Tags: southbysouthwest

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Typography at South by Southwest

I had a very blasé attitude towards attending the talks at South by Southwest this year (though I had a strict regimine of parties to attend). The only presentation I really didn’t want to miss was Web Typography Sucks by Richard and Mark.

So it was that, despite a late night after the Great British Booze-up and South by Northwest, I made sure to get to the conference centre for the 10am start. I’m so glad I did. The presentation was absolutely amazing.

Mark and Richard had a fantastic rapport and the three months of preparation really showed. They packed in a ton of information and presented it all in an engaging and easy-to-digest way.

Yeah, I know I’m biased because I work with Richard but ask anyone who was there: these guys were on fire. You can go ahead and download the slides but you won’t get quite the same effect. Once the audio is released on the SXSW podcast you can follow along as you listen.

The typographical fun continued after lunch. I went to the world premiere of Helvetica, the movie. The screening was open to both flim and interactive attendees and the interest in it was phenomenal: the queue to get in stretched most of the way down the convention centre.

I loved this documentary. I wasn’t sure how well it could hold my interest—especially given the late night I’d had—but it had me gripped. I know it’s hard to imagine a gripping film about a typeface but that’s exactly what this was. It was also thought-provoking and funny. And the soundtrack was pretty cool too.

The director was on-hand to take questions afterwards along with David Carson who said some typically inflammatory things.

My only regret was that Joe wasn’t there. He would have loved hating it.

If you find out that Helvetica is coming to a screen near you, don’t miss it.

Socialising at South by Southwest

Much as I enjoyed the panels and presentations at South by Southwest this year, the real reason for making the trip to Austin is to hang out with fellow geeks. It really is like Summer camp.

There are some people that I consider very good friends that I only get to see at SXSW. I hope that situation will change and I’ll get to see these friends more often but in the meantime, Austin in March is the time and place for me to catch up with my buddies.

At the same time, one of the things I love about SXSW is getting to meet new people. Sometimes these are people I’ve been reading online for years; sometimes they’re complete strangers. Either way, I’m constantly amazed at just how nice everybody is. Is it something specific to geeks or did the human race just get a whole lot more pleasant while my back was turned?

Daytime socialising revolved around lunch, usually something Mexican although the steak as big as my head at the Hoffbrau was probably the lunchtime highlight. The traditional trip to the Iron Works involved the finest minds in JavaScript—a fun and constructive way to gorge on meat while discussing the Document Object Model.

The real fun started in the evening. I donned my trusty cowboy hat and ventured forth, guided by Adactio Austin. My little mashup was of help to quite a few people, which is gratifying to know.

I may be just a little biased but I honestly thought that the Great British Booze-up was the most fun. It wasn’t too loud but it wasn’t too quiet; it wasn’t too crowded but it wasn’t too empty. It was just right. And if everyone else there had just a fraction of the fun that I was having, then it was definitely a success.

As usual with events involving Clearleft, Andy did all the work and the rest of us sat back and took all the credit. For the record, Andy’s the man to thank and I for one welcome our new British Booze-up overlords. I think we’ll have to have another one next year, don’t you?

To all the people I met this year at South by Southwest: it was an absolute pleasure. And if I couldn’t remember your name in the corridor the next day, please forgive me. I’m not as young as I used to be and the Shiner Bock probably doesn’t prolong the life of my brain cells.

Speaking at South by Southwest

This was my third year attending South by Southwest and also my third year speaking.

It seems to have become a tradition that I do a “bluffing” presentation every year. I did How to Bluff Your Way in CSS two years ago with Andy. Last year I did How to Bluff Your Way in DOM Scripting with Aaron. This year, Andy was once again my partner in crime and the topic was How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0.

It was a blast. I had so much fun and Andy was on top form. I half expected him to finish with “Thank you, we’ll be here all week, try the veal, don’t forget to tip your waiter.”

As soon as the podcast is available, I’ll have it transcribed. In the meantime, Robert Sandie was kind enough to take a video the whole thing. It’s posted on Viddler which looks like quite a neat video service: you can comment, tag or link to any second of a video. Here, for instance, Robert links to the moment when I got serious and called for the abolition of Web 2.0 as a catch-all term. I can assure you this moment of gravity is the exception. Most of the presentation was a complete piss-take.

My second presentation was a more serious affair, though there were occasional moments of mirth. Myself and Derek revisited and condensed our presentation from Web Directions North, Ajax Kung Fu meets Accessibility Feng Shui. This went really well. I gave a quick encapsulation of the idea of Hijax and Derk gave a snappy run-through of accessibility tips and tricks. We wanted to make sure we had enough time for questions and I’m glad we did; the questions were excellent and prompted some great discussion.

Again, once the audio recording is available, I’ll be sure to get it transcribed.

That was supposed to be the sum of my speaking engagements but Tantek had other ideas. He arranged for me to rush the stage during his panel, The Growth and Evolution of Microformats. The panel was excellent with snappy demos of the Operator plug-in and Glenn’s backnetwork app. I tried to do a demo of John McKerrell’s bluetooth version of the Tails extension using a volunteer from the audience but that didn’t work out too well and I had to fall back on just using a localhost example. Still, it was good to be on-hand to answer some of the great questions from the audience.

And yes, once the audio is available, I’ll get it transcribed. Seeing a pattern here? Hint, hint, other speakers.

As panels go, the microformats one was pretty great, in my opinion. Some of the other panels seem to have been less impressive according to the scuttlebutt around the blogvine.

Khoi isn’t keen on the panel format. It’s true enough that they probably don’t entail as much preparation as full-blown presentations but then my expectations are different going into a panel than going into a presentation. So, for something like Brian’s talk on the Mobile Web, I was expecting some good no-nonsense practical advice and that’s exactly what I got. Whereas for something like the Design Workflows panel, I was expecting a nice fireside chat amongst top-notch designers and that’s exactly what I got. That’s not to say the panel wasn’t prepared. Just take one look at the website of the panel which is a thing of beauty.

The panelists interviewed some designers in preparation for the discussion and you can read the answers given by the twenty interviewees. Everyone gave good sensible answers… except for me.

Anyway, whether or not you like panels as a format, there’s always plenty of choice at South by Southwest. If you don’t like panels, you don’t have to attend them. There’s nearly always a straightforward presentation on at the same time. So there isn’t much point complaining that the organisers haven’t got the format right. They’re offering every format under the sun—the trick is making it to the panels or presentations that you’ll probably like.

In any case, as everyone knows, South by Southwest isn’t really about the panels and presentations. John Gruber wasn’t keen on all the panels but he does acknowledge that the real appeal of the conference lies elsewhere:

At most conferences, the deal is that the content is great and the socializing is good. At SXSWi, the content is good, but the socializing is great.

Storytelling at South by Southwest

South by Southwest Interactive 2007 was predictably wonderful; simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. On the one hand, it seems like I spent the entire time goofing off and having fun but at the same time, it’s been the most productive conference I’ve attended in quite a while.

SXSW is a great barometer for testing the current zeitgeist in the kingdom of the geek. Personally, the Southby canary in the Web coalmine was telling me one thing: it’s all about telling stories, baby.

Finally, technology is being relegated to its correct role: a tool for allowing people to connect and share their stories. Whether it’s Ruby on Rails, Ajax, tagging or the World Wide Web itself, I got the feeling that what really matters now is personal communication—storytelling by any other name.

Zeldman nails it when he says that independent content is the new web app. I for one welcome our new storytelling overlords.

The obvious poster child of this new revival is the superb Ficlets, brainchild of Kevin Lawver and executed—with AOL’s approval—by a kick-ass team including Jason Garber and the amazing Cindy Li. But even if you look at any of the other hip web apps like Twitter and Flickr, you’ll find that the reason why they’re so engaging is that they’re allowing people to tell their stories.

Even at South by Southwest, people were using the Web to tell stories. There’s the comedic tale of of course but there was also tragedy and even some romance. Listen to Bruce Sterling’s closing rant which rambles around the subjects of blogs, wikis, video and fan fiction (even when I disagree almost entirely with what he says, I still enjoy listening to him speak).

Mind you, this is all my own personal subjective impression of SXSW. It may well be that other people thought that advertising, revenue and business models were the hot topics but that’s certainly not what I experienced. I found a real spirit of excitement swirling around the question, “how can we make it easier for people to communicate?” Answering that question means tackling a range of subjects from visual design, typography through to the mobile web, accessibility, interaction design and the user experience. The question was confronted head-on in Kathy Sierra’s keynote but its presence could be felt hanging over all the presentations and panels I attended.

What I love most about this feeling I got from South by Southwest is its familiarity. It reminds me of why I got into web design in the first place.

Let me tell you a story…

I was at one of the innumerable late-night SXSW parties. In this case the free booze and music was provided by the good folks at Purevolume and Virb. I just had my Wii cherry popped and I was describing the experience to Andy who was my co-coinspirator for the How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0 presentation. John Halcyon Styn came over and told us effusively how much he enjoyed said presentation.

Now, plenty of other people had come up to me to give positive feedback about our jolly jape but this compliment from Halcyon really meant a lot to me. You see, he was one of the people who inspired me to make stuff for the web. I distinctly remember sites like prehensile tales, 0sil8 and the inimitable Fray triggering something in my brain that made me realise what it was I wanted to do with my life.

Here we are, ten years later, and South by Southwest has confirmed the choice I made back then. There’s a familiar feeling in the air and it’s nothing to do with corporate buy-out or business models. It’s the feeling of exhilaration and excitement that comes from connecting with people through a shared experience. It’s probably the same feeling that our ancestors had when they gathered around the campfire at night to swap stories. They had fire, we have the hyperlink. Our campfire is the whole world. Our stories are individual and multitudinous. Our time is now.

Southby

The Clearleft office will be deserted from Thursday of this week to Tuesday of next week. That’s because everyone is going to be letting off steam at geek Summer camp: South by Southwest Interactive.

This will be my third year at the conference and I’m really, really looking forward to it. Sure, the panels and presentations will probably be good but the real reason for going is just to see all my friends and peers gathered together in one place. Most of San Francisco will be transplanted to Texas for a few days, the Philly gang will be there en masse, the Seattle-ites will be flying their geek flag high, the Oz Squad will represent (and I can’t wait to see them again) and, of course, the Brit Pack will be out in full force.

As I did last year, I’ve put together a microformatted Gmapped list of parties and events I’m planning to get to at Adactio Austin. You can subcribe to the calendar and stick it on your phone or iPod if you want an easy way to keep track of the time and location of the next party while you’re in Austin.

Of particular note is The Great British Booze-up, a party extravaganza organised by Clearleft, Boagworld and @media America. There will be booze and food a-plenty as well as great company. Mind you, there’s a lot of other good stuff on that evening. I may have to nip out to see Cindy participate in 20 x 2 and get to the Heather Gold show for a beer. In any case, I’ll start the evening at the Yahoo BarTab and finish at South by NorthWest.

Not every night is as busy as that. Friday looks relatively free (apart from Break Bread with Brad which is not at the Gingerman this year—it’s at Buffalo Billiards). Brian Oberkirch pointed out that Lucinda Williams will be playing over at Stubb’s that night. I may go to that if I can round up a posse of like-minded fans of her own gravelly brand of Southern country.

So overall it’s shaping to be one hell of a good time…

But…

My enjoyment of South by Southwest is going to be tinted by a heavy dose of regret. That’s because Jessica won’t be coming. The Home Office is extending her residence permit. That’s taking quite a bit of time, to put it mildly. While that’s going on, they’ve got her passport so she can’t leave the country so she can’t come to Austin. This, as you can imagine, makes me quite upset.

Traveling without my soulmate feels strange, as if I’m only half there. I’m sure I’ll still have a grand ol’ time in the heart of Texas but if you see me with a hangdog expression every now and then, you’ll know the reason why.

Upcoming webolution

At the risk of becoming API-watch Central, I feel I must point out some nifty new features that have been added to Upcoming.org.

Andy and the gang have been diligently geotagging events using Yahoo’s geocoder API. Best of all, these latitude and longitude co-ordinates are now also being exposed through the API. Methinks Adactio Austin won’t be the last mashing up of event and map data I’ll be doing.

On the Upcoming site itself, you can now limit the number of attendees for an event, edit any venues you’ve added and edit your comments. This comes just a few days after Brian Suda mentioned in a chat that he would like to have the option to edit this comment later (right now he’s looking for somewhere to stay during XTech).

Feature wished for; feature added. This is exactly the kind of iterative, evolutionary growth that goes a long way towards what Kathy Sierra calls creating passionate users. By all accounts, her panel at South by Southwest was nothing short of outstanding. Everyone I spoke to who attended was raving about it for days. Muggins here missed it but I have a good excuse. I was busy signing freshly-purchased books, so I can’t complain.

Design, old and new

One of the very first panels on the very first day of South by Southwest was Traditional design and new technology. The subject matter and the people couldn’t be faulted but there were some technical difficulties with the sound. I was at the back of the room and the dodgy mics made it hard going at times.

Khoi and Mark had some really good insights into the role of traditional design disciplines in the brave new media world. I enjoyed the fact that the panelists weren’t always in agreement: I like it when things get stirred up a bit.

Towards the end of the discussion, a question came up that turned the subject on its head: how has new technology affected old media. I didn’t get the chance to mention it at the time, but I immediately thought of last year’s Guardian redesign.

There are a lot of very webby touches to the new-look Guardian: blue underlined “links”, sidebars with the acronym FAQ, etc. Perhaps it’s a result of this webbiness, but I really, really like the paper’s new look and feel.

I’m not the only one. When Shaun came to visit, he was quite taken with the Guardian. The custom made typeface — Egyptian — sealed the deal.

I didn’t post my initial reaction to the paper’s new look because I wanted to allow some time to live with it for a while. My feelings haven’t changed though. I still like it a lot.

I do wonder, though, whether my emotional response to the design stems from the fact that I’m web-based kind of guy with a web-based aesthetic. It would be interesting to compare my reaction (or Shaun’s) with that of someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time browsing websites.

Talking about microformats

My Adactio Austin mashup proved to be very useful during South by Southwest. It was very handy having instant access to the geographical location of the next party.

Austin being Austin, I didn’t have to worry much about getting online: the city is swimming/drenched/floating/saturated in WiFi. After attending Tantek’s birthday celebrations at La Sol Y La Luna restaurant, which is not located downtown, a bunch of us stood on the street and began hailing taxis to get back into the town centre. In an attempt to ascertain exactly where we needed to tell the cab driver to take us in order to reach the next party, I whipped out my iBook, hoping for a net connection. There were five networks. That’s my kind of town.

While I had anticipated that Adactio Austin would make the evenings run smoother, I had planned on it affecting my daytime activities. As it turned out, my little experiment landed me a place on a panel.

When Aaron and I were preparing our DOM Scripting presentation for this year’s conference, I made sure that we nabbed ourselves a slot on the first day. I wanted to get the work out of the way so that I could relax for the rest of the conference. It was a good plan but the use of in my mashup prompted Tantek to ask me to sit it on his Monday morning panel. That’s how I found myself sitting behind a microphone together with Tantek, Chris and Norm, talking about the practical implementations of hCard and hCalendar.

I have to say it was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable talks I’ve ever given. We began the morning in a cafe geeking out about microformats, then we were in the green room geeking out about microformats and finally we were on stage geeking out about microformats. The movement from one location to the other went so smoothly that I felt as relaxed on the panel as I did in the cafe. I’m really glad Tantek asked me to say a few words.

Mind you, I probably came across as a complete booze hound. Tantek talked about the philosophy behind microformats, Chris talked about the tails extension for Flock, Norm talked about microformats at Yahoo! Europe… and I talked about where to go to get free beer. At this stage, I had also been doing some practical research in the field so I suspect my voice was somewhat raspy.

It was really interesting to compare the change in the perception of microformats within the space of one year. At South by Southwest 2005, there were two standout presentations for me: Eric and Tantek independently gave talks about this new fangled idea called microformats. At the time, I hadn’t even heard of the concept, so it was a real eye-opener for me. This year, microformats were a recognised, exciting technology. One week after SXSW, Bill Gates announced that “We need microformats”. That’s a lot of recognition.

From my experiences with my own humble experiments, I think there’s a lot of value to be had with mixing up events (using hCalendar) and mapping (using ). Throw into the mix and you’ve got some pretty big steps towards a good lowercase semantic web.

Think about it: if you’ve got some kind of application that’s native to a web of data (as Tom so succinctly puts it), you’ve already got addressable objects (using the most basic RESTful interface of all: URLs). Now, if you can add geographical, temporal or semantic data to those resources (using geotagging, hCalendar, and tagging, respectively), you can increase the value of that data exponentially. Just think of all the mashup potential of that content.

Dammit! In hindsight, I wish I could have nabbed Tom, Reverend Dan, Thomas and Tantek in Austin to have an impromptu brainstorm in the corridor about this stuff.

A proper podcast for South by Southwest 2006

The South by SouthWest website erronously lists a series of downloadable audio files as “podcasts”. Hugh, don’t make me come over there and give you a patronising scolding like the one I gave to Ryan.

Confusingly, there is an RSS file available but it doesn’t use enclosures so podcast playing software like iTunes can’t find the audio files.

Jason Landry to the rescue. He’s hand-rolled an RSS file with enclosures pointing to the audio files. Point your podcast subscribing software of choice at the SXSW 2006 Interactive Panels Podcast.

Back from Austin

The interactive portion of South by Southwest is over. It’s been quite a whirlwind.

It was great to see old friends and meet new ones. Wherever I went, I met great people and I was able to put more faces to blogs I read. If I had one complaint it was that there just wasn’t enough time to really talk to everyone. I wish I could have cloned myself for the duration of the conference. There are a lot of people I would have liked to have spent more time with.

To anyone who came up and introduced themselves to me, thank you. Thank you very much.

To anyone who I went up to and introduced myself to, sorry. Extra special apologies to the woman whose foot I stood on while I was having a fanboy moment with Derek Powazek. I finally get to meet the person responsible for me “getting” the web all those years ago and I go and ruin the moment.

Just about everyone who was in Austin last year was back again this year except for Dan, Doug, Elsa and Joe who were greatly missed. Those who did attend came en masse. To paraphrase Bruce Sterling, people were showing up in buddy lists.

Attendance was up; way up. Fortunately everything scaled up pretty well. The rooms were bigger and the venues booked for parties were expanded. The Brit Pack contingent was at least twice as big this year, but we’re being given a run for our money from The Oz Squad.

The really gratifying thing about SXSW this year was the increase in the number of women attending. As Leslie put it, it’s a very good sign when there’s a queue for the women’s toilets at a tech conference. Compare and contrast to the Carson Workshops Summit here in England where, out of 800 attendees, the number of women was a low single figure percentile.

I think BlogHer helped enormously in raising the profile of women at SXSW this year. I really, really hope that this trend continues and spreads to other conferences. It just remains for us men to get over the ‘boys will be boys” jokes and downright sexism that rise to the surface with depressing predictability.

For the most, I kept myself offline for the duration of the conference. I kept my laptop firmly closed during every presentation and enjoyed them more for it. I’m relying on the audio files and Cindy’s l33t liveblogging skillz to refresh my memory. I have lots I want to talk about: microformats, tagging, accessibility and more on the role of comments and online communities.

Expect to see some rambling posts prompted by panels and corridor conversations.