SXSW Monday: Hitting My Stride, Finally

From the 2007 Archives Encounters #SXSW07 5 Comments

Another quiet day, and yet I’m just starting to feel like I’m getting comfortable and hitting my stride. Maybe it’s because today pretty much focused on going to things that I thought were interesting, and asked people questions when I was curious about something. There’s a certain level of socializing I’m comfortable with, and I’ve decided to just let that happen. The entire morning went by without me meeting anyone I knew, which is understandable since I have been going to the weirder panels related to open source, community building, storytelling, and digital convergence.

Revisiting Commercial Open Source Business Models

I thought I would mix it up a bit and check out a panel related to business plans. However, I thought that this panel would be about business plans that were themselves somehow “open sourced”, like a free franchising system. In actuality, this panel explored the use of open source software in (yawn) businesses.

I decided to sit through the session since I had gotten a net connection and could at least check my mail, and the panel actually became pretty interesting. The takeaways:

  • Open Source may not help a large player in a market, but for marginalized smaller players, it helps even out the playing field by providing a tremendous amount of quality software.

  • Convincing your clients that it’s the right choice for them, though, is trickier. Since the software is free, you need to convince them that you’re providing additional services of clear value using the open source solutions as a solid base. That allows your clients to spend more money on actual improvements, and less on rebuilding the wheel. And, since the software is not proprietory, you don’t lock your clients into a custom solution.

  • Sometimes, the argument against Open Source software from corporate counsel is not so much the legal threat, but legal incompetence. Some lawyers do not have the experience in the implications of open source licensing, and this creates more work and uncertainty for them. However, every piece of software, commercial or open source, has conditions for use. It is possible to work out policy to meet those needs.

  • The trustworthyness of open source is often questioned as software that “everyone” contributes to…so how good could it possibly be? It turns out that there are relatively few contributors to any given piece of software, because it’s difficult to write sophisticated code. That’s the difference between something like Wikipedia and Linux. Everyone thinks they can write text. Not everything thinks they can write good code. However, the non-coding users provide lots and lots of testing, which helps improve code quality.

The BIG takeaway for me is that I really should start leveraging open source software for my own business activities. It takes time to get familiar with a particular platform, but the investment in studying and supporting a give platform like, say, CakePHP, will give me a huge leg-up. I’m dumb not to.

Convergence Culture: A Conversation with Henry Jenkins

I have been hearing about “media convergence” but had no idea what it was. I had never heard of Henry Jenkins or Dannah Boyd, so I took a chance.

While I was waiting for the panel to start, I turned to the fellow to my left and asked him if he could tell me something about digital convergence. He started to explain it from the technical perspective, and the fellow to my right, Andrew Switzky, started a spirited discussion about the nature of convergence. The guy to my left, whose name escapes me, was very much a distribution guy. Sitting in the front row next to someone is a pretty good way, I think, to start a conversation. The people who are sitting right up front are the most likely people to really care about the panel. I am going to try this again tomorrow.

Anyway, Henry Jenkins is awesome, and after one particularly mind-blowing statement Dannah Boyd quipped, with deep affection and admiration, “Can you see why I think this man is god?” I am right there with her. Some of the notes from Jenkin’s talk:

  • In the beginning there was the Fanboy, which was a marginalized and mocked member of society living in their respective basements. With the advent of the Internet, however, fans began to organize and become a signifant shaper of their popular culture, writing stories extending their favorite characters and organizing. Now, fan culture is starting to shape the source material, and is increasingly recognized as a powerful influence on the success of a particular element of our culture. He says what we’re calling “Web 2.0″ is the legitimizing name for fandom!

  • Henry has always been a fan boy, and that makes him extra cool.

  • Our culture is again becoming more participatory. He cited an interesting number that 57% of kids these days are producing their own media, and 33% of them are distributing it behind just their immediate circle of friends. However, there are political forces that seek, under the banner of “protecting the children in the 21st century”, to restrict their right to participate and communicate with others without parental consent.

  • The politics of fear, when it comes to our children, is both very prevalent and very effective. The politicians seem to agree that our children should be “muzzled”. We are afraid of our sons (columbine), and fear for our daughters (myspace predators).

  • There’s a parallel between 19th century notions of showmanship and humbuggery and today’s questionable authenticity of digital media. He told how PT Barnum and the Fiji Mermaid invited the public to come see this mysterious creature (which was a hoax) and determine for themselves whether it was real or not. And people were drawn to see it. So when scientists in Australia discovered a beaver-like animal with a pouch, a beak, and a poisonous stinger on its tail, people were incredibly skeptical. This laid the foundation for science education in the public, because people needed to learn something about the process of verification.

  • Second Life is a place where we can practice for our First Life. It can be used to test new political ideas and notions of participatory culture. It’s not unlike Carnival, when men dressed as women and women dressed as men. It was the one day of the year when “the rules” could be broken, because people were roleplaying as someone else. AND, this sometimes lead to actual political upheaval. Fascinating.

There was a lot more…wait for the podcast! It was pretty fantastic. Some of my own thoughts that came to mind were that people put their passion in different buckets, like IDEALS, FAMILY, CULTURE, and NATION. How they ACT depends on what they believe to be more important: the ability to self-govern, or the desire to live in security.

Tradeshow

The tradeshow was actually pretty cool, because I got to talk to a few cool companies. There were four fun ones I hit:

  • Lucky Oliver, the community stock photo company, was there giving away t-shirts if you promised to link back to them on your blog. Since I have a blog, I got myself a t-shirt. I’ve actually been meaning to write about Lucky Oliver for some time, because they have some of the most awesome writing I’ve ever seen on a website. I got to meet Amy Hooker, the person behind the prose, at the booth, and shook her hand. Go check it out! The company was started by a bunch of graphic designers who were fed up with their choices in stock photo, and built this cool app. The photos are quite affordable too; I’m going to give them a try next time I need some stock photo or something for a project.

  • Good Magazine had their booth, and I stopped by to ask them what the heck the magazine was about. I had picked up their premiere issue several months ago because I was curious, and couldn’t quite decide if it was treehugger liberal’s version of Martha Stewart Living. I decided, though, that it was worth dropping $20 for a 1-yr subscription, which also donated money to a selectable cause (I chose CC). This also got me an invite to the Good Party, in association with Creative Commons.

  • The Blurb bookmaking company. I got a chance to flip through an actual sample book, and was at first disappointed by the quality of the type. As I was about to point this out, the blurb representative I was talking to noted that that was one that a designer had laid out themselves, and they had apparently not done the separations correctly (there were color fringes on the text, sheesh!) The books that were made with the Blurb Booksmart program were much crisper. The exciting thing about Blurb is that they have blog import tools, and for $80 I could make a hardcopy backup of my blog. That would kick ass! I’m totally going to have to try this out. I wanted to stop by the LuLu booth too, but didn’t have a chance to talk to anyone there. Maybe tomorrow.

  • I stopped by the Make booth to try to get my free gift, which turned out to be free copies of the magazine. I was hoping it would be something gizmo-like, but nope. However, Limor Fried herself was working the booth, answering questions about her awesome kits. If you bought the kit there, you could also build it there. She was busy dragging out a soldering iron. She was very cool in that creative engineering way, and as is (we used to say in the game biz) “hardcore”. I made a joke about getting a kit signed in solder, which one of the other booth people thought would be cool, but Limor paused, and muttered “it doesn’t work that way”. I wonder what was going through her mind during that pause…so that’s what that feels like being on the receiving end :-)
    I didn’t end up buying a kit and building it there, visions of airport security problems dancing in my head, but I did get a 20% off discount coupon for purchases at the online store. I totally want to get the MiniPOV.

Dan Rather Keynote Interview

I didn’t expect to be too excited by this, attending because I was mostly interested to see how Dan Rather was like in person undistorted by television. However, I was rather inspired because of his introduction by political blogger Jane Hamsher.

  • He was there when John F. Kennedy was shot
  • He was there asking Nixon the hard questions about Watergate
  • He is an investigative journalist of the old school.

Investigative journalism! Getting to the truth behind the surface! These are callings I can get behind. Since I don’t watch the television news, I tend to know Dan Rather only as a rather cartoonish newsman on a studio set, known somewhat for his very strange analogies. He’s the real deal, though. It was good to be reminded that there were people like this still in the world, and I wanted to do the same to hold up my bit of it.

There was much discussion about the nature of journalists today. They’ve gotten soft, perhaps, not asking the hard questions because they’re trading “access for playing along”.

I must admit I fell asleep during the last half, but woke up when Dan Rather started to ask Jane Hamsher some questions. MY GOD…THE PRESSURE. It was wonderful to see an experienced newsperson handle the situation with authority. You could tell he was sort of used to taking charge and setting the tone of an event.

He closed with a powerful statement about world events as it relates to HDTV NET. He noted that we have a tendency to view horrible events like “10 people died in a bombing attack in Baghdad” as being “less real”. He choked up a bit as he described the nature of war, having reported on it and seen some horrible things. The power of HDTV, with its increased resolution, is that it will make those events less cartoonish. If you’ve ever seen the startling clarity of HDTV compared to standard def, you will immediately grasp the significance of this. In the content creation / entertainment world, HDTV creates a huge production burden because you have to work a lot harder to make everything look good; this is also an issue with today’s game developers because it creates a huge artwork creation and computer graphics rendering burden. So, I’ve tended to think of HDTV as a pain in the ass kind of thing, but heck…for real news coverage it will be absolutely amazing. I’m sold.

Warren Spector Presentation: The Future of Storytelling

I was excited to see Warren Spector’s panel on the future of storytelling, as I’ve been a fan of several of his past games. Though I’ve been out of the game industry for quite a while, I still have a soft spot for game design theory. He broke down game narrative into a number of diferent types of structures, discussed the elements of the dramatic arc, and espoused some of his personal theories. Some of the takeaways:

  • 90% of games are ‘rollercoaster’ games. You go from A to B to C to D, and you really have no choice except maybe what gun to use and enjoy the ride. Spector believes the medium has much more to offer, and said he tells those people who makes rollercoaster games to go make the movies they clearly want to.

  • 99% of the world doesn’t play games, because games are work because they require effort. And if games are work, the effort must be rewarded.

He said a lot more, and maybe I’ll type it up more formally later. Tomorrow, Will Wright will be giving the last keynote, and I’m really looking forward to that.

At the end of the session, Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates happened to be sitting near me, and Kathy saw me and said hi! She asked if I was the one who had written something about deconstructing a story, and I couldn’t actually remember. I explained, a little lamely, that I had just made a brain dump and was planning to find the patterns later. Kathy had found it interesting, and wanted to talk about it; I just looked at what I wrote on Saturday and here it is:

This was the second time I’d seen Kathy Sierra present, and I really like her sense of timing and sequencing. I need to spend more time deconstructing it later, but the first thought that comes to mind is that she does something that’s like storytelling except it’s not. It seems to have the FLOW of a great story, but it’s a different kind of narrative.

When I wrote this, I was capturing a feeling that I had while replaying the presentation in my head. Thinking about it now, her presentations are packed with information, but instead of being structured in a hierarchical or block-diagrammatic way, they’re sequenced in a way that links from idea to idea. Perhaps the feeling of story I’m picking up comes from the way the ideas are presented like little scenes. In the sequencing of the ideas, we enjoy each little nugget for its self, but that nugget does not telegraph what the NEXT nugget is going to say. Many talks, I think, “telegraph the punchline”; you can generally see “the setup”, “the supporting statement”, and “the logical conclusion” far enough in advance that there’s no dramatic tension. It’s boring! There’s never any surprising conclusions, twists, or shifts in perspective. Except in Kathy’s talks, which are more like an action serial like Indiana Jones than a mere talk. What keeps all the surprises from becoming a mess is, perhaps, the constant callback to the main idea or principle that she’s based the talk around. In a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the equivalent to principle is (and I admit this is a stretch) the everpresent Nazi threat. Every action in the Indy universe is framed in terms of that tension.

I’m trying to think of other good presenters…the only one that comes to mind is Steve Jobs (though admittedly, I’ve only seen the online quicktime movies). His talks seem formulaic that has a very easy-to-guess narrative structure, and maybe that’s because the whole point he’s getting to is the REVEAL. That’s the big moment that Jobs seems to cherish…it’s kind of like a soap opera. I wonder what the writers of Ugly Betty would do if they got a hold of a Steve Jobs keynote; that’s an interesting example of storytelling in a genre (the night time soap) that is ordinarily quite formulaic itself. That’s not to say Ugly Betty isn’t formulaic—the constant in the show is how Betty always does the right thing, even when it’s a struggle and if it’s misguided—but there have been moments when my mouth has hit the floor at the audacity of the plotting. Didn’t see that coming! Compare this to a show like Heroes…there isn’t anything in the show that has really surprised me…the expectation I have is that new pieces and relationships to a big puzzle are released every week. This is a more strategic kind of mental engagement, but since we’re not completely familiar with the rules of the Heroes universe so it continues to hold our attention. Compare this to a late-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had such a formulaic structure that you could practically set your clock depending on where you were in the story arch; it was more value affirming ritual than dynamic storytelling at that point, in my off-the-cuff opinion. But I digress.

On a side note, one of the other panels (“People Powered Products”, I think it was) attempted to apply what the moderator called “The Kathy Sierra Puppy Effect” to cause something good to happen in our brains by typing in a few search terms into Flickr. The funny thing was that the moderator was unable to find sufficiently cute puppies, and the effect was lost. You can not win over an audience with a marginally-cute puppy…it’s almost insulting in a way. I could sense the algorithm he was using:

  1. Puppy or Kitten
  2. with Large Eyes
  3. and posed in Cute Position

For some reason, every picture he threw up there were distinctly un-cute. He may have cued off large eyes without perceiving that the shots were very wide angle (and therefore disturbingly distorted). Or maybe he just had poor taste in puppies. Casting univerally-cute puppies for your talk is an important skill! If you choose poorly, you bring your talk to a screeching halt! I could very well be imagining this.

Open Content, Remix Culture and the Sharing Economy: Rights, Ownership and Getting Paid

The last panel of the day, discussing what content creators should know about digital rights and mashup culture. It was a pretty interesting panel, actually, featuring an online record label (John Buckman), a lawyer for YouTube (Glen Brown), a business person for Eyespot and DotSub (Larie Racine), the Creative Director for Creative Commons (Eric Steuer), and the publisher of Good magazine (Max Schorr).

The takeaway for me: heck, I should really consider open-sourcing or providing remix-friendly versions of my tools. It would be cool, and a great experiment for me. Giving up control of my design is kind of a scary idea, but what I might learn in return might be the key to greater exposure and opportunity.

Parties

This was the first night I actually got to some of the party locations, though as soon as I got to the places I remembered that I am not a big fan of them. They’re loud, dark, crowded, and filled with booze. As I don’t hear or see well, dislike crowds, and don’t drink, these are exactly the wrong sort of place for me to be. I did spend about an hour at the Good/Creative Commons party, since I had the invite, and the music was cool and the bar was open. I even talked to a few people in a friendly manner, unprompted. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this social thing after all. Next year, it would be interesting to have an event at the Austin Public Library for people like me.

Sleepytime!