SXSW Tuesday: Finishing Well

From the 2007 Archives Encounters #SXSW07 10 Comments

I’m trying to think of a way to summarize the last day of SXSW07 Interactive. The phrase that comes to mind that it was a day of rededication. After four solid days of panels, a certain path is becoming clearer, and everyone I met today seemed to play a part in the journey. I’ll likely write more about this once I get back home, and have had some time to reread what I’ve been posting over the past few days. I apologize for the raw quality of the posts; they are intended to serve as placeholders for my emotional response to the panels, which I am unlikely to remember in detail after a day.

Today was a pretty random day, as I hadn’t really planned what panels I would attend. I again repeated my strategy of eschewing the more straightforward web development and design panels for the ones about people and content creation.

The Future of the Book: Dead or Alive

At yesterday’s visit to the tradeshow, I had come across the Blurb Print On Demand Book booth and spent some time chatting with them. I was incredibly excited by the possibilities, and this got me thinking again how books as tangible artifacts were so much more appealing to me these days than computers. I saw that Eileen Gittins, the CEO of Blurb, was on this panel, and decided to check it out. An unexpected bonus was remeeting Britt, who I’d just met the day before, at the panel, and we had a fun conversation about books and shared some thoughts on the SXSW experience. The statement that I remember most vividly was how great it was to be in a group of people who were all so exciting about doing things that were inspiring and awesome…and this set the tone for the rest of the day. I was reminded that I have reconnected with the people who matter most to me. I also got a chance to chat a bit more with Andrew Switzky from yesterday, who was attending the same panel.

The panel opened with a wry observation that a panel about books seemed very out of place at a festival like SXSW. For me, I had picked this panel over the others because I thought as interesting as they were, a panel about books might offer the kind of historical perspective that the panelists were likely to offer would be the most valuable takeaway of the morning.

Brewster Kahle, of the Internet Archive, had some interesting statistics about how the cost of short-run book production has dropped due to toner-based technologies. Scanning a book costs about 10 cents a page to do it right, and reproduction in black and white is about 1 cent per page. To print a book, including covers, costs about $3.00. Wow. He also showed off one of the very hard-to-obtain OLPC prototypes, the $100 laptop for the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative. I got to hold it, and though the build quality felt a little on the chintzy side, what really grabbed me was the screen. It’s a 200DPI screen that can be viewed in direct sunlight with 12 hours of battery life…this is fabulous. While the horsepower is pretty limited compared to other laptops, I’m excited by the possibilities offered by a display that’s usable outside. If you’ve ever tried to work outside on a sunny day, you know what I mean.

Terri Ducay, VP of Cheskin Design, made an interesting observation about how books really about user experience. Books are more than just a vehicle for delivering words for people. She suggested that instead of asking whether the Book is dead or alive, ask what the new user experience is going to be. Note to self: I should investigate the user experience groups in Boston. I liked Terri’s passion for it.

Another panelist made the observation that the traditional publishing model, which takes up to 40% of the book price for distribution, has parallels with venture capital. A publisher loans the author an advance against future royalties; they’re essentially funding the possibility of a book selling enough to recoop the initial investment in an author. The ability to self-publish very small print runs for small groups of people (say, your grandmother) who really care about your book, without incurring the costs of a print run, creates some pretty wonderful opportunities for the independent content creator building a support community.

Design Aesthetic of the Indie Developer

While I have been working to establish my freelance business processes, at heart I would rather be an independent developer doing my own thing. I went freelance in 2004 because I thought I would then have no excuse to NOT pursue indie development, but that didn’t end up happening. This panel, featuring successful indie designer-developers like Nick Bradbury (creator of HomeSite), John Gruber (Daring Fireball), and Shaun Inman (Mint), sounded like it might give me some insights into the development process.

The panel itself was illuminating in an unexpected way: it legitimized the idea of being small and creating first for myself. There were several good tidbits:

  • The Death of the Startup has been rumored since last SXSW. We’re no longer motivated by the IPO, and we’re fine being small.

  • A quote from a book, “Architecture of Happiness”: Great Design Speaks to you, it has something to say.

  • The iPod Giggle: When you hand someone an iPod and they start using it for the first time, they invariably giggle. That’s a wonderful thing.

  • Iteration and learning as you need things is a pretty common approach. I liked Shaun Inman’s approach: having the freedom to take tangents.

  • Structure of the Day: This I was very interested in because I’ve been experimenting with my daily routine to see what might happen. None of the panelists have had problems with daily structure, but I think it’s also notable that they are all married, which imposes its own structure: that of the loving relationship. That might be the best motivation of all.

There was other discussion about problems facing the single-person operation, such as scaling up, support, and so forth.

Revisiting the Trade Show

I went back to check out the difference between Blurb and Lulu.com in terms of printing quality…I am SUPER FUSSY about stuff like that. So now I’m torn:

  • I liked the Blurb booth a lot…it was very much about empowering people (yeah!) and was staffed by friendly creatives that were totally jazzed to be providing this service. They had books scattered all over the place

  • The Lulu booth had a good selection of their products, which is broader than Blurb’s offerings. I didn’t quite feel the same connection, though, as I did with the Blurb booth.

The dilemma: I liked Lulu’s print out better than what I saw at Blurb’s booth. Kevin Kelly reviewed both services some time ago and says they both rock. His article notes that these companies use different print engines, and to my eyes this was apparent: Lulu output was less shiny but more uniform in color surface finish (a sort of semi-matte). Text was also crisp and black. Several of Blurb’s books, by comparison, had a kind of low-res color-fringe look to the text, as if it had been printed 4-color instead of straight black (I didn’t have a loupe with me, so I couldn’t really check for certain). When I pointed this out to a staff person yesterday, she said it was because that particularly book had be laid out completely in another application, not Blurb’s tool. I looked again today to see if it was something I could live with…I’m not sure. I think most people are not as anal as I am about stuff like this, and wouldn’t notice. What I’ll do is prepare a sample on both services and see how it goes.

I also ran into another reader at the trade show, Lance Romanoff, who had written to me just prior to SXSW. We chatted a bit about parties we’d been to, and found we had a common desire to have QUIET alcohol-free parties. Lance is also in New England, and we chatted about the New England New Media group I used to run more actively…I’d like to resurrect it. Between the people I’ve met at SXSW and Barcamp, I think pulling some kind of get together in the near future will be possible. Community!

Will Wright Keynote Speech

Will Wright presented a very fast-paced, articulate, and intelligent discussion of storytelling and game structure. Between this panel and yesterday’s Warren Spector presentation, I’ve been feeling the tug of nostalgia for game design. The main takeaway from the speech is personal: I really should start formalizing my thoughts on design and storytelling for myself, so I can articulate them with greater ease. I would say my design process at the moment is more intuitive and based on having grown up playing and building interactive systems, and I think it’s time to start laying down some principles as the basis of my practice. The trick will be laying them out in a flexible way that guides without binding.

Girl Video Gamers Teach You the Facts About Successful Marketing

I actually was planning on going to the Avatar panel, but ended up in the wrong part of the building. So, I went to the Girl Video Gamers Marketing panel instead…it was my second choice anyway. I got a chance to catch up with LeaLea, who I had met at the Boss Lady panel a couple days ago. I have been following her website on-and-off for the past year or so, which is a really impressive example of how a self-starting, professionally-minded graphic designer can start growing her business. I find that really inspiring and encouraging.

The panel featured two gamer girl clans, the Frag Dolls and PMS Clan. The Frag Dolls are sponsored by UBISOFT, a game publisher, and because of this they are sometimes assumed to be “fake” girl gamers hired to dupe wide-eyed 14yo boys into parting with their allowances. However, this is not the case, and Amy Brady will kick your ass if you say otherwise. I was watching her gleefully slaughter a number of sullen young males in some version of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter at the Screenburn Arcade. What was very cool was that the online marketing manager for the Frag Dolls, Morgan Romine, was also a Frag Doll and actively competing. I should mention that they’re a professional gamer group in the growing sport of competitive video gaming. There’s real money and skill in these tournaments, and it’s largely dominated by male teams. The mission of groups like PMS Clan (an independent clan) are to support and grown the woman gamer demographic, which I think is totally awesome because it is one more way that a disenfranchised group (girl gamers) can pull themselves up to the level of recognition that they deserve.

The theme that rang through the panel was that authenticity is absolutely critical to their existence and effectiveness in reaching their demographic. The authenticity theme has been repeated in every community-related session I’ve attended. It was fantastic to see three women who were so utterly devoted to being the real thing, as role models for their chosen constituency, and in pursuing their passions in the face of a sometimes-hostile environment (smack-
talking egotistical males desperate to mask their incompetence through bullying).

On a side note, I re-met Christine-From-The-Balcony. She was someone who I met on the smoking balcony at the last SXSW; she’d helped me take a picture of myself. It’s nice to reconnect with people! We had a brief-but-interesting chat about cultural gaps in certain concepts. Did you know that Korean and Slavic languages have no equivalent construct to the double-negative? When you’re working with programmers in those countries, you have to be careful to provide instructions in a culturally-compatible way, otherwise the work won’t get done right.

The Global Microbrand: Are Blogs, Suits and Wine the New Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll?

The last session of the day is traditional Bruce Sterling’s SXSW Closing Rant. I loved last year’s rant, but I’m also pretty sure that the podcast will capture a lot of the fire. Instead, I wanted to close out my SXSW experience by seeing some of my personal blogging heroes in one last panel. As it turned out, this was probably the most important panel for me for the entire festival.

So what is a global microbrand? Hugh McCleod relayed a story about a 200 year-old English shotgun manufacturer that decided to stay small. If you’ve got $80,000 and a need for a custom shotgun, these are the guys you go to. This is an example of a global microbrand.

It had never really occured to me that becoming a “global microbrand” was the path that I’m on, but I reckon it’s true. I really want to make great product that is genuinely useful to people, and I love working on it. What’s been the challenge is figuring out how to “monetize” it without losing the essence of what I’m doing. And that essence was very well summarized by Kathy Sierra’s “7 Virtues” to follow. These have worked for her:

  • Be Grateful — There are 55 million blogs on Technorati! That anyone is spending time reading YOU for even 30 seconds is a rare and wonderful thing. It is the gift of attention. Receive it mindfully.

  • Be Humble — It’s not about you. It’s about giving your readers the credit for being who they are.

  • Be Patient — It takes a while for the seeds you’re planting now to sprout into traffic. It took CPU about 1.5 years to start really catching on.

  • Be Brave — Avoid death by risk aversion! Some people will hate your stuff, others will love you. Avoid that zone of mediocrity, where you try not to offend anyone.

  • Show Respect — The value of the time your readers give is really worth a lot, so be respectful of their time. On a side note, this is something I should work at…I tend to write waaay too long (these SXSW posts, for example).

  • Be Generous — Give people super powers, give stuff away, help people in any way you can. Put that karma out there, let people use your stuff.

  • Be Motivating — As an outside influence, you have the power to help people get going (“outside expert syndrome”). Talk to the brain, not the mind! Don’t name drop!

On that last virtue, I’ve been guilty of name-dropping over the past few days, though at the time I was doing it I didn’t think it through. I like dropping everyone’s name…if I met you and we talked about something cool, I want to mention it to everyone. My reason for doing this is motivated by—and I might be rationalizing this—the desire to present a level playing field. I use myself as an example for a lot of the weird ideas I have about the psychology of productivity because (1) I’m an easy target and (2) by being as open as I know how to be about my experiences, I am hoping that people with similar issues can see maybe they’re not alone. I know what that feels like, and it sucks to be in that dark place wondering what the hell is wrong with yourself. Well, you’re NOT alone. It’s just sometimes hard to find the person standing right next to you, until you learn to squint in the right way.

Where was I? Oh, it was a great panel, and provided the right finish to the festival for me. Hugh said something pretty wonderful at the end, that the reason we’re here is because of LOVE. That is, at heart, the business that we’re in, and at the moment he said that a lot of things clarified for me. First, I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking this, though I hadn’t even thought it out loud. I had used words like “empowerment” and “passion” to distance myself from this very intimate, powerful, NO TURNING BACK ONCE YOU’VE SAID IT turn of phrase. But yeah…I think this is it. I want to be a part of this, because for whatever reason I just want to love in the way that Hugh implied. It’s a personal commitment without expectation of return, except we know that it IS karmically connected back with us. And it’s the right thing, for us anyway, to do.

All through the week, I’ve been thinking about community, passion, authenticity, empowerment, storytelling, sharing, participation, and collaboration. Just about every panel i attended amplified one of these themes. I had been thinking how to apply these ideas to my own practice, which was great. But I think what this last panel has done is reconnect me with the sense of mission that I’d lost several years ago. At the end of the panel, I realized that I was quite probably in a room full of people who believed in the very same thing, and that I wasn’t alone.

It’s going to be hard to go back to work tomorrow plugging away at the legacy HTML project I’m doing, but I’m excited to have (at least for the moment) my direction recalibrated and pointing true once again.