3 Reasons to Skip SXSW Interactive This Year

For the past few years, The Learned Fangirl has enthusiastically covered the sessions and keynotes of South by Southwest Interactive. There was a point when SXSW was the most wonderful time of the year for startups, bloggers, VC’s, coders, and social media douchebags. 5 days of networking in a glorious haze of free beer and tacos.

But this year, TLF reluctantly plans to sit this one out,which saddens us because we have a lot of great friends presenting this year! The reason? It’s not worth the money.

Though the price of a badge has nearly tripled in the past three years, at $950, SXSWi is still a deal compared to similar tech/innovation conferences like Techcrunch Disrupt or TED. Even so, the tech conference marketplace has become a crowded, fragmented one – SXSWi is no longer the must-attend event that it used to be, and that money may go further at other, more specialized events.

Here are the three reasons TLF is skipping SXSW and why we think you may be better off spending your (or your employer’s, lucky you!) money on a conference that you’ll get a lot more out of.

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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.

The Learned Fangirl @ SXSW: Part 3: Bridging Divides

I appreciate that you started your first Learned Fangirl post about SXSW writing about increased inclusiveness.

In addition to the panels you discussed, including How to Be Black Online, I was glad that there were varied discussions by and about people of difference, including about how disabled people use technology, women in technology and the glass ceiling, the GLBTQ community and technology, and about Jewish people and technology — including frum (very religious Jewish) participation. Of course, I started SXSW with my first session, a lively discussion about Asian-Americans belying the discussion title of Asians: The Silent Minority! (see also: Redefining Asians and the Internet: I Am Not Your Fetish).

I appreciated that those in the audience for the “people of difference” sessions I attended were genuinely interested in the discussion — both members of the community and those that are not members of the specific community being discussed. And that unfortunately is surprising, so I appreciate the tech community’s openness, especially in response to past criticism of lack of diversity at SXSW.

Three of the most interesting panels I attended during SXSW concerned bridging divides between different people — understanding how creative products are used differently internationally (Design, Collaboration, Pokemon: How Not to Offend People Globally), governments helping disseminate accurate health-based information — especially during a bcrisis, and informing a highly educated, tech-savvy/making audience about how and why a digital divide exists in the U.S.

Watching the panelists on When Swine Flew: Embracing Innovation in H1N1 Response reminded me of my long-ago love for public health. Panelists Andrew Wilson of the Department of Health & Human Services, Ann Aikin of the CDC, and David Hale from the National Library of Medicine discussed how they help their government agencies effectively spread accurate information — including via twitter. I appreciated hearing about how the taxonomy of terms being used is based on library abstracts for SemanticTwitter, “which focuses on semantic and natural language processing of H1N1-related Twitter posts for biosurveillance, determination of public sentiment, and targeted information dissemination.” And for the analytics lovers out there, there was also discussion of measuring effective media strategies.

This isn't the Digital Divide at issue!

But of course, I found How The Other Half Lives – Touring The Digital Divide, as presented by Jessamyn West and Jenny Engstrom, two superawesome librarians, to be the perfect capstone to explaining the ways that some are involved in the tech debates — and some aren’t. (And to get all Reading Rainbow, “you don’t have to take my word for it” — read the slides and hear the presentation). They presented on the digital divide between those with access to technology (and knowledge about the use of technology) and those without. Jessamyn’s focus is on the rural communities (specifically in Vermont) and Jenny’s focus is on the urban communities, including immigrants (specifically in New York).

I was impressed not only with the presentation — and that SXSW had such a presentation — but also that the members of the audience , the technological elite, were so interested in the on-the-ground digital divide. I expect that many came away with a greater understanding of not only their role in bridging that divide, but the importance of libraries and librarians in the difficult hand-holding information literacy that takes place in libraries daily.

And if you want to read the excellent twitter backchannel that as of this post is still continuing, the hashtag is #digitaldivide .

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Learned Fangirl at SXSW Reads a Book: Fans, Friends and Followers (Part 2 of our exciting SXSW adventures)

So to start my series of posts about SXSW, I’m starting with a discussion of one of the books focused on during one of the panel presentations, Scott Kirsner’s latest work, Fans, Friends and Followers. If you are looking for a book on living up to the 1,000 true fans philosophy, this isn’t it.

As he states in the book,

there has never been a noisier, more competitive time to try to make art, entertain people, and tell stories. Everyone is doing it, and so there is an incredible surplus of content in every art form.

Surplus of content? This strongly implies that the limiter to content is the individual, rather than the possibilility of different individualss and groups with different tastes.

While I appreciate what Kirshner is trying to do, by helping artists reach their audience — there is a reason why this blog is called The Learned Fangirl — because we are concerned about how fans are being viewed by each other and outsiders.

So how does Kirshner describe the role of fans?

The very term “audience” may be on its way to obsolescence. Some artists prefer to think of themselves as cultivating a “community,” attracting “supporters,” or organizing and motivating a “street team.” Some like the term “fan base,” while others may choose to use the terms “collaborators” or “co-conspirators.”

Unfortunately, the role of fans — both throughout the book and in the admittedly brief presentation — is to be active participants  that can be removed from the process at any point should the artist choose. He never quite says this directly, but everything is directed at the artist — nothing on what happens when fans feel (or actually have) a claim of ownership over parts of their fandom.

And perhaps its my background, but I found the “reap all of the grain from the field” approach to be shortsighted. The only mention of rights occurs briefly, within a formal business arrangement, or passing references to Creative Commons.

The interviews that are the backbone of the book are interesting, but without a larger, overall helpful structure for artists, this shouldn’t be an end-point.

Recommended: Only for those that want to read inspiring stories. Or are newly thinking about how to become a famous artist.

Learned Fangirl at SXSW – Part 1: Black People on Twitter and other Non-Surprising Surprises

So, it’s been awhile, we know, but Learned Fangirl is back from hibernation. TLF was at SXSW Interactive this year and in between all of the panels, parties, networking, meeting old friends and new and trying to run away from drunken street harassers, we’ll be dropping some insights here in the next few days, probably weeks.

Before I get to into discussing the panels and the conference as a whole (and I’ve a lot to say about that), I wanted to use this first post to examine a theme I’ve noticed through the panels I’ve attended thus far.

When I attended last year, some of the attendees (including myself) were very critical of the demographic breakdown of the SXSW panels and panel topics, which like the tech industry as a whole, is pretty heavy on white males between the ages of 25-40.  There was a very public call to improve the diversity of these panels when the call for presenters went up for SXSW last year.

To the organizers’ credit, the SXSW Panel Picker went a long way in attempting to create more a more diverse experience in terms of panel speakers and topics, which was good to see; topics of race/gender difference seem to spring up even on panels that weren’t focused on those issues.

danah boyd‘s keynote talk on online privacy vs. publicity sparked a lot of discussion and thought for me. Some of you may remember boyd’s research on race/class and social networks. and her implication that MySpace is not a dead social network as much as it was perceived to be by the social media thought leaders who no longer spend time there.

This year, boyd brought attention to the black online subculture that exists on Twitter. Later, during his session “How to be Black Online,” comic Baratunde Thurston elaborated on the online user behavior of African-Americans, addressing the differences in technology use and social media conversation from general (i.e. white) online users. It’s great insight that unfortunately still doesn’t seem to stick with some social media experts who still cling to the old “digital native/digital immigrant” argument.

Talk of social media user and age is overstated at this point (yes, the median age of a Facebook user is 44, we know) while race and class stratification of the online world is still the elephant in the room at conferences like SXSW and elsewhere. I’ve noticed many of the “people of difference”  are engaging in digital grassroots activism and DIY/entrepreneurial efforts but not necessarily represented widely as industry leaders.

While the digital divide is arguably not as wide as it used to be (and I am not completely convinced of that) race and even more importantly, class, is mostly an afterthought in conversations about social media and the web. For all the data available on online user behavior, and all the talk about social media audience segmentation, online audiences are still primarily viewed as monolithic; the subject of race and class differences still seem to be a revelation for digital industry experts.  That’s a real shame when you consider the opportunities being missed by the industry as a whole.

The encouraging thing about SXSW 2010, however is that there was at least the beginning of some kind of dialogue started about these issues and that there was room for it. Still we’re outliers; there’s not enough race/gender/class diversity at the table, either at conferences like SXSW or the industry as a whole for the conversation to take place outside of just a off-shoot panel or two. The conversation needs to  become practice in order to lead to any structural change in the way digital experts view user behavior in the online space.

Ah well, maybe next year.

TLF @ SXSW Interactive Days 3 and 4: There’s no one solution

Day 3 was a mixture of practical workshops and  topical discussion. I spent the morning at  a panel on user experience design: the “soft” red headed stepchild of web design  that’s secretly its backbone.  Of all of the panels I’ve attended here, Leah Buley’ s insight on how to work as a UX team of one will stick with me and hopefully guide what I do for years to come. I want to do more UX design!

I was not too impressed with a panel on online communities, and headed to the Can Social Media End Racism? panel. Of course it can’t, but considering how homogenous the SXSW crowd is for the most part, to be able to have the discussion in an environment like this was really important. For me, I still see so much opportunity to use online communications to really mobilize people to connect with each other and do outstanding things in real life, and panels like that one remind me that there’s a lot of untapped potential,  I want to be a part of it all.

The Web In Higher Education panel was PACKED. I was shocked at how well higher ed was represented here., in this standing room only crowd. It was, as co-presented Dylan Wilbanks noted, a “dour looking crowd.” Lots of frustration, staff vs. administration vs. faculty, it’s complicated and frought with politics, and lots of people seemed to need to get stuff off of their chest.

Wilbanks said that “higher ed web combines the worst part of startups with the worst parts of large corporations: limited resources + tons of bureaucracy.” Putting it that way, it made me want to throw myself out of a window.

He also noted that women in technology tend to be underrepresented in every industry -EXCEPT higher education. So is higher ed the pink ghetto of technology? Is it one of the few places where a female may be able to advance their careers? We didn’t actually have that discussion in the panel, but it’s worth thinking about. Ultimately, though, I met a lot of wildly creative people at the higher ed web panel and meetup later that day. Together there’s a metric ton of great ideas and potential innovation. Dour though the crowd seemed, no one was lacking in passion when talking about their jobs. That gives me hope.

I pretty much covered a lot of Day 4 in my post yesterday. The one panel that stood out was Engagement 1.0: Understanding the History of Fan Interactivity featuring one of my academic heroes, Henry Jenkins.Nothing new was said if you’ve ever read any of Jenkins’ work, particularly Textual Poachers, his groundbreaking look at fan culture, but as with the racism panel, I think it opened up the dialogue to some folks who may not be aware of this subculture. And since so much of online media these days about niche rather than broad audiences, it’s important, I think, to understand the role that fan culture has played in really shaping the “social web” we see today. There were a few marketers in the audience who essentially asked how/if any of this information can be leveraged on a marketing level. basically everyone on the panel said the same thing. “yes, if you actually listen to your fans rather than telling them what you think they should hear.”

Jenkins used Star Trek as an example of a media company that destroyed it own fanbase by trying to police fan activity (trying to shut down fan run clubs and fan made movies) while at the same time trying to force new Star Trek spinoffs down fans throats. The lesson: fans know what they value from the experience, so listen to them and learn from it.

I’ve got one more day here, ending (for me) with a talk by another one of my gurus, Chris “The Long Tail” Anderson of Wired. I am winding down from the SXSW Interactive experience, excited and frustrated about the future, but ultimately still psyched by its possibility. I feel like we are all learning from each other here, as we all fumble in the dark toward whatever future online media brings our way. But the fun is in the process,  I think, and as long as that is the case, SXSWi will continue to blow minds each year.

One more day to go!

Some SXSW-inspired thoughts about online communities, affinity, and the rules of engagement.

I am starting to get a bit overwhelmed by all the SXSW talk. But much of the palpable tension regarding social media and corporate interaction I’ve been able to crystallize and articulate in a way that may actually be useful; at least for me.

It was best explained in the “Make Yourself More Interesting” panel on day one: the tension between developing a transactional interaction with users versus a relationship building interaction in their social media initiatives. I think the real tension comes from corporations/organizations trying to force  their online engagement into a transactional interaction while in the process of  relationship-building.

It rings false; consumers know it, so they leave and create relationships on their own.

The fact is, we don’t need companies to create communities for us to interact online. We can do it on our own. We do it better, and we have more fun in the process. Companies need us more than we need them, so the onus is on companies to give us a reason to interact with them online. Whether it’s through interesting content, or discussion, or free stuff. (Never underestimate the power of free stuff. It was my big reason for going to the Google party last night.) But with “social media marketing,” companies assume that affinity alone is the going to be the draw to a Facebook page, Twitter feed, whatever.

I think people get involved in online communities for three reasons:

1.) to interact/communicate with like minded people

2.) to feel more connected to the source of their affinity (product/celebrity/cause)

3.) to get information that they can’t get anywhere else about the source of their affinity

In theory, a company should be able to achieve the last two things better than any fan could, but often they don’t.

Mostly because companies are so focused on the end-game (buy our product! give us money!) they don’t spend enough time really doing the first thing on my list, interacting and communicating with the community they are trying to build. They are too eager to exploit the community interaction before it’s even had time to build.

That’s why bottom-up, fan-based communities tend to grow and mobilize more effectively, the rules of engagement are different, people want to connect with each other; the end game is the connection, not the transaction.

The ROI (if you really want to define one)  is a community of like minded people who share information  and resources freely, so when the time comes (if it ever does) to mobilize that community or to get them to do something (like pay for something), all you really have to do is ask, if you even have to do that at all. Think Obama, or read my Nine Inch Nails post from a couple of weeks back for an example. No really, READ IT.

If companies /organizations want to do this (and honestly, I think very few of them can do it successfully) they will have to do a few things:

1.) Be more open. In real life (hopefully) your friends are diverse and far from “ideal”. Same goes for social media.

2.) Shut up and listen to your fans. Really, that’s it. SHUT UP. and LISTEN to us.

3.) Don’t freak out so much about the right thing to say, talk to people like it’s a conversation, not a press release. Admit when you screw up, when you are mad, be random, like a real person would. It’s OK. we will love you more for it.

4.) Be patient. Just because a whole slew of people don’t love you immediately doesn’t mean they won’t ever love you. Like real-life, the best relationships take time to build.

5.) Accept when we get mad at you, and know that if we love you enough, we’ll be back.

That’s it for now.