The New Sobriety

SXSW Interactive 2002 Takes the Long View

DoCoMo's Masaki Yoshikawa
DoCoMo's Masaki Yoshikawa (Photo By John Anderson)

Conference Panels

March 10-12

Austin Convention Center


Industry Trends Track

Ah, the new media boom. Fast money! Business plan? Schmizness plan! IPO fever! Dot.com explosions! Gourmet coffee! Power! Condos! Money!

At least the gourmet coffee is still around.

Still, many who survived or observed the boom and bust see blue skies ahead, and recommend a more open -- and sober -- approach to new media initiatives. That's not to say there isn't room for creativity. In fact, the industry is on the brink of several important innovations -- if all the players can cooperate.

Security, standards, and looking to Open Source to provide services across platforms or devices were recurring issues in the Industry Trends panels.

For an environment built on the spirit of the open frontier, the idea of locking down access to information seems antithetical. However, the proliferation of worms and viruses has affected everyone from the home computer user to large government institutions.

"How many of you have been hacked in the last year?" asked Mellie Price of Monsterbit. "How many know they've been hacked?"

Though her question was directed to IT professionals who manage organizational systems, security and privacy issues are of concern to anyone who does any business online. Being proactive in understanding how your computer works with other computers online, and having a prevention, detection, and response plan is the best defense.

For new trends or third-generation developments, panelists looked to Europe and Japan, where wireless technology has provided some of the most exciting telephony. Short Messaging Services (SMS) and I-Mode are hot products abroad, providing all of the bells and whistles only half-heartedly delivered in the U.S. (WAP, anyone?).

I-Mode in particular (described as the AOL of Japan and a product of Japanese conglomerate DoCoMo) appears to have pulled it all together. Instead of developing the PDA, DoCoMo turned to the cell phone, turning it into a "must carry" accessory like the wallet. With strong applications, high-quality graphics and color screens, ease of use, and affordable prices, I-Mode provides consumers with cell phones that surf the Web, efficiently send and receive information, and most importantly, provide secure wireless transactions. Some phones feature cameras to capture images to e-mail friends. Except for the cost of the device itself, services are cheap by U.S. standards, because customers are charged by volume of content retrieval instead of airtime. It's a multimedia device, available 24/7.

So, why not here? In the U.S., several companies provide similar wireless services, but with different infrastructures, making it virtually impossible for customers to communicate with each other to the extent they do in foreign markets. Until U.S. companies can agree on standards for browsers, gateway servers, and the devices themselves, wireless will not take off in the U.S., according to the panelists. The same is true for other high tech devices like interactive televisions, which continue to be "on the brink."

The desire is there; now it's time for software and content providers to sit down and play nice.

-- Belinda Acosta


Content and Design 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 -- the Independents' Day series of discussions and the 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 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. -- David Garza


Tomorrow and Beyond Track

Now it's serious.

Programmers, artists, and high tech professionals met at this year's South by Southwest Interactive to talk about what lies ahead for our techno-society, and to come to a better understanding of our increasingly muddy relationship with our high tech progeny. The panel discussions, dubbed "Tomorrow and Beyond" by the people who name these things, often treated the future of technology and the future of society as one issue -- one very, very complicated issue.

Case in point: Napster. Some experts predicted that it would be the downfall of the music industry, and others predicted that a musical renaissance would follow. Who's right? Everybody is!

So how do we deal with this complexity? The approaches adopted by the SXSW panelists range from pragmatic to out-of-this-world. If certain aspects of technology are threatening to our social fabric, posit some panelists, then we should do something about it -- volunteer, help a nonprofit organization, read to children, do something to build community. And if you can use tech skills to further the cause, all the better.

Panelist Brad Fitzpatrick started Livejournal.com as a way for him and his friends to keep up with one another. He created a program that allows users to post daily journal entries on his Web site. Instead of picking up the phone or running down the block, friends log on to the site to check out each other's journal entries. The site has grown exponentially, now providing personal journal space for almost half a million Web-savvy diarists -- but the site still serves its original purpose. "It started with just me and three or four of my intimate friends, so we went from about 20 hits a day to 6-8 million hits a day," says Fitzpatrick.

Other panelists seek to understand their relationships with technology through art and performance. Dancer/panelist Yacov Sharir and the Automated Body Project have created a wearable suit that allows a dancer to project a visual cyber-model of her/himself while dancing. The goal, to integrate technology and the body in performance, seems ripe with potential. However, it doesn't seem like the old-fashioned leotard will be going away anytime soon. The current version of the motion capture suit looks like something from the set of Brazil, with tangles of wires, glowing things, and a laptop dangling precariously off the front.

A more extreme experiment that examines the effect of integrating technology with the human body was presented via live streaming video by engineer/artist Steve Mann. Mann is, quite simply, trying to become a cyborg. He has mediated his experience of the world outside his front door through the use of a wearable computer for the past 22 years. The most up-to-date model involves a pair of sunglasses. One of the lenses is a screen that shows a video image of what Mann would see if he weren't wearing the sunglasses. Mann's project is equal parts technological innovation and social satire. "We're all cyborgs," says Mann, "because we wear shoes and clothing and we've adapted to experiencing the world in this way."

A lot of genies have been uncorked over the past several decades, and in general the prevailing attitude at the conference was that we're stuck with the technological monsters we've created, and we need to learn to deal with that. But others say that might not necessarily be the case. The last panel of the conference concerned superworms, viruses that can be transmitted to millions of networked computers in anywhere from 30 seconds to 15 minutes. These viruses have the potential to bring the entire Internet to a crashing halt. According to the panel, one person could do it, and it might not even be that difficult.

Conclusions of the experts? There are many, but the truth is nobody really knows where we're headed. Nobody has all the answers, and nobody even seems to be asking all the right questions. At least the Internet lets us communicate about these things, and maybe someday, in some unfashionable chat room, amid an eruption of smiley emoticons, everything will suddenly become clear.

And just then a power-drunk 16-year-old script kiddie will send out a superworm and bring on the info-pocalypse, sending us back to square one. For now, it seems, our best bet is to keep questioning.

-- Michael Connor


P2P: Weblogs and Collaborative Media Panel

Tuesday, March 12

The weblogging world is only a couple of years old, but there are already distinct stars in the blogging galaxy. Some of the biggest got together to discuss weblogging and media in a Conference session on P2P (peer-to-peer, for you newbies out there) journalism. Meg Hourihan, who was originally with the company that created Blogger, and Pyra, moderated. She looked, it must be said, notably less exhausted than she did last year, when Pyra was, unfortunately, nosediving. Independent contracting in San Francisco must be doing her good. Doc Searles, whose site (doc.weblogs.com) regularly accrues an amount of traffic that would make a midsize paper mag happy, provided the gravitas on the panel, and not just because he was the oldest member of it by about 20 years. Searles made a number of shrewd comments about weblogs crossing the threshold between vanity press and serious journalism. He confessed that, since 9/11, he has been more reticent about expressing his leftward tending views, purely from an ambient fear for his safety. It is part of the vulnerability of running a purely individual site. A man from Indymedia related a story that supported Searles' caution -- he reported that, in a recent demonstration in D.C., the police wouldn't honor Indymedia's press credentials, treating them essentially as protesters. Hourihan brought up the issue of trust and credibility. Cameron Marlowe, an MIT grad student who runs Blogdex, an index/directory of blogs, said that since his site tracks the popularity of blogs and the spread of information, via links, from one blog to the other, he has noticed that completely implausible stories, if they are interesting, spread as quickly or more quickly than veracious ones. Audience members were quick to point out that mainstream media has a trust issue, too; video manipulation and spin are as endemic in TV news and metro dailies as in the weblog world. The session ended with a discussion of censorship. Marlowe confessed to having stricken a "hate" site from his index, and was reproached by a member of the audience with a spirited sense of civil liberties. The crowd at this session was uniquely plugged in, with more than 90% of us running weblogs ourselves. Although there were traces of that embattled smugness endemic to any clique (mainstream media, meaning anything paper, was inevitably treated like a wholly corrupt entity whose salvation would come only through paying slavish attention to the suggestions of webloggers, and hopefully printing a few of their names in the paper for good measure), the session was conducted on a remarkably high intellectual plane. -- Roger Gathman

Fray.com/Cafe creator Derek Powazek
Fray.com/Cafe creator Derek Powazek (Photo By John Anderson)


Fray Cafe

The Hideout

Sunday, March 10

Derek Powazek, the fuzzy-warm creator of such juicy content nuggets as Fray.com and Kvetch.com, is waving his naughty bits in the air. "Independent content is without rules, it's without boundaries, it's about doing it for fun," he professes. "It's like waving your dick in the air." And truth be told, people are impressed by all that he's waving. After establishing himself as one of the must-see panelists over the past few years, Powazek has created a true legacy at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival with his after-hours Fray Cafe. The Cafe, a live version of the Fray storytelling Web site, invites regular contributors and visiting locals to stand onstage and share personal stories with a room full of webheads. Part stand-up comedy, part Alcoholics Anonymous, the event functions in much the same way as the Internet; that is, it gives voice to the masses, allows people to find like-minded pockets of friends, and dares them to say anything they want without consequence. As a result, it is no stretch to say that the Cafe, held this year at the Hideout, is the most human and most entertaining couple of hours in the whole Interactive Festival. Plus, visitors get to learn a whole lot about fellow conference attendees and stars. Superstar Josh Davis of Praystation.com wowed the audience this year with his history of performing drag shows and snorting mountains of coke with David Faustino -- "Bud Bundy" -- in the New York of the early 1990s. Heather Champ, Web maven and Powazek's live-in girlfriend, brought the audience to tears with her story of nearly dying of E. coli after moving to California to be with her man. By the time she was done, the audience of bloggers and businessmen had experienced the creative spirit the Interactive Festival has promised all along. -- David Garza

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Derek Powazek, Fray Café, Josh Davis, Heather Champ, storytelling, SXSW Interactive, South by Southwest Interactive, David Faustino, Bud Bundy, Praystation.org, Fray.com, Kvetch.com, SXSW, South by Southwest, Web content, Salon, Derek Powazek, Jeffrey Zeldman, John Ha

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