SXSW Interactive Festival

Intellectual Property, Résumé Building, Wearable Computers, and Other Tales From the …

Does Content Still Matter? panel
"Does Content Still Matter?" panel (Photo By John Anderson)

Content Track: Between Optimism and a Broken Heart

Looking for a soft silver lining in the Internet's burgeoning cloud? The content track at the SXSW Interactive conference seems the most likely place to find some reassurance -- who cares about corporate layoffs, after all, when the best parts of the Web are the art, video, journalism, and weblogs of nonprofit-seeking individuals? This year, however, the mood and sparse attendance at the content panels demonstrated just how crucial the link is between commerce and content on the Net, as panelists and attendants alike wavered back and forth between an altruistic optimism and a broken-hearted daze.

"I don't even know what content is anymore," uttered Andy Wang, editor of Ironminds. "Last year I had a big company; this year I don't."

Along with Wang, astute Web writer and discussion moderator Heather Gold ( painted a somber picture during the starkly titled "Does Content Still Matter?" Gold argued that content, which was once heralded as the magic potion in a recipe for the successful business model, has been far surpassed in popularity by services like file sharing (think Napster) and messaging (AOL). What is left, Gold continued, is a network of services that use irrelevant and diminished content as a way to bait consumers.

"Is content just an excuse to get people to these sites?" she asked.

The participants in the discussion, which also included Inside's Michael Hirschorn and Slate publisher Scott Moore, seemed aghast at the strength of their communal dismay. "Not only is this not working out as a business model," Hirschorn said, "but it's undermining other models as well."

Furthermore, Hirschorn argued, the dream of media convergence -- the catchphrase of last year's conference -- is not only not going to happen, but future formats for content won't even be recognizable for a matter of years. "What's happening instead is true divergence," Gold agreed.

One could only wonder what the well-connected David Talbot might have said during the talk. Scheduled to be part of the discussion and to host his own panel titled "Don't Cry for Online Content," the Salon editor-in-chief canceled his appearance, effectively canceling out one of the few cheerleaders left on content's team. But even Salon's own reporter, Katharine Mieszkowski, commented on the dark state of things at SXSW in an article posted to the site on March 13. The best metaphor for the current economy, she wrote, is a "decapitated pig's head with its eyeballs still lolling in its lifeless sockets."

Other topics presented by panels throughout the track offered interesting moments from the wide world of content. A particularly bright moment was Derek Powazek's solo speech on the winning qualities of well-designed Web communities. Ever cheerful and deft, Powazek offered a key nugget of advice that Gold would have appreciated: "You must have the content there in order to build a community." Using examples ranging from Salon to CNN to his own site, he keenly demonstrated how Internet chat and bulletin boards can both succeed and fail at stringing together lasting and meaningful communities.

Also of use was the annual Web site demo session, moderated by former Austinite Pamela Ribon. The panel allowed audience members to submit their own Web sites for review and advice from expert designers and Web strategists. "This looks pretty serious for a site that's about a puking good time," Ribon remarked about

While the real puking good times may be a thing of last year, though, most attendants had moments of quiet optimism. "The only way to prove that [content] really matters is when somebody pays for it," Gold remarked. And while the advertisers and silver-heavy investors might be gone, it's the content providers themselves who are making payment to the Web on different terms.

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