tech they’re working on or there is just nothing new coming up in the locations based space, but even someone wholly unfamiliar with this sphere wouldn’t have heard anything new. Whatever the reason, the panelists wasted the time of everyone in the large, and quite packed Hilton Ballroom. I’m all for panelists being themselves and including anecdotes about their lives, and how they personally use technology. When all you talk about are slightly amusing first person encounters, that’s a problem. There was no meat to this panel, and considering the panelists I was severely disappointed. This is the second time I’ve seen Naveen Selvadurai speak, and this is the second time he seemed unprepared. I get it…you created Foursquare, and have all kinds of chuckle inducing stories about getting into Foursquare jail and vying to be the Mayor of the office…It just doesn’t make for a great talk in front of a room of hardcore geeks.
Crowdsourcing: Innovation and/or Exploitation?
Every year that I’ve attended SxSw, there has been one thing that intellectually blows my mind, gets me thinking and keeps me thinking. In 2011, it was the panel Crowdsourcing: Innovation or Exploitation? I wasn’t familiar with any of the panelists before hand, but I’ve been experimenting with Mechanical Turk for social, work and amusement reasons since it launched. The culture surrounding MMPOG games, specifically the in game currency, is another subject I spend time thinking about. Since these were all contained in the brief panel description, I decided to gamble and check it out.
Fred Benenson, who works as a dev at Kickstarter got things rolling by leading the crowd through some of the very creative, funky experimental projects he’s done via crowdsourcing, specifically Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. If you aren’t familiar with Mechanical Turk, very briefly, it’s an online marketplace that allows people to hire humans to perform online tasks for tiny amounts of cash. The tasks that are normally done via Mechanical Turk are pretty mundane: sort these photos by color, create a list of 500 dog names, etc. Benenson decided that with all that human brainpower available on MT, it would be possible to do some experiments that were much more creative, amusing and useful. The task that grabbed me was enlisting an army of Turkers (the name the MT workers collectively go by) to create a full translation of Moby Dick written in Emoji, Japanese icons. The general opinion of Mechanical Turk is that it’s excellent for simple, repetitive tasks that don’t require much brainpower or creativity. Benenson’s translation of Moby Dick instantly dispels this. He explained that by breaking down a long, subjective task into small chunks and creating a system of checks that has several people submitting the creative input, MT can create whole cloth. As someone that creates social games and community projects, this blew open many doors for me. It is possible to harness the power of the online mob to construct creative work. The potential for building work via the hive mind appears to be limitless, after seeing Emoji Moby Dick, and viewing it as a proof of concept.
Beneson handed off the floor to Lada Adamic, a researcher and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan who studies networks and information. She presented her original research that focused on the way people use online Q&A sites like Yahoo! Answers, or information distribution sites like Wikipedia. It’s well worth your time to read her research in full yourself, but I took away several valuable insights. Adamic explained that on Q&A sites, the last answer to the question is usually the best one. Her studies show that people in online communities can’t stand to see incorrect answers, and are more likely to correct an incorrect answer than they are to answer a question that has no answers. That says quite a bit to me about human nature online. This relates to her next finding.
The most popular reason that people spend their uncompensated free time to answer questions online for others is pure altruism. That’s amazing, and I see a solid connection to the very early days of the web, when it was a smaller, close knit community where people help each other for the sake of doing good. That gives me the warm and fuzzies. The amount of help that people are willing to offer for free also varies by subject. For example, questions about writing and programming tend to generate the most uncompensated answers, while design and strategy receive fewer replies. There are many practical applications for Adamic’s research for all of us that work in the social sphere on the web. Community Managers will find her work unbelievably useful and enlightening. Post conference, I’ve read through a big chunk of her online writing and it has already had a positive effect on my own community building work, and has me thinking about the way I present ideas to the online communities I work with.
Lukas Biewald is the co-founder and CEO of CrowdFlower, a company that facilitates advanced crowd sourcing projects with a guaranteed high level of quality work. CrowdFlower is like MechanicalTurk, if MT were staffed with experts in every field. Adamic and Benenson represented the “Blue Sky” view, discussing the unquestionably limitless potential of crowdsourcing to do brilliant and wonderful things. Biewald turned the corner and dug into the ugly side of crowdsourcing, the potential for it to become a Digital Sweatshop. He is concerned with the negative effects of crowdsourcing because he sees crowdsourced and remote working as the future of employment worldwide. His argument makes sense. Through sites like CrowdFlower, people seeking very specific knowledge or a project, or very narrow skill sets can obtain them regardless of geographic location. Additionally, employers can present a specific project or problem online, an obtain a solution to that problem. Instead of hiring an employee, it is now possible to get right to the work that needs to be done, which is many times more efficient for certain types of work. Biewald cites a specific example. When the Gulf oil spills occurred, instead of hiring a bunch of scientists or engineers, the companies put out a call to solve a problem. How can we clean up this oil in the most fast, efficient way possible? Teams and individuals submitted answers to the problems. No one cared about their academic background or degrees. They just cared about their way of solving this specific problem, and were hired solely on the basis of being able to provide a solution. That is a quite lean, brilliant way to hire, solve a problem and get a job done.
Earlier, Lada Adamic noted that many people do online work for free, because they enjoy it and enjoy helping others. Is it OK to take advantage of this goodwill for profit? Biewald wondered if those working for some crowdsourcing services were being exploited. He noted that it was difficult to digitally coerce someone online, which makes exploitation less likely than in a traditional physical working situation. I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking myself, mainly because I feel that exploitation usually occurs for monetary reasons. Physical intimidation certainly occurs, but it’s less common than monetary exploitation. People allow themselves to be exploited because they need the money. The discussion also touched on the idea of “Child Labor”. CrowdFlower mentions on their website that they are able to engage with “youthful” audiences. This make you wonder, what are the specifics of a 15 year old on the web answering questions on Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower? What if they live in a less developed country where children commonly leave school and begin working early? Should they be paid the same rate as adults? What if they are one of the people answering these questions for free, because they enjoy it? I’m still trying to work out my feelings on this segment of the topic, because there is so much to consider. However, it is something we need to begin examining because as time goes on, the number of people (and children) employed online, and in crowdsourcing positions will keep growing.
Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain ( http://www.jz.org ) is the best speaker I have encountered at SxSw. He is entertaining, knows how to get his point across clearly and is not afraid to make the crowd laugh. I imagine if he were reading binary off the page it would still be fun to listen to. Zittrain made it very clear right up front, that despite what he might say, he was not anti-crowdsourcing. He is very concerned about the legal and moral implications of crowdsourcing, especially where money, intellectual property and employees are concerned.
He immediately brought up a concept that has colored my thinking each way since I’ve heard it. Zittrain explained that where the web and the law are concerned, the world often waits to create appropriate legislature because these concepts are so “new”. However, by the time these concepts are no longer “new”, entire unregulated industries involving tens of thousands of people and businesses, along with millions, quite possibly billions, of dollars are already involved. The cat is already out of the bag. That’s the catch. Do we regulate, and possibly stifle the industry with possibly un-needed legislation to protect those involved? Do we let the industry run itself, possibly having negative consequences to those involved, knowing full well it won’t be possible to create these laws down the road? That’s a very difficult questions that needs to be answered.
Zittrain expanded his crowdsourcing discussion to include online games, like Google Image Labeler, that actually serve a deeper purpose behind the “game”. For example, people play the Google Image game because it’s fun. However, in the background, your “answers” are being used to catalog images with no name labels. In essence, these people are working for free. This raises even more questions. Expanding these “games”, that are actually “work” into the realm of games for children creates an even more complicated scenario. Is this child labor? In one case, a university is using a game where people match pictures of people with their names.The people in these pictures have been caught on camera smoking marijuana, and when you add a name to the photo, you are essentially busting that person. What are the implications of this type of law enforcement crowdsourcing? Not a day has passed since hearing Jonathan Zittrain speak that I haven’t had one of his ideas make me examine a situation at work online with a different lens.
It’s panels like this one that keep me returning to SXSW year after year. I learned a bunch of new information, and was exposed to new ideas and sites I’d never heard about. Most importantly, it gave me the inspiration and tools to examine situations online in a wholly new, intelligent way. Luckily for all of us, the entire audio of the panel is available for listening here. I highly recommend you block out an hour to listen and experience it for yourself.
Adam Savage Polymorphs Into Brian Solis! I was looking forward to geeking out to Mythbuster Adam Savage. There was a collective whoosh, that was the sound of every nerd in Austin’s collective sigh when word went around that Adam Savage had to cancel at the last second because of a serious family emergency. I thought it was fantastic that I heard zero grousing about him dropping out at the last second, just a lot of people wishing him well and hoping that whatever was wrong would turn out OK for him. Nerds always come together when tragedy strikes one of their own.
As a last minute replacement, SXSWi scheduled a “Web Celebrity Panel with Brian Solis” as a replacement. The “Web Celebrities” were Sean Rad (Founder & President) and Arnie Gullov-Singh (CEO) of Ad.Ly. I realize this was a very last second thing, but with all the interesting people walking around Austin, they couldn’t put two actual web celebrities on stage with Solis? Remember, people payed a LOT of money to attend this conference. Brian Solis is a smart guy, and has consistently been putting out thoughtful writing about the web for years. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve met and spoken with Brian a few times, and he’s a hell of a nice guy. His recent infographic work, like the Conversation Prism leaves me cold though, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from him.
It began with a member of the band, The Color Pharmacy, playing a song on acoustic guitar that he composed just for the occasion. A name dropping social media ballad if you will, that was pretty amusing. Next up, was a presentation by Brian Solis called “The Egosystem”. Within the first 45 seconds, he mentioned Charlie Sheen, so I got up and left. Honestly, I’ve just had it with Charlie Sheen, and even worse, smart people talking about Charlie Sheen. The whole idea that there is some kind of “Secret Lesson” to be learned from Charlie Sheen, that we’re all missing is ludicrous. He’s just a maniac who loves drugs, cheap ladies and treating his too-young-to-know-any better children like garbage. I rarely walk out of sessions at SXSW. I think it was the combination of Charlie Sheen and Brian Solis burnout and overexposure. Admit it, everywhere you find social media, you will find Mr. Solis. You only need to see the same person speak so many times, no matter how insightful they may be. I may have missed something truly amazing, but that’s OK. I was in need of a cocktail after a long day.
Felicia Day Keynote The Monday Keynote featured actress/writer/director/gamer Felicia Day interviewed by Liz Shannon Miller from GigaOm. Since the Keynotes are covered to death everywhere, I decided that the best thing to do is embed the video here so you can watch it yourself, and just provide my own highlights. I’m certain with a bit of searching you can easily find a second by second deconstruction of the entire interview. It is Felicia Day after all.
*SxSwi has become so overcrowded that it’s become enormously difficult to actually get a seat in the hall where the Keynotes occur. I’m not wasting my time waiting in line to get in. Instead, I watched it on a remote feed at the Hilton.
*Liz Shannon Miller was an absolutely fantastic interviewer. She knew the subject, was witty without taking away from Ms. Day and kept things rolling along. Really well done. The interviewers often don’t get enough credit when they’re good, but they can really make the difference between a bad keynote talk and a great one.
*Felicia Day knows how to engage her audience and fans, and explains the right way to do this.
*She has some excellent things to say about the line between “IRL” and “Social Media”, and how to compartmentalize these things. It’s a minefield filled with gray areas, that will only get grayer as we all become more interconnected.
*The DIY spirit is alive and well with Felicia Day and The Guild.
*I’m really looking forward to her new film, “Dragon Age” based on the BioWare game.
*Yes, swoony fan boys asked awkward questions.
Christopher “Moot” Poole Keynote I’ve seen Christopher “Moot” Poole speak a few times in the past, and I’ve always been very impressed. For someone who is just 22 years old, he has an amazing ability to define the big picture view of how the web actually works. Considering the traffic that his site, 4Chan, generates each month, I take what Moot has to say seriously.
As Moot began to speak, one of my friends I was sitting with remarked that he seemed “stoned”. Truthfully, he did seem fidgety, sweaty, and asked for some water right after beginning his keynote. I explained to my buddy that he wasn’t stoned, he was just a geek! I believe this to be true. I imagine Moot is much more comfortable behind a keyboard than a microphone. Still, he spoke well, and whether he was nervous or not it didn’t have any effect on the quality of the content.
Throughout his talk, Moot returned to one point again and again, which I find very important. He explained that the web is split in two over anonymity. There is the 4Chan view, which he subscribes to. This is the idea that having an anonymous outlet on the web is important, because it gives people the opportunity to freely express themselves without the worry of being penalized or criticized for their opinions. The converse viewpoint, which he assigns to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, is the idea that being anonymous on the web is cowardly and dishonest. Moot explained that there is no way to reconcile these two viewpoints, and most likely both the anonymous and the known will continue to coexist on the web.
He’s known for founding 4Chan, but the most interesting part of his keynote was the discussion of his new project, Canvas. This was the first time I’ve had a chance to see Canvas (it’s still in closed beta). I’ll admit, I was impressed by the brief run through. Canvas appears to be something like a message board, albeit with all kinds of additional features meant to stimulate communicating in wildly creative ways. For example, Canvas has a sort of picture chat feature, that lets people exchange drawing they create on the fly to send a message. I’m no fan of emoticons, but there is also an advanced emoticon system that seems amusing. The main point of Canvas, as Moot sees it, is to provide a set of tools and let the users run with them. In his view, a good communication system will be defined by how the users decide it works best. Provide the framework, see how users take advantage of it, and let them define the rules and boundaries. This is the framework that has made 4Chan wildly successful. Will Canvas achieve the same success? If I were a betting man, I would say “yes”. As a bonus, Moot invited everyone in the audience to sign up for the closed Beta on the spot. Sadly, by the time I popped open my Macbook, and tried to log in to the page it was already overloaded, so I missed out on my chance to signup. Whenever Canvas opens for sign ups, I will definitely be the first in line to check it out. From what I’ve seen, it has quite a bit of potential to be an amazing online hangout.
As with the Felicia Day Keynote, I recommend you take the time to watch the Moot Keynote yourself, and makeup your own mind.
Moot Keynote Video, SXSW@ 2011