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SXSW is the 21st-century equivalent of a medieval market town, just with more horseshit. It’s an orgy of capitalism, an unrestrained, unselfconscious celebration of sales, marketing, branding, and “gamification.” Even the dumbest of memes have been recruited in the service of sales. Grumpy Cat is here, and she wants you to buy Friskies. For a gathering so driven by the pursuit of money, the question of who has it—and who doesn’t—goes almost completely unmentioned. There are talks about social and civil rights issues—feminism, race, female genital cutting—but words like “inequality” literally aren’t on the schedule. (A search for “taxes” returns a session that mentions how awesome it would be to have a robot who could do them.) Maybe that’s because everyone knows that almost everyone here coughed up several hundreds of dollars for a conference pass, and hundreds more for lodging. Conversations about inequality are awkward. Conversations about futurism, tech triumphalism, entrepreneurship, and the “intersections” thereof reign supreme. There’s almost no talk of religion, electoral politics, or labor unions—anything that smacks of old-school collective action. This is a place of unfettered technological optimism, where coders and entrepreneurs can solve any societal problem. SXSW has a politics, but it’s one that mirrors the technolibertarianism of the Reddit generation: civil liberties (read: free speech, Larry Lessig, and Aaron Swartz), entrepreneurship, and individualism.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect a conference that’s essentially a glorified trade show to concern itself with a broader sort of politics. But SXSW is a big deal: Hundreds of media outlets cover it, and its overall tone sends a message to attendees and the broader culture.

Nick Bauman, South Buy Southwest: At America’s Biggest Tech Conference, It’s All About the Sell

The hucksters have taken over. SxSW has jumped the shark: the shark has a giant Coca-Cola logo on it, and Jump The Sharktm is an app where you can superimpose your friends’ faces on Fonzie jumping the shark.

How To Make Panels Not Suck

Panel session at conferences are very uneven, and often they suck. Why? The primary blame can be laid at the feet of the moderators, who often don’t do enough to make the panels great. Charlie O’Donnell offers details in a great post:

Charlie O’Donnell,  Why do panels suck and how can we make them better?

I spoke on a SXSW panel in 2011 that didn’t suck.  I know it didn’t suck because the first person to ask a question told us that our panel was worth the whole price of admission to the conference and we got the same sentiment echoed on Twitter.  The panel included myself, Emily Hickey, Ben Lerer, and Christine Herron and we spoke about startup mistakes.

The panel didn’t suck because it was engineered not to suck.  Here are a few things we did:

  1. First and foremost, the panelists were carefully chosen.  They aren’t the biggest VCs and entrepreneurs, but they’re some of the most thoughtful ones.  Some of the most successful people simply haven’t tought much about why they got where they are—and even if they have, they’re just wrong about it because they’ve only scratched the surface.  These panelists have seen both success and failure, and they’ve seen it from multiple perspectives—and on top of that, because I knew them well, I knew they’d be able to share those stories.  Not everyone is a good storyteller, so choose carefully.
  2. The moderator had a sense of the story that should come out of the panel.  I knew what I wanted to cover and what I wanted the audience to leave with.  Panels are, or at least should be, stories, and a story is supposed to leave you with something.  You should remember them because they make sense in a structure.  Too many moderators pick something broad like “The Future of the Present” and ask vague questions like, “So what happens after now?”  You’ll never get a tight story that people can leave with if that’s what you do.  People either need to leave with a specific story or a sense of “If I believe x, this will happen, if I believe y, this will happen.”  Moderating is hard and not everyone can do it.  Respect the craft.
  3. The questions were discussed among the panel ahead of time.  We vetted a bunch of topics and decided on the questions that would output the best answers.  That also gave the panelists time to think about their answers.  In fact, they were given a specific format by which they should structure their responses—to think about the tweets that we wanted to see before further explaining.  So, when the question was “How can you tell what makes a good hire?”  Someone would say a one line, tweetable, comment-worthy sentence as an answer before diving in further.
  4. Not everyone answered every question.  Don’t you hate when they go through everyone in order and the last two panelsts basically say, “Yeah, what she said…” but they still take 5 minutes to say that.  Some of the questions simply aren’t relevent to everyone.  With our panel, each person was asked to answer only 2-3 of the questions, so the answers bounced around the four of us and no more than two people addressed any given question—unless they really had something ridiculously awesome to say.
  5. The panel talked amongst themselves.  We disagreed on a few things, asked questions of each other.  It was like we were real humans sitting next to each other discussing a topic.  Amazing.

I think Charlie’s hit it on the head, but let me add a few thoughts.

Interviews are underutilized at conferences. In many cases, people who really don’t present well — despite having great ideas or being quite accomplished — are great when interviewed. Small panels — a moderator and two panelists, for example — can be great, especially when handled like a parallel interview by the moderator.

And panels should have no more than one person for every ten minutes: 50 minutes = four panelists max and one moderator, for example. That means in today’s fast twitch conferences, a 30 minute panel would/should/could have only two panelists and one moderator.

Last summer, I led a Future Of Work seminar series in five cities, and although we were allotting 45 minutes, I held the panelists to two in all cases but one, and that worked well. The time I had three panelists was a bit cramped, in comparison.

An Essay on the New Aesthetic - Bruce Sterling via →

Bruce Sterling sat in on a SxSW panel on The New Aesthetic, and has a lot of observations:

Bruce Sterling via

I must try to explain the New Aesthetic to a wondering mankind. Everybody who attempts this seems to hope and feel that the New Aesthetic must be a private solution to their own personal creative problems. Well, I myself don’t believe that. As a creative who mostly types a lot of words in a row, I have some other personal creative problems. I do think the New Aesthetic offers solutions to some of London’s modern problems. That would be a big deal in itself.

The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”

The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.

He goes on to say that The New Aesthetic is telling the truth, is culturally agnostic, is comprehensible, is deep, is contemporary, is temporal, requires close attention, is constructive, and is generational. But The New Aesthetic is also a

gaudy, network-assembled heap. It’s made of digitized jackstraws that were swept up by a generational sensibility. The products of a “collective intelligence” rarely make much coherent sense.

It was grand work to find and assemble this New Aesthetic wunderkammer, but a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview. Look at all of them: Information visualization. Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s.

Sterling characterizes this as an avante garde movement taking shape in a postmodernist context where it was supposed to be impossible to have an avante garde. But we have left the postmodern behind — a reality that Sterling doesn’t touch on. We are in the time of postfuturism, where all our plans, and dreams of the future, never reached. We’ve slipped under the barbed wire and surveillance cameras of post modernism, and into a time of New Aesthetics.

Sterling pins The New Aesthetic in time by contrasting it with post-modernism, surrealism, situationalism, futurism. It’s just another ism, waiting to be forgotten after stirring things up a little, and then becoming just another page in Wikipedia. He says it could and should reach out more to the straits, it should have wider horizons, be more attuned to the impact it might have on others.

It feels like Sterling wants this new, inchoate, and bottom-up networked effort to be more self-aware, more finished, more graspable.

But me, I like the mess and uncertainty, the piles of debris, and the fractured, jigsaw-puzzle metaphysics lurking in there.

I’ve seen SXSW people go by for a generation now, and there’s something different about them, and the most obvious thing about them is the way they dress. It actually indicates something deeper. There’s something semiotic, Gibsonian about people dressing better than musicians. When you showed up at SXSW X years ago, you were meeting guys in [t-shirts, jeans]… they’re still here, but mostly that’s the way your uncle looks now. Now they look put together — not like rich person, not like, ‘ook at my sable fur,’ but like new shoelaces, done hair — they look pretty nice. They’re trying to live up to their products and services, which [didn’t look nice] 20 years ago… but you [interactive people] are not anywhere near the film people — you haven’t yet eaten their industry totally the way you did with music some time ago… But there’s one thing that bothers me. Although SXSW people do look chic, it’s a rather retro look. They don’t actually look very futuristic. I would suggest, when you come back next year… come back in robotvision glitchcore. Man, you would rule the physical universe. It would be like a silent coup, people wouldn’t know what to make of it. And it would outdo the film people.


I had a few moments at SxSW where I had to plug in my phone in a coffee shop or the back of a hotel ballroom because little provision is made for our energy consumption needs at most conferences, and certainly not at SxSW. In one case, I was several hundred feet from a friend doing a talk, so I could barely hear, because I needed to stay on line to try to connect with other friends.

But the deeper truth is that we are suffering the Spider’s Brain dilemma. A spider’s brain encircles its esophagus, and as the brain has evolved in size, spiders have progressive moved from solid food to drinking the fluid remnants of their prey after it is partially digested by injected digestive agents. So they have reached a limit — at least without evolving a very different shape for their exoskelton.

We are reaching the limits of power on mobile devices, especially if we are going to be using more apps that self-synchronize with the outside world, or run in the background, and also because 4G wireless will require more power.

Power, parislemon

My single biggest takeaway from SXSW was all the talk about battery life. Every single person. All the time. People changing plans because they needed to recharge their phones. People walking around with chargers. People who were chargers. Mophies galore. People uninstalling apps that would drain power. People putting phones into airplane mode in areas of weak signal. People borrowing other phones so they didn’t have to waste the power on their phone.

Power. Power. Power.

This talk is nothing new of course, but it’s ramping up. As we transition into an LTE world, it’s going to be more and more of an issue, as Farhad Manjoo points out today. One of the most impressive things about the new iPad is the fact that it maintains the 9 to 10 hour battery life even with the addition of LTE. The next question is if they can do that with the iPhone as well. We’ll see. It’s gonna need a bigger battery.


Manjoo is right that unlike the rest of the technology we use everyday, battery technology hasn’t evolved all that much over the past few decades. It’s constantly being refined and perfected, but it’s still largely the same. Want more battery life? Get a bigger battery.

If someone can truly disrupt this space, it will act as a lubricant that accelerates our already amazing pace of technological transformation. 

Maybe wireless power sources that constantly charge and re-charge devices is the ultimate answer. But it just seems like battery technology is really ripe for disruption.

I agree. But with the proviso that the solution might come from a breakthrough in chips that might require significantly less power. Changing either side of the equation — or both — is the real opportunity.

IBM @ SXSWi 2012: Interview with Stowe Boyd (by IBMSocialBiz)

We talked about Cluetrain, the social revolution online, work media tools, the impact on media companies, the changing way we read, and my upcoming ebook: ‘The Business Of Social Business’.

SXSW Interactive is, in a way, one big conflicted mishmash of openness and exclusivity. In this context technology, both hardware and software, is about enabling communication for worldwide social networks and individuals alike. Share your location with 50 million others, but keep your password to yourself. There are the panels about privacy and anonymity, and there are ones about transparency and universality. There are parties hosted by companies eager for attention, where you can drop in, uninvited and rolling 10 deep — and those other parties that you’re probably not getting into, no matter what the affiliation dangling from your neck may say. There are the BBQ joints within walking distance for any curious and hungry attendee, and there are those taco spots on the outskirts of Austin, inaccessible to anyone without a car and a local friend willing to share these secret gems. As it turns out, there is pretty decent free Wi-Fi around the convention center that is open to all. But then there is that locked, much better Wi-Fi presumably available to whomever SXSW deems a VIP. At the end of the day, everybody is welcome to sit, stand, listen, eat and drink, talk or dance at least somewhere within the city limits. A small subset were able to do some or all of these things with a much more curated, if you will, pool of attendees. — Andrew Kueneman

DNA Ownership And Genetic Privacy

Scott Fahrenkrug proposes that we create a global coop, to pool our DNA, and to keep it out of the hands of corporations that seek to use it without our involvement and without any recompense. There have been several court cases that have established that DNA in cells is not owned by those that produced them.

SXSW 2012 - The connected company: an inventory of the possible

I am happy to say that the SxSWi panel that Dave Gray asked me to join is available for your reveiw (and vote!) on the SxSW PanelPicker here.

I think the panel is phenomenal. I’ve known Dave only a few years, but he is a big picture thinker, now at Dachis but the founder of XPLANE, the visual thinking company. Thomas is an old dear friend, the man who concocted ‘folksonomy’. I’ve known JP Rangaswami for at least seven years, since a great Supernova panel session. He’s now the chief scientist at The conversation I had in the trade show at Enterprise 2.0 this summer was the high point of the conference for me. And it also led to me speaking at the Social Intranet Summit in September, that Gordon is organizing. And then there’s me. If you are reading this you probably know about me.

Event Interactive 2012 

Format Panel

Organizer Dave Gray Dachis Group


  1. Thomas Vander Wal InfoCloud Solutions
  2. Gordon Ross ThoughtFarmer
  3. Stowe Boyd Stowe Boyd
  4. JP Ragaswami


French historian Fernand Braudel once said that a great city is an inventory of the possible. For thousands of years, cities have perfected the art of enabling complex social interactions at scale. A city is a social network, and so is a company. But there is a difference. As companies grow in size and complexity, they become less productive per capita. But as cities grow, they become more productive, by almost every measure. Why? It’s getting more and more difficult for companies to handle complexity: increasing customer demands for more customization, more convenience, lower costs and faster innovation. At some point the machine breaks down and companies just can’t handle it. The 21st-century company will have the same kinds of dense, dynamic, and complex properties of well-designed cities: fast pace, high energy, rapid innovation and high productivity. And some companies are doing this today. In our panel we will talk about who those companies are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it works. We will show you how you can use the same principles to organize your company for a complex, networked, rapidly-changing global marketplace.

Questions Answered

  1. What can companies learn from successful cities?
  2. How can companies be more successful by operating as social networks?
  3. What is a connected company?
  4. What are some examples of successful connected companies?
  5. What makes these companies successful?

Level Intermediate

Supporting Material

The Connected Company is an upcoming book from O’Reilly by Dave Gray, with Thomas Vander Wal. The connected company blog can be found at There is also an upcoming book by Stowe Boyd entitled “A city not a machine; a liquid not a solid.”

Correction: the work is entitled ‘A Liquid, Not A Solid: A City, Not A Machine’, but I may have said the opposite. I was experimenting for a few weeks, going back and forth. The shorthand for the book is ‘Liquid City’.

(You’ll see more about the book after I get back from the beach in a few weeks.)

His blog can be found at Gordon Ross blogs at Thomas Vander Wal blogs at

Category Social Media / Social Networks

Tags enterprise 2.0, social business, Social Networks

(via underpaidgenius)

SXSW 2011: Going corporate, selling out? - Elisabeth Long →

Has SxSWi jumped the shark?

Josh Williams, CEO and Co-Founder of Gowalla, a social travel guide that launched at the conference in 2009, has been going to SXSW Interactive since 2002, when it was 800 people in one ballroom. He’s agnostic on the presence of big brands in Austin, but he does think they change the conference’s tone. “The meaningful conversations that you used to have in the conference center get pushed to the side,” Williams says. When Gowalla launched at the conference in 2009, “you could still launch a new product here, you knew people who could help you rise above the noise.” But Williams thinks those days are over - there may be marketing opportunities for small companies, but the conference is too saturated for successful product launches by small startups.

With 19K official attendees, and an unknown number of camp followers, ‘South By’ has inexorably morphed away from what it was: a small collegial get together of the web vanguard.

I am hoping that SxSWi can transition from a more-or-less traditional web conference into something productive and interesting, like a small town growing into a more complex city,  which means it will be intrinsically messier, noisier, and more chaotic.

However, cities have different neighborhoods, different social scenes, and a variety of districts where vastly different things are going on. Perhaps the answer for SxSWi is to break the conference into a collection of small conferences, just as SxSW is composed of music, film, and interactive already?

Update: 8:50am 1 April 2011 — via Alex Williams:

digiphile: @stoweboyd I can’t speak to past years, but I found much to like at SXSWi 2011.

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