I might be imagining it, but I’ve been noticing that the television show Heroes comes up a lot in conversation here at SXSW, or “South by” as it seems to be called by the natives. “Do you watch Heroes?” is one of those questions that seems to pop up just before you’re about to cross the threshold of mere acquaintance to actual friendship. If you watch Heroes, that says that you believe in good, evil, doing the right thing, following your inner geek, building alliances, and searching for purpose in a world of seemingly infinite possibility and coincidence. And you’re probably working on a new community-driven Web 2.0 application, building a brand new conversational marketing model for your business, or pushing the frontier of digital convergence. The question has even been asked by panel moderators…”How many people here have seen Heroes?” Colin Devroe’s been making the rounds for Viddler, the video sharing community startup, scaring people like me with surprise interviews. And yes, he asked me about Heroes. I guess that means we’re buds now.
Sunday was an odd day, feeling much like a rainy Wednesday. I was a rather hermit-like mood, but I decided not to let it bother me because I was “wasting” the opportunity to meet a zillion people.
I’m Feeling Hermity
A friend of mine sometimes likes to go to public sporting events to be by herself. There’s something about the crowd of people around you that provides a kind of social energy, yet you are anonymous. This was one of those days for me…though I did encounter a few people I knew, my energy was definitely way more low key and I generally kept to myself. It was a day of recentering.
The first session of the day I attended was Game Perverts: A Robot, a DS and a Dot Matrix Printer Menage a Trois, part of the expanded Screenburn (video game) track of panels. The topic was the use of game console hardware for purposes other than playing video games. I was hoping to get some inspiration and insight into the homebrew development scene. There were four panelists:
- Rodney Gibbs, moderator: An executive studio director for a console gaming company, Gibbs kept things moving along between the three showcase hardware and software hackers:
Rich LeGrand, Charmed Labs: The first guy to hack the GameBoy, he sells a product called the XPort to allow you to use a GameBoy Advance as a robotic controller.
Bob Sabiston, Flat Black Films: Got a Nintendo DS devkit and created a pixel editor with animation capabilities. It’s pretty cool.
Paul Slocum, musician hacker: He’s part of an 8-bit band called Tree Wave, doing some very cool hacking of old Atari 2600 consoles, dot matrix printers, and other vintage gear to create music.
p>All three guys were the intense hacker type I hadn’t seen much of since I worked in the game industry, and it sort of accentuated how much my path has diverged from where I thought it would have gone when I was in my 20s. They all kicked ass, though the panel would be what I call “low energy” due to some technical snafus with a missing RCA cable necessary for Bob Sabiston’s dual-screen projector for the NDS. I actually asked a question about where to get started with homebrew development, my first of the festival. I guess I’m warming up. I hope these guys check out some of the product and self promotion panels here at SXSW; at the end, a question was asked about how they went about quitting their day jobs and making a living from what they do, and it seemed that at least two of them were looking for a way to make it happen.
Making Your Short Attention-Span Pay Big Dividends
I was originally planning to see Non-Developers to Open Source Acolytes: Tell Me Why I Care entire because I wanted to see the moderator, Elisa Camahort, do her thing…she knows how to run a brisk and interesting panel, and all the BlogHer-related panels have provided me with a lot of insight about how people really feel about a variety of important topics. However, at the last minute I found out about Making Your Short Attention-Span Pay Big Dividends, and thought that is so totally what I need. As a bonus, it was Jim Coudal and Brendan Dawes who got up there and told us that they basically goof off all day and try out lots of things that tickle their fancy, sometimes going so far to create complete creative campaigns and codebases to put the idea out there. And most of them end up in something Coudal calls “The Book”, which is where unborn ideas are mothballed. Coudal said that some might call this a failure, but they are actually quite successful because something has been learned and stored, and that is part of the creative dynamo that they are fiercely protective of. Dawes, who I hadn’t been familiar with until today, was an even more interesting creative who has done wacky things like McGoogle. A lot of what they do was not planned, but has lead to wonderfully creative and awesome things. The takeaway for me was that I have to now been really focused on trying to become more structured, which may be against my very nature. Almost everything I’ve done that I feel really good about has been impulsive or based on surprise flashes of insight. Instead of trying to convert this into a reliable engine as a commodity desire, I really do have the option of going the other way. The primary requirement is that the work I do is great, and that may entail restarting rather than continually revising. AND, most importantly, I have to get the work OUT THERE. This is a point that Dawes repeated several times; he quoted someone as saying “it’s a lot easier to steer a moving ship than one that’s still in port.” It was an eye-opening panel for me.
For lunch I checked out the Screenburn Arcade, which had a few video-game related things going on. There were two areas with professional girl gamers (the Frag Dolls and Clan PMS) taking on all comers and slaughtering them in games like Halo and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. It was interesting to watch the precision with which they moved, which utterly demoralized the people I saw playing. Pretty awesome. A notable product I saw was a cool guitar music maker called Jam Sessions for the Nintendo DS, which will be coming out from Ubisoft in a while. It uses the touch-sensitive screen to simulate strumming a guitar, and you can pick your chords using the D-Pad. I had been thinking of something similar with a chord piano player, but this is even cooler because you can use a guitar pick with your DS. That rocks! Otherwise, there wasn’t much to see in the arcade.
Keynote Conversation: Limor Fried / Phil Torrone
The keynote was in the 1300-person capacity Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel across the street from the Convention Center. Limor Fried, a graduate from MIT who is involved heavily in the open source hardware movement, spoke with Phil Torrone about the DIY scene. People are making all kinds of wacky and awe-inspiring stuff. Very empowering stuff. I didn’t take many notes during this session, other than to remind myself to subscribe to Make and check out the open source hardware materials on Limor’s site. I was a rather indifferent EE student in school, but am interested in looking at that stuff again because now I want to make little clocks and timers for the productivity work I’ve been doing. Plus, this is another great community to be a part of.
Deadlines, Clients and Cashflow: The Business Side of Web Design
Though my head is filled with dreams of community, impulsive creativity, and creative partnership, I’ve still got to get the work I have now done, so I attended James Archer’s Deadlines, Clients and Cashflow panel. James is the CEO of FortyMedia, a bunch of really nice folk out of Phoenix, Arizona. He presented a list of a couple dozen things that FortyMedia has learned as they’ve grown their business. It was a good list…I’m sure it’ll be posted somewhere…I’ll back-anotate this post later when I have a chance to review my notes.
ValleySpeak for the Rest of Us: Developing Apps Outside InternetVille
The part of New Hampshire I live in can be considered part of the “Greater Boston Area”, but it’s tough to find people to work with. The premise of this panel, which featured Brian Oberkirch and Dan Cederhom, was the deconstruction of the difference between Sillicon Valley and Middle-of-Nowheresville. Two takeaways:
- With today’s online tools, it’s possible to collaborate from anywhere very effectively.
- Even if your talent pool is thin, if you focus on building the tribe you’ll be much better off. Any tribe is better than nothing…get to know some people around you. You’ll be amazed at who knows what and who knows who.
Cederholm also echoed a thought that’s been at the top of my mind for the past few years: working with someone right next to you, in the same room and available to bounce ideas off of, is increasingly important.
The last session of the day: People Powered Products. The printed book schedule showed that one of the SkinnyCorp guys would be at the panel, but the panelists were the following: Derek Powazek, publisher of JPG Magazine, a community-driven photo magazine; Jeremy Hogan of Lulu.com, a popular print-on-demand book company that allows you to publish a book for practically zero cost; Matt Rubens, co-founder of online music mixing site Jamglue with a growing community of (as it turns out) 15 year old kids; Jason Levitt (moderator); and Heather Champ, community manager for Flickr. The takeaways from this session for me were that I needed to check out Lulu.com again to see what new capabilities they’ve added since I last looked at it a year ago, and that building a community around some products might be very cool. Thinking back to the earlier Phil Torrone / Limor Fried keynote, I wondered what the ramifications of releasing an “open source” printable ceo kit would be, and seeing what kind of community might arise from it. It’s certainly something to consider.
A theme that I heard in this panel was that communities need to have publically viewable standards of conduct and values, and that the best situation was when the community itself was capable of policing themselves. One of the panelists asked us to think about what “community” was like in the real world; if you saw a member of your community acting all weird, you would take him aside and have a talk. The same rule applies to online community. While it’s possible to just nuke people’s accounts, the right thing to do is really extend the values of the community and offer the benefit of the doubt. I intuitively feel this is true, though I’m too sleepy to really describe it further.
Avalonstar Bowling Extravaganza
Awesome venue, and a really great place to get together and meet a lot of people. I wasn’t very social myself, limiting my interaction to people in my immediate vicinity, but I had a good time and met a few new people, including a couple of readers: Helmut Granda who I met at Barcamp Austin in 2006, and Phil Freo, a web designer/developer from Florida. I know I’ve been griping about how I’ve found it really hard to just go up to people and introduce myself, but after tonights two encounters and others from the previous two days, I just realized that they’ve all provided really wonderful role models to follow: just walk up to people and say some nice things, exude warmth, and shake hands. Shawn Grimes echoed this same thing to me. I guess one could think of it as the “gift of appreciation”.
I’m looking forward to the South By Veloso Expo next year…Bryan’s getting pretty damn good at putting on these shindigs. Great job, dude!
Now I’ve got to sort through my cards and write down who I met and where, and get to sleep.