The Austin Report

South by Southwest Interactive is over for another year. Leaving Austin is always a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, I’m so exhausted from almost a week of non-stop activity that I relish the chance to get home and unplug for a while. But saying goodbye to all my friends who have gathered together in Texas doesn’t get any easier.

Southby has been growing year on year. This year was no exception. I didn’t think it was possible for more people to come this year than last year but come they did. Economic crisis, my arse. Once you know to expect these kinds of crazy numbers, it becomes manageable. You can either go with the flow or you can sit on your front porch, complain about how it isn’t like the old days, and wave your fist shouting Get off my conference! at all those crazy kids. I went with the flow.

Alas, the sheer size of the festival meant that there were some people I saw far too briefly. Others, I didn’t see at all. That’s a crying shame. But that was offset by the quality time I spent with some fantastic people; friends old and new. As usual, my South by Southwest highlights happened beyond the structure of panels and presentations. Booze ups and barbecues are where my most cherished memories are forged.

That said, I didn’t spend all my time eating tex-mex and drinking margaritas. I plucked some tasty morsels from the conference schedule and had fun savouring their delights. I talked to a few people who were complaining about the subject matter and quality of the panels this year, Too much social media douchebaggery and not enough meaty tech stuff. Actually, I think there was plenty of both. The problem was finding the good stuff. The physical schedules—both the big book and the smaller pocket guide—were laid out in a way that made it really hard to quickly find out who was speaking and what they were speaking about. Most people ended up choosing panels based on a description in the pocket guide that often consisted of three words plucked randomly from the longer description.

If I had a gripe about the panels, it wasn’t about the quality. Quite the opposite. The problem was that oftentimes there was a slew of really good things happening simultaneously.

Take the first day, for instance. On my way to the conference centre to register, I ran into Glenda who told me I ought to come to her How To Rawk SXSW panel because it would melt my face. Then, while I was registering, I was chatting with Steven Johnson who was telling me about the talk he would be giving at exactly the same time on Old Growth Media And The Future Of News. It sounded great. Both were on at the same time as Paul was giving his talk on putting delighters into web design. How could I possibly choose between them all? Paralysed by indecision, I went off to the Whole Foods mothership instead and stocked up on cheese and wine to ensure that the hotel room track of South by Southwest went smoothly this year.

Fortunately all the talks were recorded and the audio for some of them has already been released. Paul’s highly visual talk—including a real world re-enactment of the Silverback parallax effect, complete with gorilla—probably doesn’t translate so well to audio but Steven’s talk, which he wrote out beforehand, makes for great listening. It has already been huffduffed.

The morning of the second day was my time to get on stage. Once again, there was just too much good stuff going on at the same time. Sitting in the green room, I saw Lawrence Lessig getting ready for his talk. Of course, the reason we were both in the green room at the same time was because we were both going to be presenting at the same time. Balls! His talk was the one I had mentally marked down as being unmissable. Then there was the Dawes/Coudal/Hustwit triple bill that I was missing. As a consolation prize, I got some lovely Field Notes notebooks from Jim and introduced myself to Gary Hustwit.

The panel I was on, Microformats: A Quiet Revolution, was a lot of fun. This was a demo-driven talk. Rather than talking about theoretical benefits, we were showing practical applications. I gave a run-down of the microformats-based features on Huffduffer profiles and Karsten ran through all the neat stuff that can do. But the highlights came from Glenn. Despite some technical difficulties with his laptop, he succeeded in blowing people’s minds showing the awesome Social Graph API hacking he’s been doing. His newly-launched Firefox plugin was the pièce de résistance.

The panel finished up with an important announcement from Tantek. Not just one answer to the abbreviation datetime accessibility concerns but two different solutions. They’ve both been thoroughly tested from the authoring perspective so the call has now gone out to parsers to test and implement them.

Once the panel was done, the microformats chatter continued. Panelists and attendees adjourned for a lunch of tacos and semantics. I wasn’t about to hurry back for any keynote presentation. I was having too much fun hanging out with smart and friendly people.

Later in the afternoon, I managed to make it along to the web typography panel that Richard was speaking on. It was clearly a popular topic. I arrived too late to snag a chair so I sat on the floor at the front of the room along with Jessica and Håkon, enjoying the lively debate.

I stayed in that room once the panel was over. Even though most of the official daytime programming was finished, I had one other obligation. Paul had asked me to join him on a live recording of Boagworld. It turned out to be a lot of fun. It was certainly opinionated and irreverent. You can hear the result for yourself.

Next morning, I went along to the third annual Browser Wars panel, featuring representatives from Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera and Google (an Apple representative was, once again, absent). Despite excellent moderation by Arun, the panelists were being far too nice and lovey-dovey. So once the mic was free, I threw some shit at the fan. I’ll cover the subject matter—font linking—in more depth in a later post but suffice to say that my question, when it finally came, was something along the lines of, Does the panel believe that it’s the job of a browser to uphold existing or outdated business models or should it remain true to the vision of the twenty year old web and just render the damn content it’s given? My shit-stirring had the desired effect but the fighting talk was sadly cut short by time constraints.

I didn’t have the luxury of hanging around for a good post-panel debate as I had to run off to play my part in the bloggies. I was providing a little musical interlude on the mandolin. The awards ceremony itself was really good fun with the undoubted highlight being Dan Rubin’s singing performance. You can catch some of the atmosphere in a great video reportage put together by Time (although you’ll have to be advertised at first; I apologise).

I finished the day with a superb presentation entitled Make it So (Sexy): Lustful Design in Mainstream Science Fiction, a sequel to last year’s presentation on interfaces in science-fiction. This year’s presentation was even more narrowly focused, dealing with sex in sci-fi (and sci-fi in sex). Packed full of information, delivered at a good clip and presented in a beautifully put together Prezi format, this was a real highlight.

I spent the next day doing a little bit of grazing: a good core conversation by Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone, a dash of the WaSP annual meeting, a dab of Andy doing his own shit-stirring in Trammell’s Tools To Know Your Users panel …all good stuff. The big announcement of the day was WaSP’s InterAct curriculum. It’s quite a tremendous achievement.

On the final day, I attended Thor’s presentation on our post-human future in which he pitched a fictional neural implant. Interestingly, he began the presentation with audience interaction, asking who in the room would get an implant. I said I’d get one but I’d wait ‘till version two. After the presentation, I was still willing to buy it for a dollar but I did point out what I felt were some shortcomings I found in the device. Thor kept comparing the implant to the iPhone, saying he was only proposing an internalised version of what we’re already doing. But the implant, like the iPhone, is very focused on consuming data rather than publishing content. That’s why the iPhone isn’t doing so well in Asia and that’s why I would jailbreak my implant. I want read/write access to my brain. I want a dreamblog …as long as marketroids don’t go and spoil my dreams with product placements.

In a moment of l’esprit de l’escalier, I later realised that Thor’s talk would make a great companion piece to the sex and sci-fi presentation. In retrospect, I wonder now that the subject of sex didn’t came up in discussing our post-human future. Porn would probably be the killer app.

Speaking of killer apps, there was a distinct feeling at this year’s South by Southwest that entire tribes of social media bloodhounds were hunting in packs for this year’s Twitter. I feel sorry for them. If they would only stop and open their eyes, they would realise that South by Southwest is like the world wide web: the killer app is people.

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