State of Independents
Content and Design panel track
Every year, the SXSW Interactive Conference takes on a drastically different emotion and theme, and a lot of that emotion is focused around the ever-mysterious topic of content. It was only two years ago, remember, when the entire Convention Center buzzed with the mantra "Content Is King," and unstoppable content sites like Salon were poised to invade radio, television, and film. By the time last year's conference came, however, no one was bragging about anything, and the best spin one could find was that all the business leeches were cleaned out, but the heart of the Web -- independent content, of course -- was intact. Which brings us to 2002, a year in which the real kings of content marched on and solidified their power both inside and out of the panel discussions.
Two conference events illustrated how vital independent content has become over the years -- Sunday's Independents' Day series of discussions and Tuesday's Design for Community panel, lead by Derek Powazek. Web guru Jeffrey Zeldman kicked off the Independents' Day with an accurate summation of this year's prevailing theme: "The Web has always had independent content and will always be about independent content."
Still, Zeldman tempered his ebullience in the "Celebrating Independent Content" panel to question the very validity and impact of online expression. "Are digital projects real?" he asked. "They're not movies, CDs, or books!"
That question was answered in different ways over the course of the conference, most notably in Powazek's Tuesday panel. As panelists John Halcyon Styn of CitizenX.com and Matthew Haughey of Metafilter.com discussed how their online communities reacted to last year's terrorist attacks, it became clear that, like books or records perhaps, digital projects and independent content do derive their "realness" from their tangible and far-reaching impact on the lives of their audience. "There's nothing like watching someone cry on a webcam," Styn said, recalling the early hours after the attacks.
The lesson, then, of this year's content and design panels is that the impact of independent online communication and resources is now settling deeper and more meaningfully into the lives of its users. As Powazek pointed out, it was the small and independent communities that stayed open on September 11 -- all the corporate sites were forced to shut down their message boards due to high traffic. And to think that independent content is important only to small pockets of webheads is way off the mark -- Styn's site became a small city at one point, with just under 200,000 participants.
Other panels throughout the track allowed attendees a peek behind some of the more fascinating trends and accomplishments currently on the web. Josh Davis of Praystation.com was ubiquitous both in the panels and out, and his insight on independent content and the creative uses of programming were definitely content highlights. "Jackson Pollock ... what a prick!" he said as his computer-generated art swayed on the screen behind him. "I really hate Jackson Pollock."
But even if the panels were about jokes and new design and building more efficient communities, what they really proved is that after all the swollen IPOs and champagne, after all the layoffs and panic, independent content is still the life of the Web.