Take all the leading thinkers and doers of the most exciting industry in the world, combine one part intellectual stimulation and one part social lubrication (okay, maybe two) and mix them all up in the vibrant city of Austin TX and what do you get?: The South by Southwest Interactive Festival. SXSWi ranks up there for me alongside amazing social experiments like Burning Man and childhood summer camp, where you get so immersed in the community around you that you almost forget what its like on the outside until you emerge and return home, completely exhausted and inspired.
Bruce Sterling noted in his closing address (mp3) (also reported below) that we are living and working in the most exciting time for web technology. The lines between online and offline are being blurred and access to information and tools for expression is becoming more ubiquitous every day. The democratization of the web was the primary theme of this years festival with a heavy focus on new means of content distribution, tools for personal expression like video blogs and podcasts, and web applications and online communities that put the controls into the hands of the user to personalize his or her own experience. And as SXSWi Event Director, Hugh Forrest notes in this Cool Hunting video, this years festival was marked by a real spirit of entrepreneurship and creativity.
I wasnt able to attend every panel and keynote discussion but Id like to take you through some of my personal highlights. You can also download videos and podcasts of most of the event on the SXSW website and check out the photos on flickr and pretend you were there!
Cyberplace: Online in Offline Spaces and Vice Versa: Heath Row (Squidoo.com) moderated this panel discussion about the constant interaction between our offline and online lives, particularly through services like MeetUp and mobile social networking tools like Dodgeball and Socialight. Dodgeball is a service that allows you to broadcast sms messages to your network of friends via your cell phone. So if youre hanging out at a bar, you can check in at that location by sending a text message to everyone in your network, and maybe theyll stop by. Socialight is a location-based messaging system that allows you to share messages about places with others. For instance, you can leave a sticky shadow or a virtual note at your favorite diner saying, best milkshakes ever and when another Socialight user passes by, shell get that note on her cell phone. Unfortunately, Socialight isnt yet available on many mobile carriers, but this idea is very exciting. I can think of all sorts of useful implementations of this technology. Users could leave sticky shadows recommending stores with local produce or fair trade coffee. Activists could invite others to impromptu rallies by checking in at city hall or the local park. These tools are changing how we interact with people and the real space around us and as they gain popularity, they have real worldchanging implications. Panelist, Molly Steenson closes out the discussion with her thoughts on the future. She notes that personal computing is moving away from screens and keyboards and towards devices we wear and carry with us everywhere. She predicts that as the line between online and offline is further blurred and we add more and more data to the real world around us, we will shift from paying for services that bring us more information to paying for filters that prevent us from being bombarded, so that perhaps we can interact with the world around us on our own terms.
Keynote interview: Craig Newmark: The founder of Craigslist.org talks with Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales about how a simple interface and an easy-going zen attitude have helped to make life better for millions of users across the world.
Craig Newmark founded Craigslist in 1995, as a way to tell friends about cool events in and around San Francisco. The site -- which easily connects people who have something with people who want something -- has experienced massive growth over the last ten years. It now serves more than 170 cities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand. Despite the power of this global community, Newmark's overall approach has changed very little. As he told Wired magazine in a September 2004 interview, "I'm pretty happy with nerd values: Get yourself a comfortable living, then do a little something to change the world." Named the "2005 Webby Person of the Year", Newmark retains a simple motto for his site: "Give people a break." from sxsw.com.
Newmark explains that Craigslist is built upon a culture of trust. Most people in the world are basically good and operate on the motto, Do unto others Newmarks job is just to provide the infrastructure for people to connect and the community runs itself. He says that as Craigslist continues to grow, he has learned that people all over the world want basically the same things. They need a place to live and a job (and sex).
Newmark goes on to tell us a little bit about his planned new venture into journalism. Hes reluctant to address the issue from the position of an expert. "When it comes to news and journalism and stuff I'm very much an amateur, a dilettante, but for some strange reason people will listen to me." He says that in order to live in a democratic society, you need good sources of news. Craigslist has had some impact on the news industry through its impact on classifieds sales but the bigger issue is the need for more real investigative journalism. Newmark says he is working to create a collaborative filter to find the best news sources. In an ideal world, Newmark would like to see more people being trained as fact-checkers employed to keep news organizations accountable. He notes that the best example hes seen of this so far is on The Daily Show.
The Future of Darknets: Can Hollywood See the Light? This very lively discussion was moderated by JD Lasica, founder of OurMedia. Darknets are private communities using the web to communicate and share content and information out of view of the general online public. Clearly this is the realm of ghosts and goblins for Hollywood. As Derek Powazek notes on his blog, the discussion quickly descended into a shouting match between panelist, Kori Bernards from the MPAA, and pretty much everyone else in the room. Heres my take: basically, if content is digital, people are going to move it around. If you dont give them a legal and easy way to do that, piracy is going to be a big problem. I agree with Derek that the annoying (and plainly dishonest) anti-piracy commercials that now air before movies in the theater are insulting and ineffective. And now there is news out of ShoWest that the MPAA is considering a commercial campaign to boost box office in the vein of the dairy industrys Got Milk? commercials or the pork industrys The Other White Meat campaign. What are they thinking? The only way to compel audiences into the theater is to give them a good movie and an experience they cant get at home. Oh, and how about making it affordable? Hollywood has backed itself into an unsustainable corner with its huge budgets and unmanageable overhead. The studios need to figure out a way to work with the new technologies (not against them) to give users more options, not fewer. Otherwise, sooner or later the theater owners, the digital content distributors and the artists are going to figure out that they dont need the middle man.
These are only a few of the many panels I attended and Ill leave it up to you to learn about the parties on flickr. But like Zeldman says, SXSW is really about the people. So heres to SXSWi and all the amazing people working to make the web a more open, accessible and better place.
Photo by Scott Beale (Laughing Squid)
Great post, Micki! My notes (and yours) are available here: http://sxswnotes.pbwiki.com
Right on Micki for the call to Hollywood! I lead one of the few LA studios working under creative commons and there's a lot of resistance to sharing creative content here. Original work is the lifeblood of an entire city and industry here and there there thousands of artists already clinging to $1000 rents that are scared at the thought of no one paying for their brilliance.
Creative protectivity will choke Los Angeles if we do not learn to adapt, grow and offer better experiences NOW. In our studio we are taking on the experienced-based media, fully interactive and integrated from screen to live events and collaborative worlds (Second Life).
There is a way to lead the charge: build something more magnetic than anything else that currently exists and people will come. If you're going to rehash old works, do it honestly under a CCremix and don't pretend that your $50mil movie is any more original than the free video someone sent me from Paris or Dehli. You are certainly welcome to charge $14 for a movie in Los Angeles but don't expect me to pay it unless you are really, really good.
Nothing terribly enlightening to add . just wanted to say great blog .. have been reading all about SXSW so I can live vicariously!
"The studios need to figure out a way to work with the new technologies (not against them) to give users more options, not fewer. Otherwise, sooner or later the theater owners, the digital content distributors and the artists are going to figure out that they dont need the middle man."
Aren't the theater owners and the digital content distributors the middlemen? The studios and the artists actually produce work.
"build something more magnetic than anything else that currently exists and people will come"
Perhaps, but they won't pay for it. Mediocre and free works trump great and paid works more and more every day.