SXSW Interactive 2011 Recap: Confessions of a Panel Nerd

SXSW Interactive is not yet complete at the time I am writing this.  My day gig beckoned, so my trip was truncated but the conference/celebration/nerd orgy (you can interpret that however you wish) continues.

2011 is the first year where attendance for  the Interactive part of SXSW will be higher than the music festival; like it or not, SXSW Interactive is a “rock star” event, with enough parties and promotional events to deplete the most extroverted attendee’s business card stash. Being an introvert and a nerd (as much as I love parties) I think the panels are still the best part of SXSW.

scene from a tradeshow

Like a dude who claims he reads Playboy for the articles, no one believes me when I say this. I know people who don’t even get badges for SXSW interactive, they just go to network at the parties. Thank god that’s not a requirement for my career, because missing out on the panels seems like a total waste to me and partying all the time seems exhausting. For those people who say that SXSW is low on quality content? I don’t buy it; those people just make bad panel choices. Guess what, that panel about brand conversations on Twitter won’t say anything new from last year – or the year before; expand your horizons. (My approach this year was to avoid any panel having to do with social media and my SXSW experience was improved exponentially from last year.)

Here’s what else I came away with last weekend:

GOOD: Less “conversing”, more creating. This year was pretty light on break-out technology/apps (Business networking platform Hashable got a bit of buzz)

music hack day presentation

However, I heard lot of discussion about creating: content, apps, movements. I went to a great session about Music Hack Day, a hackathon focused on music APIs and even electronic instruments. I hit another panel on mobile apps used by health workers in Africa and I saw Sen. Al Franken ask for the international geek community’s help to defend Net Neutrality (expect a blog post about this). There were several panels on online storytelling that I didn’t get to attend, but heard through the grapevine were well received. Overall, I felt like there was a real push toward doing, which I appreciate. An unsung highlight of the event were the 90 minute workshop-style sessions at the Sheraton, focused on coding and practical tech work. The UX and analytics workshop I attended was by far the best session I have ever attended at SXSW.

BAD:  Brands gone wild. Being constantly, aggressively  sold to is annoying. Even more so when you’re standing in line for a taco. This year in particular the level of hucksterism was overwhelming, from startups forcing their apps in your grill to big companies and their loud, brightly lit branded lounges and charging stations. HEY BUY THIS SHIT was the dominant message in the halls.  Even worse, it seemed that some companies seemed a bit too eager to use the crisis in Japan as a cool branding opportunity, or an opportunity to get some social media exposure. (I’m not talking about the sxsw4japan effort, however, which I thought was genuine and timely.)

Almost as soon as my time at SXSW ended I started thinking about whether I’d be back next year; it’s gonna be hard to say no, as annoyed as I am about standing in line for hours, and even with my continued reservations about how organizers have underestimated SXSW Interactive’s explosive growth for two years in a row, I always get what I come for: I learn a lot, I meet cool people, I catch up with friends, and I come away inspired. Also I eat lots of tacos.

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Still Writing for Pageviews: Professional Online Writing in 2011

I was poking around a webzine (do people still say that?) I used to read back in the day and decided to see if, after nearly a decade  of  existence, if it was paying its writers. here’s what I found, really low on its “Call for Submissions” page, in reduced font size:

Note: We are unable to pay you for your work at this time, but you will not go entirely uncompensated; your ‘pay’ is the opportunity to address our readership, currently 1 million-plus unique readers per month and counting.

We are supposedly in the Golden Age of the Startup, where college students and geeks with a bit of drive and a novel idea can potentially become multi-millionaires – or at least quit their day jobs – and writers are still, still writing for pageviews.

AOL’s purchase of Huffington Post was another swift kick in the gut for professional online writing,  especially the unpaid bloggers who are now hoping for a piece of the AOL pie after years of creating content and bringing traffic to the site. As much as I sympathize with all of the writers who expected some compensation for all of their efforts – it’s deserved and long overdue –  this battle was one that needed to be fought by professional writers years ago, when there was still something to leverage with then – fledgling websites, so hungry for content.

I’ve ranted about this before, back in 2009:

I don’t mean to single out HuffPo, that website is certainly not the sole offender when it comes to paying with pageviews. I don’t even think it’s the fault of the internet. I think it’s us, the scores of writers (myself included) who have devalued our own work over the years by doing professional-level work for free — or for far too little.

We write for exposure. We write for practice. We write for press passes. We write for beer/diaper/vacation money. We write for lulz. But we don’t write to support ourselves. And we end up screwing ourselves everytime.

Absolutely nothing about the above blog post has changed, save one crucial element: it’s worse now because content websites are now coming up with monetization strategies – advertisers are finally coming around to seeing the value of online – but many of these strategies are built around the idea that websites can always find someone to write for “exposure” or for WAY less than they are worth.  Some can afford to do it because they have full-time jobs or spouses or side projects that pay their bills.  Some writers have been able to use their free writing gigs to network and gain entry into paying gigs, but it’s still the exception rather than the rule.  Writers for the most part are still waiting for online monetization of some of the bigger blogs/webzines to trickle down to content creators, and for the majority of writers that ship has sailed.

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