I’m back from a bunch of great days in Austin at SXSW. As usual I came away excited and ready to quit my day job. But this time it took a lot longer to feel that excitement, whether that was because of the quality of the programming (or my choice of what to attend) or just that I know more than everyone else. To be safe I’ll go with knowing more than everyone else.
Maybe because work pays me to attend that I started by attending panels most relevant to my job and ended up somewhat nonplussed. But as I started to drift into things I was merely interested in — and made an effort to meet people I didn’t know — things got a lot better. I don’t think you ever get over your first SXSW, which for me was a while back. Everything’s new, everyone (mostly) is new and it is just an amazingly heady experience.
But it is fun to see how people change over time. One example. Three years ago standing in a beer line I struck up a conversation with the person behind me, Leslie Chicoine. Just out of design school at Savannah and looking for a job. I had none to offer, but we had a good conversation. Three years later, Leslie’s in the thick of things in the Bay Area working at Get Satisfaction, an incredible company working on an even better idea. She was a panelist this year for the first time talking about OAuth and QR codes. Not much more to it than that, except that I’ve really enjoyed following the career of someone wide-eyed and new to the tech world straight into success. Kinda the whole point of SXSW writ large.
My colleague in IBM Roo Reynolds did (and is still doing) a great job cataloging the highlights of the conference and many of our experiences overlapped, so for the liveblog junkies among you I point you to his site. Good stuff.
Perhaps the entertainment highlight of SXSW was the Jane McGonigal talk on Alternate Reality Games. She’s incredibly articulate and enthusiastic about the role of play in life and work. Made me want to go out and design an ARG right then and there. (I just might, buddy.)
As an aside during her talk Jane mentioned learning the Soulja Boy dance why playing an ARG. Immediately someone from the crowd yelled “do it!” Smartly, she said she would at the end of the presentation — which pretty much kept the entire crowd there whether they were enjoying the talk or not. Sure enough, she did it. Here’s Roo’s video annotated with my obnoxious laughter.
In an effort to offer a flavor of my experience without being verbose I’ll note a few of the panels I attended with the best line (I think) I heard at each. Beware paraphrasing.
The Future of Virtual Worlds and Game Development: Rise of the Indies: “Hi, welcome to my panel. I’m sorry, but I forgot to bring liquor.” — Corey Bridges. Sidenote: Corey made fun of an IBM executive during this panel. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the room who knew who he was talking about and the only one who laughed out loud.
Opening Remarks with Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson: “The two best shows on TV may represent a real turning point in the form. The Wire may be the last gasp of self-contained, inside-the-box television while Lost may be the first glimmer of new TV, one that exists in a web of ‘trans-media extensions’.” — Henry Jenkins.
A General Theory of Creative Relativity: “There is a variable and a constant and finding the association between those two things is the act, the actual thing [of creativity].” — Jim Coudal.
Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Great Design Hurts: “Does anyone know what IBM does?” — John Gruber
Tools for Enchantment: 20 Ways to Woo Users: “attention offsets” – like a carbon offset, sponsoring something that supports full attention in exchange for building something that takes someone’s partial attention — Kathy Sierra
Keynote: Jane McGonigal: “To imagine the future, always look back at least twice as far as you are looking forward.”
But you know what made it great? Not the panels or keynotes or even the parties. It was a format called Core Conversations where basically a bunch of tables arranged by topic were set up in a room, BarCamp-style. My expectations were low as I had heard a bunch of criticism of them, but it was the end of the last day so what the hell.
I plopped down at Managing Media: Is Your Music Collection About to Become Extinct? and was immediately in music geek heaven talking about file formats, metadata, and genre classification woes. I was so happy to hear an Apple engineer admit that there are “religious wars” in Cupertino over things like whether to separate reggae and dub. It was just perfect, informal, smart discussion and all about what I care about personally. The Songbird team was there as well as a chap from Last.fm.
Well after I had told myself it was time to go drinking I found myself just sliding into the next confab on the Open Media Web. Why can’t open standards be applied to digital media? If the web can do it, why not media? Down with Flash, down with record labels, yay!
Well, that’s it. No great summing statement. There was no darling like Twitter at its coming-out party last year, as far as I can tell (though it was easily the most used form of communication).
I wonder about the future of SXSW Interactive. It is so damn huge now that the lines for parties and toilets are a real drag. A friend put it best when he said that the parties are suffering load balancing and scalability problems this year. And I have to think that if the parties really do begin to suck that much of the appeal of SXSW will fade. After all, meeting new people is really where the learning happens.
See you next year?