How to Fix SXSW

Too crowded. Too self-important. Too over-scheduled. Too full of douchebags. No, it’s not Washington D.C. It’s Austin during SXSW.

I’m still trying to right my equilibrium from five days of… well, I’m not exactly sure what this was. Networking? In spades. Drinking? Far too much. Panels? When I could adequately navigate the schedule, yes. Throw in nightmarish traffic and frantic use of location-based services and you’ve got the perfect SXSW Interactive cocktail. Pun intended.

Before I go any further, I want to make a key point. The SXSWi producers, Hugh Forrest and Shawn O’Keefe are wonderfully nice and generous people who work their asses off to make SXSWi the best it can possibly be. Considering how renowned the conference is – and how many real and imagined celebrities attend it – Hugh and Shawn could easily be self-important jerks. And they’re not. They want nothing more than for SXSWi to be a conference *of* the people, with as much input and involvement by its attendees as is humanly possible.

I mention this because I spent the last 8 years intimately involved in the production of another tech conference, DEMO, and it’s really hard work. Orchestrating and synchronizing the million tiny little pieces of a conference takes patience, experience, at least one iron hand, and an army of dedicated and capable staffers. And DEMO only corrals about 7-800 attendees; I can’t fathom tackling a beast like SXSW. So I offer the ensuing critiques, extremely mindful of how easy it is to judge from afar.

How to Fix SXSWi

-Be more selective. With panels. There is such a thing as too much choice. When attendees have to choose between twenty-four panels scheduled at one time, something needs fixing. (Note that those 24 are only Interactive panels and don’t include any Film sessions.) Make the selection process harder. Make being a panelist at SXSWi a true honor, not just another face in the crowd. Fewer panels will also ensure a good audience for each session. Flying in from Silicon Valley to speak to an audience of 20 people – especially in this economy – isn’t a smart business expense.

-Be more selective. With moderators. Oh fine, I’m referring to Umar Haque’s conversation with Evan Williams. But if we learned nothing else from the Sarah Lacey incident, it’s that the South By audience wants an interesting, charged conversation, not pablum they can read on any company FAQ. In the case of keynote interviews, the casting of the questioner is almost more important than the subject.

-Be more selective. With parties. This is a little trickier, as the conference tried to crack down on unofficial parties a few years back and got dinged for it. But they need to make things easier on attendees. Jules Pieri, CEO of one of the Accelerator companies, Daily Grommet, said something very amusing and spot-on to me: “It’s like the worst part of high school – you always feel like you’re in the wrong place.” Personally speaking, I was too tired at the end of each day to navigate another schedule. Where should I go and at what time? And with who? And for how long? Faced with too many choices, the average brain simply shuts down. Perhaps a good compromise would be to set a limit on how many parties can occur in one night; then let the various hosts fight it out among themselves. Another thought is to segment them more. I enjoyed the Porter Novelli/Nokia happy hour each night because it involved some of my known network. And the Data Cluster Meetup, as odd as that may sound, was a huge success – lots of like-minded people eating, drinking, and sticking around for a while.

-Be more selective. With sponsors. Totally agree with Michelle Greer (linked above). I felt assaulted by brands this year. Whether it was the Sobe girls or the Bing-wrapped cars or the bizarre pushing of free bacon at 4th and Trinity, it all felt dangerously close to a carnival midway. The corporations have discovered SXSW. And nothing good can come of it.

-Feed me. If attendees wanted to make all those damn panels, they had to eat in the convention center. Leaving its environs for a restaurant guarantees that you’ll miss two hours of programming, at least. And the choice of food in the ACC was barbecue or cold sandwiches. For five days. Here’s a thought – take all those brands that are dying to reach us and make them sell us food. I would’ve paid a high price for a variety of foods to choose from. Silly point? Only if you’ve never attended any sort of conference. Well-fed attendees are happy attendees. Period.

I love Austin so much I uprooted my whole family to live here. And Austin is at the core of SXSW; this conference really couldn’t happen anywhere else. But it felt a lot closer to Las Vegas this year. And I don’t want to live in Vegas.

The key, I think, to restoring SXSW to its original focus lies in its host city. In general, Austin is a big town that acts like a small community. It’s laid-back but not so much that it loses focus. It eschews the material for the cerebral, the fly-by-night for the sincere. All of those characteristics, along with killer content and a festive atmosphere, are what draw people to SXSW in the first place. I hope it can continue to do so in the years to come.

Panels to watch at SXSW

This post originally appeared in Austin Startup.

If you’ve been to SXSW before, you’re well aware of the glut of panels and parties. There is simply too much to do and too many places to be at once. The conference tries to alleviate the hectic nature with some pre-planning, offering the ability to build your own schedule on their website. But the technology is clunky and laborious; I know my eyes started to glaze over pretty quickly. So in the interest of preserving your sight and sanity, I thought I’d share some panels that jumped out at me.

Friday, March 12

2pm – If you’re an out-of-towner, check out Why Austin is the Killer App. Bijoy Goswami gave an abbreviated version of this talk at Ignite Austin and it’s one of the best encapsulations of the Austin tech scene that I’ve heard yet. It’s the perfect way to kick off your SXSW adventure.

3:30pm brings our first where-to-go-now decision (it won’t be the last) with three strong prospects
-Do Cool Kids Leave When the Suits Arrive? – Would love to see revenue/business models re-enter the social media conversation. We’re not earning money with our smiles.
-How Your Brand Can Succeed in the New Web – From a man who knows, Brian Solis
-Is Technology Weakening Interpersonal Relationships? – One of my favorite ATX tech women is on the panel, Jenn Deering Davis; I know she’ll have great insights. And this is a potentially volatile topic.

9pm – If you have a Gold or Platinum pass, join me at the premiere of the Bill Hicks documentary, ‘American.’ And if you don’t know who Bill Hicks is, I can’t help you.

Saturday, March 13

This is likely the least hungover you’ll be during your time in Austin, so take advantage of it with a 9:30am panel, Innovation Overseas: The European Startup Environment. Marten Mickos is sure to provide some interesting perspective

2pmOpening Keynote: Danah Boyd. Happy to see a woman kicking things off in the keynote presentations. And interested to hear her insights on being publicly private in social networks. Or privately public.

3:30pm – Another good problem to have – Media Armageddon or Ze Frank? The juxtaposition is glaring: old media or web pioneer? I may hop between the two.

5pmHow To Spark a Movement in the 21st Century, from the folks at Meetup. Could be really thought provoking. If it isn’t, you’ll find me at one of the happy hours.

Sunday, March 14

Things look a little uglier this morning. You’re feeling the multiple happy hours from yesterday. And there’s a gauntlet of panels to face today. Rub some dirt on it, as my father used to say, and get back in the game.

9:30am – Get those synapses firing with some heady fodder: Exploiting Chaos or Story.Next with Dr. Sanjay Gupta (he’s famous!). The Adobe Sunday Brunch is also at this time, so you can refuel with breakfast tacos as needed.

Four excellent sessions at 11am:
-2009 Iran Election will hopefully settle an ongoing argument I’m having about social media’s true impact on real-world events
-Monkeys with Internet Access because I’ve been wanting to hear Clay Shirky.
-Online News of Tomorrow because I like Jeff Jarvis
-Yes Mr. Lessig, We Can Change Politics (11:20am) because I’m a political nerd

12:30pm – Though it’s clearly on the film track, A Conversation with Michel Gondry is listed in Interactive events. One of the most innovative and creative minds working today – a don’t miss.

3:30pm – *Cue self-serving segment* Beyond Algorithms: Search and the Semantic Web. Reasons to attend: I’m on the panel and have a history of arguing with Barak Berkowitz. And I’m clearly the least accomplished person in attendance. Check out the bios of my fellow panelists.

6pm – Get your geek on at the Data Cluster Meetup before you head out into the night. Sponsored by Rackspace, Infochimps, Wolfram Alpha, and Factual.

This is the best party night of the bunch, so go forth and enjoy. Mashable, PBS, Guy Kawasaki, Gowalla, Microsoft – hope you trained your liver last night.

Monday, March 15

I won’t lie to you – this morning is going to hurt. I’ll leave a bottle of Excedrin and a bag of breakfast tacos for you by the t-shirt stand downstairs.

If you can manage a 10am, go easy on yourself and check out The Art of Eating In. But if that’s too early, go to Making Content Relevant To Me at 11am.

Gary Vaynerchuk is talking at 12:30pm. I have no idea about what but it’s sure to interesting.

Then Ev Williams has the keynote slot at 2pm. Let’s gang up on him and force him to answer revenue questions.

3:30pm brings our last where-to-go-now conundrum (Thank God – I’m getting weary)
-‘Seed Combinators’, with favorite local Josh Baer
-AI 2010 because I’m a sucker for robots
-My Three-Year Old is My Usability Expert, because this seems a fascinating topic

Did I say Sunday was the best party night? It might actually be Monday. Wired, Rackspace, TechKaraoke, GeekyBeach, Gowalla – even New Orleans is throwing a party tonight.

Tuesday, March 16

Last day! It’s a short one too so hang in there.

11amThe Chaos Scenario. Because I’ll listen to pretty much any NPR contributor. And because we’ll all be intimately familiar with the concept of chaos by this point.

2pmDaniel Ek of Spotify gives the last Interactive keynote, in an interview with Eliot Van Buskirk.

There’s a closing party at 8pm. And then we all meander back into the real world, hopefully sharper, wiser, and only slight worn down at the edges.

Check This

**Update: Check out Mashable’s screenshots of the upcoming Foursquare app update for next week. Could possibly alter your vote.

MG Siegler posited last week that location apps are going to be the big bang at SXSW this year, achieving Twitter-like buzz level. This seems a pretty safe bet; as I’ve mentioned before, location apps are without a doubt the sector to watch in 2010.

As I was checking in this morning at Galaxy Cafe [sidenote: love this place. Please patronize them, Austin folk.], it occurred to me that the buzz-worthy question next week won’t be if you’re checking in, but how. Are you going Foursquare all the way, using their rumored shiny new update? Or will you stick local, checking in on Austin-based Gowalla? Or will you quicken your – and your friends’ – path to insanity by checking in on both?

I conducted a head-to-head of the services a while back and seemed to settle on Foursquare as my app of choice. But here am I still using Gowalla. I just can’t decide. Gowalla has a better – much better – UI. Foursquare has more of my friends signed up. Gowalla has items to collect, a feature that’s grown on me. Foursquare has the game as more of a centerpiece, an appeal to my competitive side. I could go on. But I won’t.

Why does this even matter? Because checking in at SXSW is going to be more important than normal. Attendees’ schedules are much more organic and evolving than at standard tech conferences. In short, one wanders where the day takes you. So word about a panel that’s turned feisty or a party that’s packed bring more people to the scene. This was achieved with Twitter in the past, a method that seems a little antiquated in the face of location apps. This year, not only will you need to know which parties to attend but which app to use to find out about those parties. Could SXSW crown a location app winner through sheer popularity this year?

Let’s see what the early buzz is. If you’re going to SXSW next week, which app will you use to check in?

[poll id="0001"]

The Vortex: Busy little bees

When The Vortex is ignored, it grows unwieldy. I had to write this just to clean out my link file.

-Buzz buzz buzz. Is this Google’s tacit apology for Wave? A knockoff of FriendFeed? Something I just can’t get excited about, no matter how hard I try? Call me naive, shortsighted or just plain dumb – I don’t get it. I cannot possibly fit one more stream into my day. And I rarely access Gmail in my browser. Plug it into my Facebook feed and then I could understand it a bit better. But how is it supposed to fit into my existing stream? No really, I’m asking – someone tell me!

**Update – They’re now being sued for it.

-I should start a regular column on the location apps market, as news is emerging almost constantly these days. While Foursquare’s traffic tripled in two months (that’s a hell of a stat), BusinessWeek declared it dead in the water. (Note to BizWeek: see ‘personalization of mobile experience’ for a hint.) My favorite though is the robbery meme that popped up yesterday, thanks to the launch of pleaserobme.com. I get the point they’re trying to make and yes, of course, we need to be cognizant about posting vacation notices to the public. But the cynic in me awaits the inevitable security solution the site’s creators are sure to pitch us.

-Just to prove to you I’m not a total grump, check out this advice on staying present in our bizarre new century. There’s some interesting stuff in here, like committing to ‘single-tasking’ and keeping fewer tabs open.

Apps on the Radar

-If you’ve been to SXSW before, you know what a corn maze it can become. There are 10,000 panels, sessions, and parties to navigate, not to mention all the unofficial parties. I’m already needing a nap, just typing that. But a super-slick iPhone app has come out that does everything short of passing out your business card. What would make it even better is actual times connected to each session. But hey, I’m a control freak.

-Appsaurus may be old news but I’ve just stumbled upon it. Seems just the cure for those of us with iPhoneAppItis. (Sorry).

-If you have young ‘uns, you’ll care about this app. If you don’t, keep movin’.

-I’m a bit perplexed that there’s an entire app genre devoted to pretend-you’re-cooking games. Then again, it may be fun. For, you know, the ladies.

The Vortex: Less is More

Were I to tag this week, it would look something like this: SXSW, Facebook redesign, Foursquare, Christopher Walken, not Christopher Walken, Rackspace, Rob Cordry. Allow me to explain…

News from the Social Media Vortex

SXSW occurred and a good time was had by all, especially Foursquare which seemed to win the “Twitter of 2009″ buzz award during the week. What’s Foursquare? It’s the new version of Dodgeball. Not familiar with Dodgeball? It’s a handy mobile stalking tool.

–The Facebook redesign occurred and is not receiving the warmest of receptions. In a polling application created on the site, 954,000 users so far give it a thumbs down, with 58,000 approving. Will the masses cry loud enough to be heard? I’m working on a longer blog post about this, so check The Guidewire later.

–Robert Scoble disappointed me by neglecting to mobilize his army, at least for the moment. Instead, he’s launching a new content community with partner Rackspace, called Building 43. I’m a little fuzzy about what the new site is exactly, as his explanation involved Creative Commons, cloud computing, interactive videos, and something about boats in a tide.

–My initial excitement over Christopher Walken on Twitter was quickly dashed. It’s apparently an “experiment” – and an old one at that – by Clusterflock.org. Dear Clusterflock: 1) Don’t toy with my complex Walken-related emotions and 2) Change your name. Immediately.

Apps on the Radar

–My good buddy Josh pointed me to Contxts.com, a why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-sooner technology. SMS business cards. Brilliant. Think of the trees, people, and sign up for this hugely simple service.

Tweet of the Week

–My new favorite Tweeter is Rob Corddry, who curses heavily and never fails to amuse.But his rant to his two-year old couldn’t match the sheer terror inspired by Jason Calacanis: “Just had lunch with the former head of the CIA. fascinating discussion about religion, nukes, the middle east, oil and electric cars.”

Where to start: How did faux-celebrity Calacanis wangle lunch with the former head of the CIA? Did he bring a hit list with him?  Can we get more details on the “nukes” part of this discussion? Will any of us ever sleep peacefully again? I need answers.

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Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Five years from now, we’ll look back on this and laugh. Or at least some of us will. Others are decidedly more cranky these days. But the great FriendFeed-Socialthing war will seem trivial compared to… whatever meme we’re obsessing over in five years. The funniest part of all this hubbub is that the CEOs of both companies don’t even view each other as competitors. After talking with both Matt Galligan at Socialthing and Bret Taylor from FriendFeed, it’s clear that the two companies are approaching a very real problem – information overload – in very different ways. In fact, it’s entirely possible for someone to use both services at the same time, with virtually no rips in the space-time continuum.

As Taylor noted, the end goals of the two companies are their key difference. FriendFeed is about content discovery and applying social solutions to the problem of information overload. Socialthing focuses more broadly on a user’s entire digital life, in an attempt to make sense of the myriad networks out there. FriendFeed is bringing the conversation in, while Socialthing is broadcasting it out. FriendFeed has morphed into a separate social network while Socialthing wants to help consolidate all the networks you’ve already built. FriendFeed, tomato; Socialthing, tomahto. Continue reading

A Smarter Way To Go Green

One more post tied to SXSW and then I’ll shutup about it until next year (maybe.) One of the buzzed-about companies, and Webby award nominees, was MakeMeSustainable, a site focused on educating people about reducing their environmental impact. There are all manner of sites and companies looking to capitalize on the green movement but, as CEO Ben Brown puts it, many of them have the philosophy, “Here’s your carbon footprint. Now go buy an offset.” If you watch this space at all, you know there isn’t currently a site that views consumers’ environmental impact dynamically, tracking their daily actions over time. In fact, as Ben and COO Dave Delcourt point out, the majority of innovation in this space is largely focused on industrial and corporate technologies. All good to be sure, but I’m surprised there hasn’t been more effort put toward employing social tools to enable mass consumers. Continue reading

Music for the Masses

I met with Songkick at SXSW, a Y Combinator startup that aims to bring live music to the masses. The London-based company is announcing some exciting new features next week (I call it “music semantics”) but for now, I’ll share what interests me about its current offerings.

CEO Ian Hogarth wants to “change the way people think about their Friday nights.” His reasoning is simple: when consumers want to see a movie, they do a quick check on Fandango or Moviefone and head out. Going to a concert just isn’t as easy. Even following the tour dates of mainstream artists is a headache, with listings and ticket sales scattered far and wide online. Songkick scrapes all those sites for you, grabbing venue and ticket info from major ticket hubs, as well as MySpace pages and music blogs. Users have a one-stop-shop for band listings, in addition to an instant price comparison list of competing vendors.

That’s all well and good for music lovers but what I really like about Songkick is its intent to appeal to the mass consumer. Through several innovative tools, the company wants to create more music lovers out of its audience. The Songkicker plug-in for iTunes, Winamp and Windows Media Player scans users’ music catalogs and lets them know of artists in their library playing nearby. Bandsense is a distributed ad platform that recommends area bands based on your IP address (check it out at www.missingtoof.com). And Battle of the Bands is a fun little app that combines MySpace data, blog mentions and Amazon sales to produce an Alexa-like ranking chart for bands.

Throughout our conversation, I kept attempting to bring Ian back to the technology; how recommendation and discovery are a hot market sector and that his algorithms could possibly be applied to other areas. But he would have none of it. Songkick isn’t interested in boasting about the brilliance of its technology. They’re singularly focused on using that technology to make live music more approachable to the general public. It’s a refreshing attitude to encounter in a startup and bodes well for the company’s future success. With most companies in tech today, considerable force is usually necessary to make them keep end-users top-of-mind. Songkick has been there from the start.

Becoming the Story: A Cautionary Tale

Earlier today, my business partner Mike Sigal and I had a robust discussion about Carla’s post on the Sarah Lacy kerfuffle at SXSW on Sunday. Neither defending nor attacking Lacy, Mike asked whether The Guidewire did a service to the community by entering the debate. “How,” he asked, “are we additive to the debate?”

It’s a fair question and I do think Carla made a key point:

It seems that the audience was misread at several junctures. In the end though, the only question that needs to be answered is whether Lacy did her job as a reporter and interviewer.

Whether you like or dislike Lacy’s style, whether you appreciate her body of work, whether you were in the room or not, one thing has become clear: Lacy became the story.

In fact, I’ve been hard pressed to find much coverage at all of comments made by Mark Zuckerberg during the hour-long keynote Q&A, so I went to YouTube to find video of the interview. Lacy talked about her visit to facebook, her previous discussions with Zuckerberg, her forthcoming book, her interview techniques, her indignation. . . herself.

In short, Lacy made the interview as much about her as it was about Zuckerberg. That, my friends, is an amateur mistake that a journalist of her position should not make.

But, oddly, it’s almost understandable. Continue reading

Mob Rule

I know, I know: you likely can’t take one more analysis of the Mark Zuckerberg/Sarah Lacy debacle. But as tempers have calmed and more thoughtful analysis beyond “she sucked” emerges, I must add my two cents. As someone who was sitting smack in the middle of the audience and experienced the vibe, I disagree with those who are now calling it a witch hunt and an overreaction by an unsympathetic audience. The packed-to-the-gills ballroom sat on their hands and kept their mouth shut for the majority of the Q&A. But as time ticked by and Lacy continued to cut off his answers, plug her upcoming book, and relate personal stories that weren’t of interest to the crowd (his profuse sweating in their first interview, for example), the murmuring and discomfort became palpable. Frankly, I was embarrassed for her. It was like watching a tanking Saturday Night Live sketch that has gone on far too long.

From what I know of Lacy, she’s a sharp reporter – BusinessWeek isn’t in the habit of hiring dimbullbs. But she was off her game in this interview and didn’t ask the questions this developer audience wanted to hear. The attendees unhappy with the interview weren’t in “the back of the room,” as TechCrunch surmises. They were everywhere and were of all shapes and sizes. Three people on all sides of me – none of which were developers – got up and left before the kerfuffle kicked in, uncomfortable and fed up with a highly anticipated keynote that went south.

We can all agree that Zuckerberg is a tough interview. But the audience wasn’t displeased with the answers he was giving; they were displeased with Lacy’s unprofessional and weirdly personal interview style. Jeff Jarvis hit the nail on the head; she should’ve researched her audience more. And Brian Solis (linked above) makes a good point that SXSW organizers should take part of the blame. It seems that the audience was misread at several junctures. In the end though, the only question that needs to be answered is whether Lacy did her job as a reporter and interviewer. Turning an entire ballroom of excited attendees into a torch-wielding mob is an answer in itself.