South by Southwest Interactive 2011

Back in 2006, Julie made the trek to Austin for South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) because she was organizing a panel. This year, I finally got a chance to go. In recent years, I’ve been to a lot of conferences. Many of them have been O’Reilly conferences, and the rest have been conferences organized by various open source communities. What almost all of them have in common is that they are developer centric. What is intriguing about SXSWi, to use John Gruber’s words, is that it is a conference where both developers and designers are welcome (As are a whole pile of people working in the social media space). One of the reasons that I decided to go this year was to try to get some perspective from a different population of people.   

SXSWi is a very large conference with this year’s attendance at around 14000 people. There are conferences which are bigger (Oracle OpenWorld, JavaOne in its heyday, or ComicCon San Diego), but not many. If you mix in the Film conference, which runs at the same time, you have a lot of people in Austin. Any way you slice it, it’s a huge conference. According to “old-timers” that I spoke to, the scale is new, and I would say it’s the source of almost all of the problems that I had with the conference.

Talks

Common wisdom in recent years is that SXSWi is more about the networking than the panel / talk content. I did find a number of interesting talks.

I’ve been loosely aware of Jane McGonigal’s work on games for quite some time, but I’ve never actually been able to hear her speak until now. Gamification is a big topic in some circles right now. I think that Jane’s approach to gaming is deeper and has much longer term impact than just incorporating some of the types of game mechanics that are currently in vogue. I also really appreciated the scientific evidence that she presented about games. I’m looking forward to reading her book “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”.

I had no idea who Felicia Day was when I got to SXSWi. Like all conferences, I did my real planning for each day of SXSWi the night before, doing the usual research on speakers that I was unfamiliar with. Felicia’s story resonated with me because she was homeschooled (like my daughters), went on to be very successful academically and then went into the entertainment business. She is among the leaders in bringing original video content to the internet instead of going through the traditional channels of broadcast television or movie studios. It’s a path that seems more and more likely to widen (witness Netflix’s licensing of “House of Cards”, or Google’s acquisition of Next New Networks). I learned all of that before I sat in the keynote. By the time that I left the keynote, I found myself charmed by her humility and down to earthness, and impressed by the way that she has built a real relationship with her fans in such a way that she can rally them for support when needed.

For the last year or so I’ve been seeing reviews for “The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion” by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. It sounded like the authors have found an interesting structuring for some of the changes that I’ve observed by being in the middle of open source software, blogging, and so forth. I still haven’t gotten around to reading that book (the stack is tall – well actually, the directory on the iPad is full), but I was glad for the chance to hear John Hagel talk about shaping strategies, his theory on how to make big changes by leveraging the resources of an entire market or ecosystem rather than taking on all the risk in a solo fashion. His talk was on the last day of the conference, and I was wiped out by then, so I need a refresher and some additional think time on his ideas.

Much to my surprise, there were a number of really interesting talks on the algorithmic side of Data Science/Big Data. Many of these talks were banished to the AT&T Conference center at UT Austin, which was really far from the Austin Convention Center and very inconvenient to get to. I wasn’t able to make it to many of these talks due to this – having venues so far away – the AT&T Center, the Sheraton, and the Hyatt – pretty much dooms the talks that get assigned to those venues. It’s not a total loss, since these days it’s pretty easy to find the speakers of the talks and contact them for more information. But that’s a much higher friction effort than going to their talk, having a chance to talk to them afterwards or over dinner, and going from there. I did really enjoy the talk Machines Trading Stocks on News. I am not a financial services guy, and there was no algorithmic heavy lifting on display, but the talk still provided a really interesting look at the issues around analyzing semistructured data and then acting on it. As usual, the financial guys are quietly doing some seriously sophisticated stuff, while the internet startup guys get all the attention. In a related vein, I also went to How to Personalize Without Being Creepy which had a good discussion of the state of the art of integrating personalization into products. There was not statistical machine learning on display, but the product issues around personalization are at least as important as the particulars of personalization technology.

One of the nice things about having such a huge conference is that you get some talks from interesting vectors. Our middle daughter has decided that she wants to go to Mars when she grows up. Now it’s quite some time between now and then, but just in case, I stopped into the talk on Participatory Space Exploration and collected a bunch of references that she can go chase. I was also able to chat with the folks from NASA afterwards and pick up some good age appropriate pointers.

There were some interesting sounding talks that I wasn’t able to get into because the rooms were full. And as I’ve mentioned there were also some talks that I wasn’ t able to go to because they were located too far away. As a first time SXSWi attendee but a veteran tech conference attendee and speaker, I’d say that SXSWi is groaning under its own scale at this point. It’s affecting the talks, the “evening track” and pretty much everything else. This is definitely a case of bigger is not better.

Party Scene

I am used to conferences with an active “evening track”, and of course, this includes parties. SXSWi is like no other event that I’ve been to. The sheer number of parties, both public and private is staggering. I’ve never had to wait in line to get into parties before, and there are very few VIP lists, whereas at SXSWi both lines and VIP lists seem to be the order of the day. Part of that is due to the scale, and I’m sure that part of that is SXSW’s reputation as a party or euphemistically, networking, conference. The other issue that I had with the parties is that the atmosphere at many of them just wasn’t conducive to meeting people. I went to several parties where the music was so loud that my ears were ringing within a short time. It’s great that there was good music (a benefit of SXSW), and lots of free sponsor alcohol, but that isn’t really my style.

Despite all that, I did have some good party experiences. I accidentally/serendipitously met a group of folks who are responsible for social media presences at big brands in the entertainment sector, so I got some good insight in to the kind of problems that they face and the back channel on business arrangements with some of the bigger social networks. I definitely got some serious schooling on how to use Foursquare. At another party, I got ground’s eye view on what parts of Microsoft’s Azure PaaS offering is real, and how much is not. I’m not planning to be an Azure user any time soon, but it’s always nice to know what is hype and what is reality. I also really enjoyed the ARM party. It was a great chance to see what people are doing with ARM processors – these days. This video that I saw at the TI table made me realize just how close we are to seeing some pretty cool stuff. Nikon USA and Vimeo sponsored a fun party at an abandoned power plant. The music was really loud, but the light was cool and I made some decent pictures.

Other activities

There are activities of all kinds going on during SXSW. I wasn’t able to do a lot of them because they conflicted with sessions, but I was able to go on a pair of photowalks, which was kind of fun. The photowalk with Trey Ratcliff was pretty fun. As usual, scale was an issue, because we pretty much clogged up streets and venues wherever we went. I’ve started to put some of those photos up on Flickr, but I decided to finish this post rather than finish the post production on the pictures.

App Round Up

One of the things that makes SXSWi is that you have a large group of people who are willing to try a new technology or application. It’s conventional wisdom that SXSWi provided launching pads for Twitter and Foursquare, so now every startup is trying to get you to try their application during the week of the conference. While by no means foolproof or definitive, this is a unique opportunity to observe how people might use a piece of technology.

Before flying down to Austin, I downloaded a bunch of new apps on my iPhone and iPad – so many that I had to make a SXSW folder. I had no preconceived notions about which of these new apps I was going to use.

There were also two web applications that I ended up using quite a bit: Lanyrd’s SXSW guide, and Plancast. Lanyrd launched last year as kind of a directory for conferences, and I’ve been using it to keep track of my conference schedule for a good number of months. For SXSWi, they created a SXSW specific part of the site that included all the panels, along with useful information like the Twitter handles and bios of the speakers. Although SXSW itself had a web application with the schedule, I found that Lanyrd worked better for the way that I wanted to use the schedule. This is despite the face that SXSW had an iPhone app while Lanyrd’s app has yet to ship. With Lanryd covering the sessions, I used Plancast (and along the way Eventbrite) to manage the parties. Plancast had all the parties in their system, including the Alaska direct flight from Seattle to Austin that I was on. Many of the parties were using Eventbrite to limit attendance, and while I had used Eventbrite here and there in the past, this finally got me to actually create an account there and use it. Eventbrite and Plancast integrate in a nice way, and it all worked pretty well for me.

Of all the ballyhooed applications that I downloaded, I really only ended up using two. There were a huge number of group chat/small group broadcast applications competing for attention. The one that I ended up using was GroupMe, mostly because the people I wanted to keep up with were using it. Beyond the simple group chat/broadcast functionality, it has some other nice features like voice conference calling that I didn’t really make use of during SXSW. Oddly enough, I first started using Twitter when I was working with a distributed team, and I always wished that Twitter had some kind of group facility. It’s nice that GroupMe and its competitors exist, but I also can’t help feeling like Twitter missed an opportunity here. Facebook’s acquisition of Beluga suggests as much.

The other application that I ended up using was Hashable. Hashable’s marketing describes it as “A fun and useful way to track your relationships”. I’d describe my usage of it as a way to exchange business cards moderately quickly using Twitter handles. A lot of my Hashable use centered around using my Belkin Mini Surge Protector Dual USB Charger to multiply the power outlets at the back of the ballrooms. I’ve made a lot of friends with that little device. In any case, I used Hashable as a quick way to swap information with my new power strip friends. While I used it, I’m ambivalent about it. I like that it can be keyed off of either email address or Twitter handle – I always used Twitter handle. My official business cards don’t have a space for the handle, which is annoying here in the 21st century. However, the profile that it records is not that detailed, so any business card information that is going to a new contact isn’t that detailed. It seems obvious to me that there ought to be some kind of connection to LinkedIn, but there’s no space for that. So I couldn’t really use Hashable as a replacement for a business card because all the information isn’t there. It’s also more clumsy to take notes about a #justmet on the iPhone keyboard than to write on the back of a card. The difficulty of typing on the iPhone keyboard also makes it time consuming and kind of antisocial to use. In a world where everyone used Hashable, and phones were NFC equipped, you can imagine a more streamlined exchange, but even then, the right app would have to be open on the phone. Long term, that’s an interface issue that phones are going to run into. Selecting the right functionality at the right time is getting to be harder and harder – pages of folders of apps means that everything gets on the screen, but it doesn’t mean that accessing them is fast.

In a similar vein, there were QR codes plastered all over pamphlets, flyers, and posters, but as @larrywright asked me on Twitter, I didn’t see very many people scanning them. Maybe people were scanning all that literature in their rooms after being out till 2am. There’s still an interface problem there.

In addition to all the hot new applications, there were the “old” standby’s, Foursquare and Twitter.

I am a purpose driven Foursquare user. I use Foursquare when I want people to know where I am. I’ve never really been into the gamification aspects of Foursquare, but I figured that SXSWi was the place to give that aspect of Foursquare more of a try. Foursquare rolled out a truckload of badges for SXSWi, and sometimes it seemed like you could check into every individual square foot of the Austin Convention Center and surrounding areas. So I did do a lot more checking in, mostly because there were more places to check in, and secondarily because I was trying to rack up some points. Not that the points ever turned into any tangible value for me. But as has been true at other conferences, the combination of checking on Foursquare and posting those checkins to Twitter did in fact result in some people actually tracking me down and visiting.

If you only allowed me one application, it would still be Twitter. If I wanted to know what was happening, Twitter was the first place I looked. Live commentary on the talks was there. I ended up coordinating several serendipitous meetings with people from Twitter. Twitter clients with push notifications made things both easy and timely. While I’m very unhappy with Twitter’s recent decree on new Twitter clients, the service is still without equal for the things that I use it for.

One word on hardware. There were lots of iPad 2′s floating around. I’m not going to do a commentary on that product here. For a conference like SXSWi, the iPad is the machine of choice. After the first day, I locked my laptop in the hotel safe. I would be physically much more worn out if I had hauled that laptop around. The iPad did everything that I needed it to do, even when I forgot to charge it one night.   

Interesting Tech

While SXSWi is not a hard core technology conference, I did manage to see some very interesting technology. I’ve already mentioned the TI OMAP5 product line at the ARM party. I took a tour of the exhibit floor with Julie Steele from O’Reilly, and one of the interesting things that we saw was an iPhone app called Neer. Neer is an application that let’s you set to-do’s based on location. This is sort of an interesting idea, but the more interesting point came out after I asked about Neer’s impact on the phone’s battery life. I had tried an application called Future Checkin, which would monitor your location and and check you into places on Foursquare, because I was so bad about remembering to check in. It turned out that this destroyed the battery life on my phone, so I stopped using it. When I asked the Neer folks how they dealt with this, they told me that they use the phone’s accelerometer to detect when the phone is actually moving, and they only ping the GPS when they know you are moving, thus saving a bunch of battery life. This is a clever use of multiple sensors to get the job done, and I suspect that we’re really only at the beginning of seeing how the various sensors in mobile devices will be put to use. It turns out that the people working on Neer are part of a Qualcomm lab that is focused on driving the usage of mobile devices. I’d say they are doing their job.

The other thing that Julie and I stumbled upon was 3taps, which is trying to build a Data Commons. The whole issue of data openness, provenence, governance, and so forth is going to be a big issue in the next several years, and I expect to see lots of attempts to figure this stuff out.

The last interesting piece of technology that I learned about is comes from Acunu. The Acunu folks have developed a new low-level data store for NoSQL storage engines, particularly engines like Cassandra. The performance gains are quite impressive. The engine will be open source and should be available in a few months.   

In conclusion

SXSWi is a huge conference and it took a lot out of me, more than any other conference that I’ve been to. While I definitely got some value out of the conference, I’m not sure that the value I got corresponded to the amount of energy that I had to put in. Some of that is my own fault. If I were coming back to SXSWi, here are some things that I would do:

  • Work harder at being organized about the schedule and setting up meetings with people prior to the conference
  • Skip many of the parties and try to organize get togethers with people outside of the parties
  • Eat reasonably – SXSW has no official lunch or dinner breaks – this makes it to easy to go too long without eating which leads to problems.
  • Always sit at the back of the room and make friends over the power outlets

Lanyrd is collecting various types of coverage of the conference whether that is slide decks, writeups, or audio recordings.   

I like the idea of SXSWi, and I like the niche that it occupies, but I think that scale has overtaken the conference and is detracting from the value of it. Long time attendees told me that repeatedly when I asked. I would love to see some alternatives to SXSWi, so that we don’t have to put our eggs all in one basket.

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