Embrace Your Wipe-Assness

Trolling SXSW Interactive 2006

Saturday, 3.11.06

This is tripping me out: Can this be SXSW Interactive? I see more women and people of color than I have in the last four years of coming to this thing. Can it be true that when I walk around, I can be assured that the other people of color besides my big brown self aren't the service staff? Did they put something in the coffee? This is a good thing, right?

Better Blogging Brainstorms

Hearing bloggers talk seriously about their work is illuminating, considering I just came from the other side of the Convention Center, where a full-fledged (self-absorbed?) writers conference (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs) was just wrapping up. There, the emphasis was on shape and form, voice, and a dedication to the art and craft of writing – which is couched in the big, unspoken monster of the Canon. Which, granted, was designed by a very narrow group of people, but that we should all aspire to belong to.

There's nothing like a writing conference to bring out the neurotic writer within. Coming to SXSW Interactive, the "scarves, poetess hair, and Bad Boy attitude" (as my good friend Vince Lozano described writers' conference attendees in his kickass presentation for the AWP) got traded in for graphic tees, faux-hawks, and the occasionally neon-colored hair and way cooler-looking kicks made for walking to parties all over downtown and looking like you've got somewhere to go and be seen.

The panel: Tony Pierce (busblog.com), Min Jung Kim (minjungkim.com), Helen Jane Hearn (helenjane.com); Cameron Barrett, a first-generation blogger (camworld.com). Liza Sabater (culturekitchen.com) was the moderator. They all seemed to know each other and spoke as if I, we in the audience, should know who they were, too. Some things about SXSW don't change.

Everyone spoke candidly about how they approach their blogs: Don't worry about what's right and wrong, just get yourself out there writing and posting. It's not about the length of posts, said Pierce, but about the quality and passion of what you say. There was talk about the usefulness of comments: Cool? Not cool? Inviting useful debate, or source of backtracking spam and other headaches? There was talk of talking about the uncomfortable. Sabater mentioned how her post about Condoleezza Rice as the Sally Hemings for the 20th century created a wave of heated discussion. Kim talked about how an infamous post ("about how white guys don't do it for me") culled responses from white men who were "stressed about their Asian fetish" asking, "Why are you making me feel guilty?" Her response to all this was that it made her realize "how a unique opinion, if clearly articulated, can impact a community and get a reaction." This was gratifying to her. I was nodding my head at that. And while I didn't know the inside joke about the cowbell she brought (from the SNL sketch?), she made good use of it at the right time. Or maybe I just got used to it. A good bit, clearly executed.

Pierce spoke a lot about not getting hung up on yourself, the "rules" (if there are any – honestly, after coming from the AWP, hearing this was like ripping off my bra); fighting the self-censor – the voice that tells you you're being an "ass wipe." "Embrace your ass-wipeness," Pierce encouraged.

Otherwise, things were said about privacy and your words being used against you after they appear online – stuff that's been heard before but bears repeating. The thing I was struck by was the idea that some of these bloggers still wanted to see their stuff in print, that the book was still the ultimate challenge. However, unlike in the traditional MFA writing world, high-brow lit journals, and magazines, a good blogger could find their readers, self-publish, and not carry the shame that vanity publishing brings in the lit world. "The rest of us," Pierce said, "are better off selling 100 to 1,000 books to our readers" through micropublishing. I like how that sounds, the idea of self-organizing communities rallying around a writer who has articulated a shared idea or vision. Much more liberating than the lit model of jockeying to get some powerful professor or well-established writer to embrace you, support you, mentor you, foster you, vouch for you so you can get in that chi-chi journal, land a book contract, get accepted into that exclusive writer's colony, or the big score: get that fat grant that verifies your literary genius and the promise of your stellar contribution to the canon. In the blogging world, is there a canon? Is it being created as we speak and blog? Is there a larger collection of writers and readers defining that, or, is it beyond canonization?

My favorite quote from Kim, speaking to the question, how does one find stuff to write about on their blogs: "There's always something to write about. If not, you need to go out and live life more aggressively."

Revenge of the Librarians

Honestly, I was kind of hoping for a giant piñata shaped like that shushing librarian action figure that the panelists (whom I assumed would be librarians) would bash. Inside, there would be – what? Fines-forgiven cards? Keys to the public library to unlock and roam at night, a fantasy I harbored as a child? No, the topic was much headier than my doofy fantasy. The panelists focused on the digitization of books – who is doing it, who should be doing it? Dan Clancy from Google Book Search was there, as were Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book and Danielle Tiedt of Microsoft. Liz Lawley (mamamusings.com) moderated.

There was some ardent, though respectful, discussion about what it means when a corporate entity anoints itself to shepherd this process, as the goal of any corporate commercial entity is to make money. Will making money define the scope of the what's collected?

My favorite quote was from Lawley: "Why does it have to be centralized control? We buy too much into the rhetoric that only something big and scary can do this massive project. Why not a bottom-up model?"

Public Square or Private Club?

Oooh, oooh, oooh ... more folks who look like me. And women. All women. Yeah, it does make a difference. It says something. It says that I would actually pay to come to this conference, if I had to. This is when it felt less like doing my job than it did getting to sit in on something that I felt connected to.

The organizing question was, what happens when bloggers and online communities organize themselves around race, gender, and other "hot topic" issues?

"Hot" to whom? "Uncomfortable" for whom? Being the outsider feels weird – to whom? Welcome to my world.

Sunday, 2.12.06

Respect Your Elder Bloggers

Too early in the morning. Not enough coffee. Ronni Bennett (timegoesby.net) was the rock star at this panel. Again, everyone in the room seemed to know who she was, was there to see her. Lori Bitter (beyondthenumbers.com) was there to keep the peace.

Dang, this culture is cruel to its elders. I know this, creeping as I am, toward middle age. But for all my brownness, my less-than-conventional looks (by mainstream standards), I have said, and will continue to say: This culture is much crueler to elder white women than to any other group. It's true. Even I have to cop to that. For all the privileges being a white woman in U.S. culture brings, once the hair has gone gray (and you've refused the notion that you should be shot with poison or sliced and diced in the name of beauty), that all goes away, quickly, with an unspoken punishment for loosing your beauty and youth.

I can see why Ronni Bennett is such a rock star. She refuses to take being invisible. She refuses to be quiet. She refuses to believe her life is over. She refuses to believe she has nothing more to contribute. She refuses to believe that she has one foot in the grave. She refuses to accept what the world – essentially big, corporate advertisers – have sold to us: that the 18-34 demographic is the golden demographic to attain, and that if you're not in that group, you don't matter.

Because of improvements in health care and medicine, many of the world's most frightening diseases are gone: polio, diphtheria, smallpox. The 20th century has added 30 years to our lives.

"At 60," Ronnie quoted another blogger, "if you're unsung, sing. If you're unflung, fling!"

I don't think anyone wants to live those extra 30 years planning their funeral.

Increasing Women's Visibility on the Web: Whose Butt Should We Be Kicking?

More women and one self-identified "little old lady." No women of color on this panel, but the fact that this is not a panel about a successful porn site led by a woman a roomful of people are eager to stare at (as well as absorb her enormous knowledge, of course) makes me content.

Shout-outs went to SXSW organizer Hugh Forrest (this was at least the third time his name was invoked) for working hard to diversify the panels and the panelists and, in turn, diversify the audience. Funny thing how that happens.

Who's talking, who's listening, what can be said in a blog, what cannot? Familiar topic with a new group of women. Complicated and not so complicated.

The reason these questions seem so convoluted is because we don't have the conversations in our everyday, ordinary exchanges. We're too busy trying to survive.

I'm seeing the same black and brown faces around me. That's okay, considering what it was like a few years ago.

The real talk gets down to: How do blogs get read, who finds them, what is in the blogger's hands, what is the result of the technological hocus-pocus that goes on in cyberspace when someone does a search – how is it you get found? Are the right tags in place? How can networks help you? There was a lot of talk about "sandbox visibility," which echoed, in a sense what was said at the first panel I went to yesterday (Better Blogging Brainstorms). Strangely, that feels like last week. So much information has come at me, so many new faces, all this synthesizing about the writing world of the diaphanous scarf and the pen and pencil and the writing world of the mouse and keyboard. I find myself wondering if there could be a game, like Rock, Scissors, Paper between the pen and pencil and the mouse and keyboard. How would that work? Pen stabs mouse. Mouse eats pen. Keyboard breaks pencil. Mouse pees on keyboard. And what about the hand signals? I'm fading. There's never enough coffee, and I'm craving a smoke – something that hasn't happened to me in a long while, and worries me because I don't want to start that habit again. The upside of that is that the craving comes on the strongest when my brain is processing too much and I need to calm myself down. During the AWP, my calm-down drug of choice was a refreshing gin and tonic with my pal Vince. Here, I want my brain to remain unclouded. I don't want to anesthetize the racket of clicks and snaps in my head; I just want it to slow down some so I can capture some of it and make it make sense. There's an epiphany in there somewhere.

Oh yeah. So the panel. Here's who was there: Virginia DeBolt (vdebolt.com), Ayse Erginer (arsepoetica.typepad.com), Liz Henry (darkshire.org/~lizzard/), Tara Hunt (riya.com) and Jan Kabili (saga2.com). My favorite quote from this panel came from Hunt, who said, "Warhol said we were looking for our 15 minutes of fame. Now [with blogs and other online appearances] we can be famous for 15 people. Once again, those 15 people appeared to be in the room. Once again, I wasn't one of them. It was funny to me how having that "if only there were more brown folk or women here" lament the last few years of the conference, in some ways, didn't make much difference. I can do "outsider" well. Though I suspect Jan Kabili would have said something like, "Hey, make your own noise." Which makes me wonder: How do women from communities who are not accustomed to making their own noise get heard? Whose "problem" is that? Does the blogging world self-segregate into a universe of self-proclaimed loudmouths saying, "I gotta be me"? I'm not criticizing, mind you. I really want to know.

Bloggers in Love: Intimacy, Technology and Mask-Making

Sweet. I've never seen three couples more suited to one another. And to see the exchange of affection in their eyes was really dear.

It's funny: The first year I went to SXSW Interactive, and went to a panel discussion on personal Web sites, the discussion was much more – what's the word? – peculiar. Online dating was still a new concept to a great portion of the audience, creating a great deal of curiosity as well as brow furrowing. Today, it just seems like another way of meeting people. And let's face it: When you have to sort out your baggage online, or even by phone, without the distraction of the physical proximity, a lot gets unpacked.

I don't have much more to say. Listen to the podcast.

Blogging While Black: Revisited

This was the cool panel to go to, I kept hearing. Last year, this was the place to be. It was the bomb. A mixed panel of men and women, all black. Who'da guessed that could happen?

When the panel started, one of the panelists remarked from the dais, looking out at us, that we looked like the church pews at a biracial marriage. We all looked around to see what was meant. Loosely, we had seated ourselves according to skin color (Hey! I was in my seat from the get-go, as the previous panel I sat in on was in the same room).

More talk about self-segregation online. More talk about anger and dealing with hot topics. More talk about what it means to know who's reading you. More talk about if it's useful or necessary to have your racial or ethnic identity known. The discussions repeat, not for lack of imagination, I think, but because they are necessary and the responses are not as simple as some might like to think. It was interesting that most of the panelists had journalism backgrounds. There was already a lust for playing with language, but working it in a context that was more culturally or intellectually engaging, more personal in some cases. Angry, when necessary. But, as Tiffany Brown adroitly pointed out, there's a whole other thing cast when a black woman gets angry, as opposed to a white man or woman for that matter.

My favorite quote was from moderator Lynne D. Johnson (lynnedjohnson.com): "Diamonds are forever, but Google is really forever." Damn, she rawks. The whole panel rawks. The whole room rawked, but when – como se llama? Esa mujer – Liza Sabater made a shout-out for remembering there were other blacks out there – black Puerto Ricans – it struck me. Here we are, sitting in Texas – which used to be Mexico. Where are the brown folks? The discussion of race always come down to the black-and-white dichotomy. That's got to change.

I was happy when brother man Jason Toney (negroplease.com) said he was interested in increasing the visibility of people of color at this conference. I assumed that meant the spectrum of brown and black and Asian folks. And if not, then it's time to make some calls and get of those brown folks I know, que no tiene pelos en la lengua, and get the party started.

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SXSW Interactive 2206 ?, Vince Lozano, Tony Pierce, busblog.com, Min Jung Kim, minjungkim.com, Helen Jane Hearn, helenjane.com, Cameron Barrett, camworld.com, Liza Sabater, culturekitchen.com, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Hemings, Dan Clancy, Google Book Search, Bob Stein, Institute for the Future of the Book, Danielle Tiedt, Microsoft

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