SXSW Interactive: Authors & Keynotes

This is Part 1 of my SXSW reports. After an introduction, the focus is on authors and keynotes.

I’d heard of South By Southwest (SXSW) for many years; the music festival, that is. However, in 2009 I heard about Interactive Conference that precedes the Music Festival when a few librarians reported attending. I’ve always wanted to attend the music festival, but didn’t feel it was justified in mid-semester given the time and the cost. The Interactive Conference, with its focus on technology, was clearly work related and worthy of investigation. Despite no travel funds, I registered early (paying $395), bought a plane ticket with miles, and arranged to stay at a friends house. Low cost and worthy endeavor.

The trip and conference were well worth the time and I came away energized by the technology community. The conference was certainly different from a typical librarian conference, particularly given the primary demographic – young, hip, technologists in a party atmosphere. I wanted something different to shake my brain up a bit; to give me a new perspective. Also, I wanted an event where I didn’t know many people and didn’t have any committee meetings. SXSW paid me back well.

The Buzz

For those of you who don’t know, SXSW is where a little company called Twitter essentially had its history changed in 2007. In each subsequent year, Twitter has continued to be the darling technology product but this year began to see a shift toward location based services such as Gowalla and FourSquare. The buzz on the street was all about these location based services – and 2010 will be the year of location. Certainly Twitter was heavily used throughout SXSW, but looking forward we may see a different horizon. The second major technology shift observed for 2010 may be the rise of the tablets, beginning with the iPad release next week. We can expect a couple dozen tablet products by the end of 2010 that may dramatically shift the computing world.

Book Readings

The book readings occurred in a central location and was sponsored by Adobe and the librarian in me just felt like a few analog activities were required. These were short sessions (20-minutes) and the author typically discussed the new title or did some reading from the book followed always by Q&A. These were good sessions for me to attend on the first day to help get my feet wet and experience a bit of the SXSW audience.

All the book readings were very interesting and seemed to be worthy reads. In the end, I only purchased one title (especially since it isn’t available yet outside SXSW).

A few take-aways from these sessions

What does it take to get professors to use Open Courseware? Appeal to their vanity; upload your materials to shared environment then you reach a much broader audience. It’s not just about free and open textbooks.

The Pocket School: Mobile Education. Student centered where learners seize control of their education.

Happiness can sometimes feel abstract as a goal. A good place to start is with your own body. Are you getting enough sleep?

Sleep. Exercise. Reduce clutter. Make your bed (#1). Imitate a spiritual master. Mindfulness of present moment. 1-sentence journal.

Keynotes and Speakers

The conference had four keynotes and I attended a couple more speaker sessions. I heard danah boyd, Valerie Casey, Evan Williams, Daniel Ek, Jaron Lanier, and Bruce Sterling. They were all excellent with one exception – Evan Williams keynote interview. Ironically, the Twitterverse was the primary vehicle used to express major disappointment when the keynote bombed.

This is the second time I have heard danah boyd speak. She is intelligent and clearly research orientated. She is a fast thinker and has been an innovator in social media research. Her talk was on privacy – privacy is about having control over how information flows. She highlighted two recent privacy failures: the launch of Google Buzz in February 2010 and the Facebook changes in December 2009. One observsation was it is easy to be private in physically public space but not so easy online – public by default and private through effort doesn’t easily translate to the online environment. Taking public data and making it more public, such as the Google Buzz example, is a violation of privacy (based on our social norms).

I loved Valerie Casey’s talk. She is a founder of the Designers Accord and she spoke of integrating sustainability through systems thinking. This is the second or third time I’ve heard about systems thinking in a talk and I continue to be intrigued by the concept. Ms. Casey challenged this audience and said that the interactive community has been largely absent from the discussion of sustainability and that it is time to take a greater leadership role in the future. The goal of Designers Accord is to shift the conversation away from the negative Kafkaesque narrative that is predominant. Further, sustainability in mainstream media trivializes the issue. It isn’t something that sits outside of what we do. Consider being located at some point along a string along with everyone else – anytime one of us does something on the string, there is a consequence.

Leadership requires systems. A system is made of elements, interconnections that are highly organized to achieve an overall goal or purpose. What would happen if we focused on cultural sustainability instead of capital? What if social media was really about social impact?

These were the two “thought” keynotes. Two other thought sessions were speakers Jaron Lanier and Bruce Sterling. If you’ve read anything by either author then you get the drift of the discussion. Jaron suggested to the audience to stop tweeting. Don’t blog. Just turn off the gadgets.

The “tech” keynotes were actually interview based. The first was with the Twitter cofounder and the second was with the cofounder of Spotify. Spotify is a new kind of music listening service that isn’t available in the United States yet. If we ever get Spotify in the U.S., it will rock our world (literally). Everyone in the audience was expecting an announcement of some kind but we were disappointed. The best thing that Daniel Ek said was we need to make music like water – music is the most social object out there – genres don’t say anything anymore and we need the social to be able to “browse” ten million tracks.

Despite the general failure of the Evan Williams interview, I still had a couple take away moments. Twitter is an information network, not a social network. Openness is a fundamental tenant at Twitter. Openness lets people come in and use/make what Twitter will become. By expanding SMS services, Twitter becomes an extremely powerful tool by letting anyone with a cell phone the ability to publish on the internet.