SXSW Interactive 2010 Summary

SXSW Interactive Summary 2010
#SXSWi #SXSW2010
This was the third time I’ve attended SXSW Interactive. The first time was in 2004, then 2009, and finally 2010. Each time, SXSW Interactive has grown by leaps and bounds. 
First, the good stuff:
I still saw some great presentations. Two highlights were the sessions on human brain computer interface and Punk Rock APIs. They both happened to be slightly smaller sessions. 
I met great people everywhere. Sitting next to me in panels. Via twitter. At bars. And because I work at a pretty big company, I met coworkers that I’ve worked with for years, but never met in person. 
Next, a few concerns:
The first time I attend in 2004, there was nary a corporate type to be seen. (I remember one person from IBM who stuck out wherever they went.) This year there many corporate attendees, but for the moment, small company, creative types still seem to outweigh the really big companies. I think this is important to track, because I think one of the key things that has always set SXSW apart from other conferences has been the predominant bias towards small companies, startups, creative types. To borrow a phrase from the Flamethrower session, SXSW has always represented to me the primordial soup of internet creativity. If the bias goes too far to the mainstream, then I think SXSW Interactive participants might consider going elsewhere.
Other key changes I noticed this year included the addition of a lunchtime slot for panels. This meant that most days I didn’t get to have lunch, which was a bummer both for missed lunchtime conversation as well as creating low-energy levels. The huge coffee lines meant you had to either leave one panel early or get to the next panel late. 
While I saw some great presentations, I didn’t see any awe inspiring presentations. There were some simply amazing presentations in past years. Kathy Sierra on Achieving Breakthroughs,  Derek Powazek on Designing for Wisdom of the Crowds are two that come to mind. 
I think SXSW Interactive is still really good, and probably has too much inertia to fall apart, but I do think the festival organizers need to address these concerns, or the creative, innovative heart of the Interactive festival might just go elsewhere over time.
People and Technology
The conference participants come from backgrounds as varied as programmers, database gurus, system administrators, user experience designers, marketing, public relationships, web designers, web strategists, business consultants, non-profits, for-profits, governmental agencies, americans, non-americans, managers, investors, and so forth. There are people representing themselves, small companies, medium size companies, Fortune 50 companies, and so forth. Some of those small businesses are startups seeking to grow, and some are agencies happy with the sweet spot niche they are occupying.
However, even with that wide gamut, some things you notice: a preponderance of Apple MacBooks. Way more than indicated by their percentage of the computer market. Lots of netbooks. Only a handful of traditional Windows notebooks. Tons of smartphones. Last year it was mostly iPhones and some Blackberries, and this year it was iPhones and goodly amount of Motorola DROIDs. (I would love to know if anyone has stats for this... for example, for people using my.SXSW during the conference, what was the breakdown by OS and browser.) 
Lots of checkins using Gowalla and Four Square. These location based services let you know where your friends are, and what locations are trending (e.g. lots of people going to an event)
People are still using twitter, a lot. I saw a ton of activity on twitter. Every panel has a hashtag, so you can follow the panel in real time, participate in a discussion about what the panelists are saying, and followup afterwards. I was so excited to one panel still use IRC (internet relay chat). In 2004, that was the sole method.
I didn’t see many panels project the real time display (e.g. twitter feed) up on the screen. That’s too bad. I know it can be somewhat distracting, but I find it fascinating too. (Especially since I’m pretty active taking notes, and can’t follow the stream on my laptop.)
After SXSW Interactive
I know that I go through a sort of withdrawal after SXSWi. It’s so invigorating and so thought provoking. Everyone there “gets it”. When you come back to regular life, it can be hard to adapt.
Here’s a few tips:
  • Make notes or read someone else’s notes: The insights that were so amazing while you were at the conference will fade unless you either write them down while they are fresh in your mind, or seek them out. You can usually search on Google or Twitter for #hashtag notes and find someone’s notes for the session.
  • Share what you learned: Try to figure out why those insights were so relevant to you, your organization, your business, and share them with others. Not on Twitter, but in real life. Talk to people about what you learned.
  • Find local social media / web meetups: Every city is bound to have some, so search Meetup. In Portland, you can find a thriving community of social media practitioners, designers, startups, and programmers on Calagator. (Although, if you are from Portland, you already know that.) If you can engage in the local community, you can recreate the SXSWi experience at least one night a month, if not more.
  • Practice what you learned: If you had some amazing insight, some great idea, take action on it. Do it yourself, if you have to. Do it with others if you can. Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have the expertise, you’ll learn it. That’s how everyone else up there did it.
On the Use of Paper
Last year at the end of SXSW, I wrote about The End of the Travel Print Packet. For years I had printed out boarding passes, plane and hotel reservations, maps, and restaurant reviews before going on a trip. Last year I hardly used my travel print packet because I had a smartphone with GPS, and could look up maps and restaurants and businesses on the fly. The entire thing might run anywhere from 10-30 pages, depending on where I was going and how long I was staying. 
This year I didn’t print one. I didn’t even print my boarding passes. I emailed them to my phone, and the TSA and airline agents just scanned the surface of my phone. (I think we should write a boarding pass bump application.) Not one page was printed in support of my trip. That’s amazing.
Panel Summaries
There were six sessions a day, and I was in Austin for a total of 21 session slots. In that time, I saw 17 sessions. Wow. That’s a lot crammed into 3 1/2 days. In no particular order, here they are. The links on the titles below are to my detailed, raw notes from the sessions. 
Neuroscience Marketing: The neuroscientists on this panel were absolutely fascinating. This was one of the three best sessions. Someone asked what are the big things we can learn from a neuroscience approach to marketing that we couldn’t just learn from behavioral studies.  They said that if you ask people what part of a 30 second commercial they liked, or which part of a piece of music was most emotionally provocative, they can’t tell you. But with neuroscience it can be measured exactly. 
Neuroscience won’t necessarily discover new principles, but will allow you to narrow in and focus on what is the most provocative. When eating chips and salsa, the most provocative moment is the moment between moments when you are lifting the chip with salsa on it to your mouth. Your brain goes crazy and lights up with activity: the anticipation of the salsa being in your mouth, the motor activity of balancing the salsa on the chip. To optimize this experience, the chip needs a certain strength to it, a certain curve to hold the salsa, the salsa needs a certain thickness and chunkiness. This may seem like a crazy amount of attention to pay to selling chips and salsa, but this attention to detail is exactly what Steve Jobs does with every aspect of Apple products.
To help inoculate children against marketing messages, don’t allow them to watch TV right before bed. When you are sleeping, the brain replays the activity of the day, with the most focus what happened just before bed. If a child watches TV before bed, then while sleeping the brain processes the memories of watching TV. If you have them do their homework before bed, then while sleeping the brain will process the memories of doing homework.
Brain Computer Interface: This presentation by Christie Nicholson covered technology developments that allow brains to communicate with computers. There are different types ranging from EEG, which is non-invasive (picture shower cap with electrodes) to introcortical electrodes, which are a 1mm chip implanted inside the brain. Christie showed examples of a quadrapalegic playing a video game using his brain, a rat with an artificial computer-chip hippocampus that replaced the mouse’s biological organic, and which can memorize mazes. This technology could one day be used to uploaded coded instructions to a soldier for flying an F-15. Another example showed using fiber optic cable to control a mouse, making it run in counter-clockwise circles, for example.
DARPA is a big fan, and is funding many projects in this area. One project is called Silent Talk: they want soldiers to be able to comunicate using EEGs to replace vocalized commands. Another DARPA project seems to simulate a one million neuron brain to control an ape-type robot. A third DARPA projects wants to understand how memories are encoded and transported around the brain (perhaps a way to extract memories from unwilling participants?)
Danah Boyd Keynote - Privacy and Publicity: Danah Boyd is a social media ethnographer who looks at how people use social media in their lives, and how social media transforms society. The topic of her keynote is how privacy and publicity intertwine. She said that privacy is not dead. People care about it. But what privacy means is not necessarily what people think. Privacy is having control over what information is shared. When people feel that they don’t have control over their environment, then they feel like their privacy has been violated. 
One of the biggest errors is when a company takes something public and makes it more public than intended. That’s publicizing, which is not necessarily what people want.
Danah talked quite a bit about teens. Teens want to be seen by their peers, but they don’t want to be seen by people who have power of them. 
In the real world, our environment gives us clues as to how public or private we are: in our bedroom, in a restaurant, up on stage. In a restaurant, you are in a public place, but there is a certain amount of anonymity, and you can have a reasonable expectation of who will show up. Online, the structure gives you far less clues. On Facebook, 65% of people made all their information public simply by accepting defaults they didn’t understand. Danah asked non-techies what their settings were, and then had them look at their actual settings, and not a single person had settings that matches what they thought.
Google’s mistake with Google Buzz was to integrate a public facing system inside one of the most private systems possible, Gmail. 
Socially Conscious Geeks: Led by Lief Utne and Lauren Bacon. This session looked at how folks could have more socially responsible jobs. The session was a mix of people who were at companies and wanted to go to non-profits, people who were at for-profit companies that weren’t socially responsible and wanted to go to a socially responsible for-profit, people who want to be socially responsible entrepreneurs.
The format of the session was discussion, so no one person was the expert. Several people commented on how they realized that profit was not inherently bad, if you were a socially responsible company hiring great people, then more profit meant you could hire more great people and do more good things. There is now a student loan forgiveness program, if you work at non-profits for 10 years, your student loans are forgiven. This can be a $30k/year benefit for someone with $300k in debt, which can help offset the potentially lower salary of a non-profit.
Joi Ito Presentation - How to Save the World: Joi Ito is a great speaker, and it was unfortunate that this panel was not better attended. He said that social software hasn’t saved the world, but the ecosystem and framework (e.g. the internet) is the only we we’re going to solve the problems we have. Our world is fundamentally messed up, and the problems we have are messy and complex. We made technology to make things faster and more efficient. But more efficient doesn’t mean better. More efficient means things start to get brittle - and effects start to amplify: the system gets non-linear and complex (non-linear means drastic changes, rather than gradual). The way we deal with world hunger and terrorism is still via centralized planned effort, and they don’t work.
One example he talked about was a game called World Without Oil, about the future when peak oil has passed and oil has run out. In the forums you see stuff like a high school physics teacher, the hardware store guy, and the mom, who are figuring out how to lower their energy consumption. It’s backyard ingenuity.
He talked about an example from The Age of the Unthinkable. A kid with a cell phone and a laptop. If this kid was in Silicon Valley, he would go work for Google. But he was in Beirut. What are his options for where he will go? Pretty much limited to the Hezbollah, a terrorist/paramilitary organization. If we gave these kids entrepreneurship opportunities, they would do that instead of being terrorists.
Joi Ito said “I believe very strongly in the Internet. It’s my religion.” 
He gave examples of how the Internet resulted in an explosion of innovation. (For the sake of brevity, go read the notes if you want the details.) He said that now the cost of collaborating is so low, one of the remaining barriers is the legal costs. The legal fees and time costs can exceed the value of collaboration. Creative Commons eliminates some of that. Sharing can become even easier. 
The cost of failure is so low, you can try lots of things. Linus Torvalds said “I’m going to create an operating system”, and that was the birth of Linux. A company can spend millions of dollars thinking about whether to do something, millions more getting ready to do, millions more actually going it. They can never do something like Linux or Amazon or Google. Doplr went into a cabin and prototyped it over a weekend. There is no idea you shouldn’t be able to prototype in a week. It’s cheaper and easier to prototype something than it is to create a presentation and try to explain things. 
Then he gave examples of how these things (entrepreneurship, low cost of trying, technology) came together to make differences in the world: 
  • Global Voices: network of bloggers, regional heads aggregate in each region. And then aggregate at higher levels. They do translation. The purpose is to give voice to each region, and enable a global conversation.
  • Witness: gives resources to human rights organization to record and share video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations
  • Meetup: For profit. Thought of doing it as a non-profit. We think of non-profits as volunteer work, and for-profits as IPO work, but there is a whole range of in between. Meetup has a tremendous amount of social good, and the founder only cares about saving the world, and makes money to keep the company going.
  • Architecture for humanity: get designs for building, license them under creative commons license. architecture is quite hard, so sharing it and opening it up is tremendously valuable. designs for hospitals and schools.
  • The Girl Effect: the power social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate.
  • Lulan Artisans: teaches women and girls how to knit, dye fabric, make money. Founder wanted to stop human trafficking, and the way to do that was to enable the woman to make money. They make more money than the man. So instead of selling the women, they are more valuable in the family. Thing has done more to stopping human trafficking than almost anything else. 
Beyond LAMP - Scaling Websites Past MySQL: This super valuable session covered technology to bringing websites to high scale. If interested, just read the detailed notes.
One great question was why none of the folks present on the panel (Twitter, Facebook, TechCrunch, Reddit) used Oracle. There was consensus on the panel that they liked open source. The panelist from Twitter said that as they scale, they like to be able to peek under the hook and see what is going on. The panelist from Facebook said they like open source, they like the way open source products work well together, and they like to be nimble. The proprietary systems are not so nimble. Essentially, for maximum scaling, proprietary systems just aren’t good enough because they can’t be tweaked fast enough.
Coding For Pleasure: This panel was about developing applications not to make money, but just for fun, to scratch a personal itch. They talked about how all the beloved apps, twitter, flickr, facebook - they didn’t start as a plan to make a lot of money. They just filled a need for their founders. When you aren’t out to make money, you have less restrictions - you can just focus on the best possible user experience. There was a lot of interest from the audience on how to do this if you weren’t a coder - and the panelists said that with modern languages, frameworks, and APIs, you can go from zero to competent in six months or less. Just Google your programming question. They talked about the need to link of programmers and designers, something that can still be tricky to find the right person to work with. Sounds like an unmet need.
Valerie Casey Keynote Address - Designing A Movement - Integrating Sustainability Through Systems Thinking: Valerie said that the Interactive community would be critical going forward to the sustainability movement. She said that one of the big problems facing the sustainability movement is the use of Kafta-type narrative as the prevailing story for sustainability (reference: Kafka’s metamorphosis is an unhappy man turns into a cockroach.) Examples of these including child sitting in an e-waste dump in China, the   Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the area of plastic stuck floating in the North Pacific Gyre), polar ice caps melting which is destablizing earth’s plates, and burn pits in Iraq, which cause more deaths of U.S. soldiers than combat. Yet these stories cause burnout of sustainability activists, and have no positive, optimistic side to motivate sustained, passionate effort. She covered principles of systems thinking that could motivate more effective change: 
  • a system is more than the sum of it’s parts
  • feedback delays + bounded rationality = design traps
  • creating the right measurement of success
  • selecting the correct level for change
  • enabling new models by recognizing the relationship between structure and behavior
  • issue-attention cycle: degree of awareness is inversely correlated to the degree of productive action.
Kick Ass Mashups - Punk Rock APIs: In this session Kent Brewster talking about using web site APIs to create mashups. Every website has an API, even if it is a poor one: the HTML can easily be scraped. If a company instead opens up an API, they can get pinpoint data about how it is being used.
Kent showed some amazing examples of using Yahoo Pipes and YQL to create mashups in a matter of hours. YQL is essentially a query language like SQL, the data is in the form of tables, the tables definition is creating by scraping a website or accessing the website API. It all becomes reusable. The examples Kent showed included improving the user experience of the my.SXSW scheduling website, mashing up Netflix movie data with a personal blog.
I thought it was one of the top sessions at SXSWi.
Gmail - Behind the Scenes: A cool session about Gmail and the innovations behind it. It was staffed with five Google employees from Gmail, representing engineering, engineering manager, product marketing manger, technical lead. Key insights about innovation: virtually every new feature starts life as one individual’s initiative. They prototype something, get others interested, and it moves forward. They value interaction over meetings: no regular staff meeting, instead everyone sits closely together in an open floor layout. One key feature (undo send) was implemented by an engineer in Japan, not even part of the core Gmail team - he just checked out the Gmail code, made the changes, released it to Google Labs. While the Gmail team had debated whether or not it was feasible for two years, this other engineer just did it. That’s not uncommon. Other good insights in the notes. 
What Corporate American Thinks of Enterprise 2.0 - Andrew McAfee: McAfee is a noted researcher and professor at Harvard with numerous HBR papers on enterprise adoption of Web 2.0 tools. I got to this well-attended talk 30 minutes late, so my notes only cover the last half. He talked about how to talk to management about technology, including tips such as using before and after comparisons instead of demos, presenting theories and frameworks instead of jargon, present case studies and narratives (but not about companies they may not be able to relate to such as Google or Amazon), anticipate and alley concerns, don’t treat business colleagues like geeks or dopes - very few are geeks, but no one likes to be talked down to, or treated as being part of the problem.
Scoring a Tech Book Deal: Lots of good advice for would-be writers from a successful writer, a development editor, an acquisitions editor, and a writer’s agent. One big theme: Publishers don’t want to receive a finished book: they want a proposal, a writing sample, and an explanation of why you are the right author for this project. 
A Brave New Future for Book Publishing: Given that this panel was pitched as a follow-up to the well-attended and controversial panel called New Think for Old Publishers in 2009, I expected more energy and excitement around this. (In particular, I keep hoping for The Pragmatic Bookshelf to be held out as an example of an outstanding publisher that blends the online and print worlds.) One of two big insights from this session was talk of the Espresso Book Machine, an office copier-sized machine that can churn out a trade soft cover book in five minutes. A vision was painted of the future where a bookstore is a coffee shop with a shelf full of staff picks, and the ability to print any book you want. The other big topic was the iPad, and it’s impact. The panelists thought that the iPad would be a game changer because it would introduce a new audience to e-readers: people who would not have purchased a dedicated e-reader, but will try out the e-reader capability when it comes with a device. Some discussion of books+video, books as the centerpiece of a community that includes discussions, video, and other content.
AI 2010 - Wall-e or Rise of the Machines: Like the human brain interface panel, seeing the state of the art in artificial intelligence was pretty awesome. Peter Stone talked about the value of challenge problems to stimulate progress. Good problems produce good science, examples of this include manned flight, the Apollo mission, and the Manhattan Project. Examples of current challenge problems include: “By the year 2050, a team of humanoid robots that can beat a championship team playing soccer.” Videos were shown of the progress over ten years in RoboCup. Another good challenge problem was the DARPA Grand Challenge (autonomous vehicles navigate offroad), DARPA Urban Challenge (autonomous vehicles navigate urban environment include other autonomous vehicles and human-driven vehicles.) Both successfully accomplished.
Customer Support in a 140 Character World: (A quick reminder: I work for HP, who was part of the panel, although I write for myself, and don’t represent HP.) This panel was about the use of Twitter for customer support. Opinions from the panelists varied as to whether it should be used to actually resolve issues for the customer versus connecting with them and following up by phone or email. Jeremiah Owyang said, “Customer support is PR. Customer’s don’t care what department you’re in, they just want their problem solved.” There were questions from the audience about the listening tools used (see notes for details), and the size and scope of the teams listening (~10 people for both Comcast and HP). 
What We Learned from Watching Kids with Flameworkers: This was an interesting session on the cultural value of long tail content to individuals, niche communities, and future cultural anthropologists. There are micro-genres of content (e.g. homemade flamethrowers) that might have a few thousand videos on the topic, with none having more than 10k-50k views. Yet these micro-genres make up the mass of the volume of YouTube. Amassing of collection of flamethrower videos would once have required an extension effort by a curator, yet now can be done in minutes or hours with YouTube. What future value does this hold - if a cultural anthropologist wants to look back on this time in 100 years, will those videos still exist? There are other examples of content disappearing en masse, such as GeoCities web pages, so we’re already losing our cultural history on the web less than 15 years into life on the web. Who decides what content stays around, who funds it, and how can we influence it? The flamethrower video was pretty dang great too. 

Missed it?

If you missed SXSW this year, and you're now banging your head against your desk saying "why, why, why", then attend WebVisions 2010 in Portland, which is another great, organic Interactive/Web conference.

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