Matthew Haughey, March 15, 2002
This was my third SXSW and my first time off in a while. I looked forward to meeting old friends and new ones, and getting to spend time talking about interesting topics and getting motivated again. In the past, the conference has served as a nice annual pick-me-up that leaves me with a creative buzz that lasts for weeks afterwards.
First thing I had to deal with was getting there. The economy is down and nothing reminded me of it more than looking to schedule a flight to the conference. There was not a single direct flight from the bay area to Austin this year, and to catch the Saturday keynote, I had to take a red-eye 1am flight to show up by 10am.
It was also my first post 9/11 flight and I was a little worried about the security hassles and possible problems flying. Aside from the machine guns and live ammunition at the airport, the process didn't seem like much of a hassle, though I question how cranking up a metal detector to catch my zippers as contraband did any good. I was also a bit more concerned about possible contamination or theft of my belongings, as I had to leave my bag out of reach while semi-skilled personnel gave me the once over.
After a long morning, I showed up in Texas just in time for the Kickball game to start, and headed over to watch the action. Hats off to Anil for executing a great idea that served as a great way to catch up everyone. It was also great to watch the various strategies players employed to get on base and there's nothing more fun than watching adults try and catch gigantic playground balls. Fun all around.
I got over to the convention center and all registered up in time to catch Lawrence Lessig's keynote. I had missed his early morning talk at Web2001, and was happy to see afternoon keynotes the norm this year. I took some notes here and overall it was a great talk. Lessig opened the audience's eyes to the messed up situation copyright is in. It was great to see everything laid out so simply, the controllers of content have had free reign for so long they've strayed quite a bit from the path originally intended for copyright.
There was something about Lessig's talk that reminded me of seeing Michael Moore speak a few years ago, these speakers explain their position and show how most people are doing nothing about the injustices they fight against. After everyone is riled up, the audience dying to ask the obvious question "great, now we're pissed off but what can we do?" Lessig suggested giving money to the EFF and writing your congressmen, but it would have been great if he goaded the audience into some concrete action. I heard someone suggest he hand out a stack of postcards pre-addressed to Senator Hollings asking for reconsideration of the SSSCA bill. That's not to fault Lessig, it was a great keynote address, but like many in the audience, I often feel powerless against these sorts of laws and have been more than willing to do anything about it, if someone would organize that desire into something that could help.
I should have stuck around to catch the 37signals design game show thing, but I was wiped out from traveling all day. With the impending night life ahead, I retired to my hotel room to catch a few winks. Most of Saturday night was spent trying to eat with this many people (I'm at the head of the table, by accident), and I was once again reminded of how impossible it is to eat, drink, or talk when you've got a group that large. I've been telling myself for the last year I wouldn't try hitting a restaurant with thirty others when at a conference but that night I learned the lesson again. After three hours or so, we were fed, well drank, and well socialized, but we missed the So New Media party just down the street, among other events happening that night. The breakneck scheduling meant three things were going on at once for the duration of the trip, and if you spent a lot of time in one place, you were missing things at others.
I crashed around 2, blinked and it was 10am. In the past, the conference has started each day early with keynotes, then panels with breaks interspersed. This year put the keynotes in the afternoon, which was good, since I never made it to a morning keynote in the past two years. The new format wasn't perfect though, as the schedule lopped off the lunch break, making the panels run nearly nonstop from 10:30 AM to 5 PM. With evening events starting around 6 and going clear into the night, stopping to eat meant missing something. This morning, like most others meant eating a late breakfast, and pulling into the conference center around noon. I could then pull through the rest of the day without a break, but the early birds usually ducked the keynote at 2 for lunch.
The night before, I tried to pick my panels for Sunday based on titles, and there wasn't much to go on. I spent the first panel time waking up and getting breakfast. Cameron from blogdex told me the Steve Mann panel at noon would be worth seeing so I checked that out after spending a few minutes in the unrevolutionary "the revolution isn't over" panel.
In short, this presentation was mind-blowing and would be the highlight of the trip. Steve Mann is a bit of freak, a gadget hound gone off the deep end towards cyborg, but he spent the time bringing the attendees into his world and above all explained how much we had in common instead of how different he was from us. He wears a head mounted display, we might wear a baseball cap. He uses the technology to record his field of view throughout the day while you might use your hat for warmth or shade. Both are applications of technology that adorn our bodies and enrich our lives.
Steve's delivery was every bit as unconventional as his subject. He gave the talk from what appeared to be his home office, streaming video from his head mounted display with environmental audio captured with a mic. While it seemed weird at first, after a few minutes it seemed downright natural, and as a viewer, I could see the world literally from his perspective. My notes from the panel are here. He spent the time discussing issues raised in his research and books, drawing figures on a pad of paper with marker while describing the figures. He covered his art projects and then brought the discussion to current events and described his hassles at the airport. He mentioned how after his latest ordeal, he probably wouldn't be flying again anytime soon. A couple days after this panel, the New York Times did an article about his recent adventures. I don't know if anyone from the NYT was in the audience, as near the end, there was only a handful of people left watching, which was unfortunate given the interesting subject and delivery. I've got a couple movies of the proceedings: here's him showing off his wearable computing gear (6.2 Mb, mov), and this what it looked like to watch him leaf through a book looking for a figure (4 Mb, mov).
The Veen/Lynch keynote followed, which was mostly a presentation about FlashMX. It was good to get someone from Macromedia in the spotlight, taking questions about how flash could/should behave. Later that night a good deal of people (myself included) got to hassle Kevin at a bar for our requested features and biggest gripes with their products.
After the keynote, Jason and I had to attend the Iron Webmaster event as judges, and I think the one thing to take away from that was how good an idea Iron Webmaster is on paper. I participated in the Cool Site in a Day competition at Web2000, and even with 8 hours to finish a site, it was close to impossible to get five people coordinated and producing something good. This event limited the teams to just over an hour of tweaking existing files into a site. It was supposed to be humorous and entertaining, but the situation was almost impossible for that, and I was impressed with Ben and Dana for salvaging something worth talking about, but for the most part it wasn't fun to watch or judge (or probably participate in), and I doubt the event takes place in the current incarnation next year. It was also exhausting to pay 100% attention for 90 minutes straight, because you never knew when Ben would thrust a mic into your face and ask you to say something funny (and since I'm no good at trying to be interesting on cue, I usually flubbed whatever I was supposed to say).
After a long day, we went to the first restaurant we could find, P.F. Chang's. Photo indulgences below:
The web awards followed dinner, and they were fun. I think John Styn is really hitting a groove, as he was consistently funny and entertaining all night. Post awards, most people headed to the Fray Cafe, but we were turned around by the Fire Marshall for the club being beyond capacity. After waiting around outside for 30 minutes or so, most of us headed to the next party of the evening, a launch party for some sort of site. The promised free beers were nowhere to be found but we had a good night hanging out in the smoky darkness.
After the bar, we headed up to the Omni, to hang out in the giant atrium/bar until last call. Given so many things going on in a given day, you can probably see why the conference is almost a sideline formality compared to the extra-circular events that surround the gathering. After leaving my hotel room around 11am, I didn't return to it until 15 hours later. You can see why SXSW is exhausting and how everything is a blur.
I spent the next morning rehydrating and having a long breakfast meeting. After noon, I caught Steve's Non-Traditional Web Design panel which entailed mostly just talking about content management system design, data chunks, and web standards.
I skipped the keynote to chat in the halls with people and enjoy Cory's free wireless connection. The afternoon session had a few good ones at once, but I attended the peer meeting-turned-panel about simplicity (notes here). It was pretty good, though there wasn't a lot of contrarian views expressed in the audience. Everyone seemed to be in pretty much agreement.
Overall, the panels weren't that exciting this year, and in the days since I've gotten back, it seems to be the consensus among many others. Thinking back on previous years, I don't know if the panels were all that ground breaking in years past, but I guess this year they stuck out because of the new peer meeting format. I liked the new peer meetings, smaller gatherings with small groups let the audience interact as much as the panel, so the bigger panels felt a little weird in comparison. In the panels I sat on, a good number of attendees were just as qualified (if not more) as I to speak on the subject, so perhaps the panels weren't offering much more than was already known by most attendees. Looking at the tracks, nothing really jumps out. There are wearable computing tracks, which although the steve mann presentation was good, I avoided the rest due to apathy, and I'd say the same for the interactive TV track. I could care less what content design is like on the television. The independent's day stuff seemed to be aimed at convincing the audience independent content was vital and good, but speaking as someone that has created independent content for the past seven years, I'm already thoroughly convinced it's a good thing.
Given the time crunch that I explained before, I really only saw one or two panels a day, and of those I saw, there wasn't much disagreement with the audience and I didn't hear much of anything ground breaking. Perhaps the topics could have been more varied, perhaps the panels could have been shorter, to foster hallway discussions afterwards, perhaps... I don't know. It's hard to come up with a way to improve the panels as the night life and hallway time seems to take precedence over everything that takes place in the conference rooms. With the permanent slumber on CMP's Web2002 series, the Thunderlizard series, and no sign of any Builder conferences this year, SXSW may stop being "the alternative" conference and become the only web-related conference. Is it a great conference on its own, or was it always so much better in comparison to others? I think the organizers are going to have to work extra hard on making it stand alone as a great event (to their credit, it's almost there already).
That night, I missed 20x2 and the author readings, instead opting for dinner and catching an outdoor movie at my hotel. I joined the EFF party, then followed it up with a party in my hotel, then crashed early for my long Tuesday coming up.
Tuesday morning started early, with an 9am breakfast while I worked on my speaking notes for the 10:30 panel. I hadn't met up or even emailed the moderator Daniel Pink (whose freelance panel the previous year was a highlight for me) and was slightly worried we needed more planning. After we all met up around 10am, we threw around some topics and quickly got on the same page. My notes are here, and I had a good time and felt it went really well. The small room peer meeting format worked well, as we had questions for most of the second half of the time.
The noon panel was the weblogs/journalism thing with Meg, Rusty, Doc, and Cameron. Given the lively conversations at Jason's site among others I thought this would be an exciting exchange of ideas on both sides of the fence, but it ended up mostly being an agreement that various aspects of weblogs have value in telling stories and sharing news, and that journalism leaves a lot to be desired and could learn a thing or two from weblogs. Nothing too earth shattering here.
Whenever you go to something like SXSW, there's a balance you must make between documenting the moment and experiencing the moment (I mentioned my own struggles with this balance here). The downside to the ubiquitous wireless was a lot of real-time blogging going on. Personally, I took a laptop to my panels, but took brief notes periodically, closing the lid when not in use. At the end of each panel, I'd take a few minutes to write up some summaries, and I spent a few minutes back in my hotel that night finishing off my notes, reflecting on the most important parts and the things to take away. With real-time blogging, the act of being stenographer creates a truer transcript of what went on, but the filtering is lost. What was the most important thing said? I overheard someone slagging real-time blogging, saying "real time blogs are the new camcorder" and I can't honestly say I disagree. I read many weblogs because I respect the author's writing and their view on the world. To throw that all away and play court reporter is disingenuous to the medium. Why turn the brain off when the keys start getting hit? I don't know, maybe it was just the annoying sound of keyboard clacking when I was trying to listen to what people were saying that really turned me off of it.
After the weblog panel, I grabbed lunch with my upcoming panel mates and prepared for our session.
This was a scary view to see, as a speaker that's not used to speaking to a lot of people. It makes my pulse race just looking at it (3.5 Mb mov from the panel).
The community panel focused on how to handle mischievous users, and I think our panel went pretty well. I kind of wish we spent more time discussing how to steer people back on track, and that not all nefarious users were hellbent on making everyone's lives a living hell. Like Josh Davis mentioned in a question, some of the work done by "bad" users has value.
John covered the rise, shuttering, and rebirth of CitizenX while I talked about bring metafilter up and maintaining it. Caleb spoke of the long history of Noend and his experiences with other communities, and Derek did a tight job as moderator. The funniest revalation made at the panel was that the each panelist was pro-community, but all maintained somewhat closed systems (that didn't start out that way). The whole panel could have been summed up as "The Tragedy of the Commons" though we never explicitly stated that.
I flew home that night in a 757 shared with perhaps 20 other people. It's great to stretch out across a row and get on and off planes quickly and easily. When I made it home around midnight, I crashed and didn't feel quite right for days afterwards
This year's South by Southwest was a fun event that served as a nice way to meet new folks and catch up with old friends. The preponderance of things to do made the conference itself a little less important, but the organizers seem to recognize that and have continued to work on new ways of doing things. The peer meeting format was great, and I hope to see more tweaking done with the panel formats. The days of four talking heads for an hour and a half may be numbered, but given the liveliness of the attendees and the conference, I'm sure it'll improve as it evolves.