Mar 17, 2010

SXSW 2010: It’s Not Just About the Parties

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From a content and comfort perspective, the SXSW Interactive Festival has got to be one of the best professional conferences I’ve ever attended. The quality of the keynotes and break outs is unparalleled. Austin’s convention center is spacious with plenty of indoor and outdoor common areas for gathering and working between sessions. Full-strength, free wireless internet access is everywhere. You can literally boot-up and log on anywhere, without being bothered by a pesky a user license screen.

When it comes to a positive user experience, the show presenters have taken painstaking efforts to ensure the comfort of festival attendees. Where there’s a power outlet, power strips are provided and prominently branded by a show sponsor. There are thousands of people attending, but at least in the common areas, there’s plenty of tables and chairs indoors and out where you can sit and congregate. There’s free bottled water and cups in every hallway, instead of forcing you to buy $5 bottles of water.

They even have mounds of Lego in one corner, so there’s something for your kids to do if you’ve got them. And the convention center is conveniently located in downtown Austin, surrounded by tons of restaurants and hotels, all within walking distance.

While the panel sessions were a mixed bag, the keynote and break out presenters were riveting. Kaiser Kuo traveled in from Beijing to present a sociological portrait of Google’s trials and tribulations in China. According to Kaiser, the notion that freedom of expression and free markets are inextricably linked is a predominantly American idea.

“Because they [businesses] can’t be critical of the People’s Republic of China, that doesn’t really hamper their ability to do business,” said Kaiser. In terms of Google’s censorship of their search results in China, he also said that while sanitized results are obviously worse unsanitized results, they’re still better than no results, because they allow people to see information that they wouldn’t otherwise have. “Imperfect information is better than no information,” he said.

Most of China’s leaders were educated as engineers. The country is widely regarded as the world’s largest technocracy and leaders approach problem solving dispassionately. “They tend to believe that everything can be discreetly taken apart and analyzed rationally and solved,” says Kaiser. This logical approach extends not just to diplomacy, but social problem-solving as well.

On the flipside, in her keynote about making sense of privacy and publicity online, Microsoft Researcher Danah Boyd suggested that Google, a technocracy in its own rite, missed the mark with their new Buzz product because they integrated a social network, which people think of as a public system, with email, which has always been regarded as private.

Even though their approach may have been firmly rooted in logic and reason, it was seen by the community as a violation of privacy because it challenged online social norms, proving that logic is not always the best compass for navigating social scenarios. Sure, small talk may be a totally inefficient use of time. But it is a social ritual that is not going away. Logical or not, our customs are deeply interwoven into our social fabric, and they cement our expectations. If we ignore them in the design and implementation of online social networks, we do so at our own peril.

But whether it’s the result of the privacy expectations of consumers or the proprietary nature of business concerns, as Google open web advocate Chris Messina explained, even in the west we are obstructed from obtaining access to information, and he used the activity streams that result from our actions as an example.

Sure, my credit company may send me a paper bill or PDF listing how much I paid to whom on a given date. But an itemized list of what I bought and the geodata concerning where I bought it are withheld, and the data cannot be combined with other information like what songs I was listening to on Pandora when I made those purchases, where I was before and after I made the purchase, which my cell phone provider certainly knows, if I exercised and what I ate on the day I made the purchase. Our credit card providers have better records of our activities than we do. Imagine the usefulness if this data could be combined into an activity stream.

“If you understand your activities, you can make better decisions,” said Chris Messina who is currently working to convince organizations to adopt open standards for activity streams that go beyond RSS so we can develop a better understanding of our behaviors and ultimately live smarter.

Twitter CEO Evan Williams unveiled @anywhere, a new app platform for integrating Twitter into websites. @anywhere is designed to allow website visitors to follow Twitter users from their own sites. Hovering a cursor over a Twitter ID will reveal a pop-up window that enables following directly from a publisher’s website. Discovery is one of the hardest challenges because of the sheer volume of content that’s out there. So putting the ability to follow in the context of the individual or organization your following reduces some of the friction that’s currently present in discovery.

“The main thing that @anywhere does is reduce friction,” said Twitter founder Evan Williams, who admits he’s not sure how developers will ultimately wind up using the new app platform. One of the more obvious features is the ability to tweet links directly from a participating website.

@anywhere can also be used to let users log into any website with their Twitter credentials. Thirteen different websites will beta @anywhere, including Amazon, Ebay, Yahoo, Bing, YouTube, The New York Times, Digg, Salesforce.com and others.

Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore at SXSW 2010

Online infographics specialist Shan Cater of The New York Times showed how the Grey Lady’s website is using data visualization to show you the story as it unfolds. Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore spoke about how the iPad could, for the first time, present publishers with the long sought after paid digital packaging opportunity for news and information. Creative Commons founder Joi Ito spoke passionately about his decision to relocate to Dubai to advocate information sharing in the Middle East, to promote world peace. The Google Droid team showed me how to get the most out of my phone, which I love now! And those are just the highlights.

SXSW is a highly social event, with so many parties every night it’s overwhelming to figure out which one to go to. Most of the parties I went to had blaring music, an open bar and a debaucherated vibe. I’d always regarded SXSW as place professionals went primarily to network and party. And for many people, as you can see, that’s definitely the case.

But I would urge you not to write this event off for that purpose. If you’re interested in the impact of social media on politics, business and culture, this event is quite possible the biggest and the best.

But since there’s always room for improvement, here are some thing that could be done to make SXSW even better:

SXSW encouraged iPhone and Droid users to download a barcode scanning application to scan the badges of people you meet, so you can generate a friend list to take with you into the digital realm. But the scanning the barcode only let you follow a contact in the MySXSW portion of their website. This would have ben effective if your friend list included the person’s contact information, but it does not. And this is something that could certainly have been available on an opt-in basis so you could chose to display your Twitter ID and Facebook profile link as well.
MySXSW.com also had a section where you can review all the panels, pick your favorites, and export the results to your calendar, which other than the fact the names of the presenters and panelists aren’t listed – a critical factor when making your picks – the system had a little glitch that actually resulted in me missing my flight home.

I use Google Calendar, and since I live in Los Angeles, it’s set for the Pacific Time Zone. But my Droid knows when it’s in another time zone, so it adjusts my schedule for the change from the Pacific Time Zone to the Central Time Zone, and moved all my appointments accordingly. I tried to compensate the differential in my head, and for the most part I did a pretty good job, but in the end it got the best of me. Luckily, I just made the last plane out to DFW where I was still able to connect through to LAX.

Finally, there’s a little too much reliance on technology. The pressroom decided not to hand out a schedule of who would be available for interviews because it had been emailed previously. But there was so much information emailed, attending press I spoke with missed it. Having the list in the context of the pressroom would have been helpful. Similarly, unless the presenters announced them or projected a slide, the complete names, companies and titles of the panelists was nowhere to be found in the sessions. Sure it was digitally available. But when you’re at a conference, dealing with small screens and running on batteries, having this data on the printed page, along with the name of the session and the hastag would have been useful.

But these hang-ups shouldn’t deter you from attending. I got a huge amount of value out of attending SXSW. As the chair of the Digital Impact Conference May 6-7 in NYC, I have also learned some very valuable lessons about what makes a great conference.

On a more personal note, my friends Marine and Brian Linder and their 7-year old twins Emma and Owen have been splitting their time between Los Angeles and Austin. They took me around and showed me the town, and I have to say, it’s an absolutely delightful city. For parents with young kids, it is a very alluring destination, as long as it’s not summer.

But to sum it all up, SXSW is an excellent opportunity to deepen your knowledge of the impact of technology on the world. As someone who spends a good deal of time at professional conferences, I wholeheartedly recommend this event not just for networking, but for expanding your consciousness about the evolution of social media.

I’m definitely planning to make it an annual ritual. Will I see you there in 2011?

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Categories: socialmedia