Day 3: Mellow Hangout Day

I’m lying in bed at the hotel, feeling exhausted and more than a little under the weather. It has been, however, been an excellent day. While I didn’t attend as many panels, I did have extended conversations with several people and touched base with others. My personal reason for being at SXSW has shifted from information acquisition to relationship building, which is perhaps what it should have been all along.

I’ve been noticing that my notes about the SXSW experience have been rather sparse compared to last year’s effort. I had first attributed this to my general tiredness, which led to me not choosing to spend 3 hours a night summarizing the day’s events. This year I’m just noting my surface impressions, because you can listen to the panels themselves; this year’s SXSW Panel Podcasts are already being posted and draw your own conclusions. A second reason for my diminished output didn’t occur to me until today. Instead of using my cute OLPC XO laptop, with its green wireless ears and puppy-like aura, I lugged my Macbook Pro 17″ to the convention center so I could do my Southwest Airlines check-in early enough to get into the coveted “A boarding group” (Southwest Airlines does not assign seats). The earliest you can do an online check-in is 24 hours before the flight is scheduled to departure. My flight leaves at 240PM tomorrow, so I had to login at 240PM today (24 hours in advance) to get my place in line.

Because I had my MacBook Pro with me, I decided to use it to take notes during Lea Alcantara’s The Art of Self-Branding, the first panel of the day that I chose to attend. As I started to type, I drew an immediate conclusion about my 2008 note taking methodology: Moleskines and fountain pens are a zillion times slower. And compared to the XO laptop’s adorable-but-tiny rubbery keyboard, my MBP’s keyboard is familiar enough that I can type with “good enough” accuracy even with the laptop LCD backlight turned off (I’m a decent, if sloppy, touch typer; I don’t have look at the screen when I’m transcribing notes). Oh well…lesson learned.

The Art of Self Branding

I know Lea through the 9rules Network, and have been following her personal brand development series on-and-off for the past few years, so I was looking forward to hearing about her experiences and successes. The presentation, however, was more oriented toward comparative analysis of two website-based business that had launched at the same time under similar funding constraints. My favorite takeaway from the presentation was the analogy made between “nice guys” and “guy’s guys” in terms of attracting relationship partners. To broadly paraphrase, nice guys are perfectly decent, but they do not pay attention to how they convey themselves and are pretty much unaware of how that makes them less attractive. For example, the nice guy thinks that “speech and copy are separate, communicates what they think the customer wants, and sounds forced”. The guy’s guy, savvy marketer that he is, ensure that “speech and copy are the same, communicates like the customer, and sounds natural”. The comparisons were quite interesting; I hope Lea posts them on her site.

Core Conversation: Your Blog is a Niche Community

I decided to take another chance on the “Core Conversation” going on in Ballroom E. These are essentially participatory seminars, something new at SXSW this year. The core conversation description read very promisingly: “This Core Conversation will cover the issues you will face as your blog grows from a place where you write about your passions into a community where people gather to discuss their shared passion. We will talk to people who manage niche communities on a day to day basis, and they will bring their real life experience to the discussion.” The conversation host, Ben Brown, drove the discussion along lines of blog niche marketing and monetization, which I found interesting in passing but tangential to my desire to create a living participatory community on this website. Nevertheless, my mind was opened to the following ideas:

  • With a targeted niche, you can put up advertising that will pay per page view (as opposed to pay per click), and you can charge more money.
  • If you have a newsletter, advertisers are willing to pay for placement here too.
  • There are open source advertising servers you can grab.
  • Charging for access to content is surprisingly workable, especially if it is a nominal amount that is easy to pay for an entire year (think Flickr, for example).

I’m not sure how I feel about this. My model would be to create good products that people want rather than “farm” a community for direct contributions. For one thing, it takes a lot more energy to run and police a community, and I have learned that I would rather be writing and learning to make product. However, I do want to create a way where people can upload and modify their own creations, and that does imply that a community site infrastructure (profiles, posts, and reputation tools) are part of the package.

Lunchtime Conversations

I met up with Abi Jones, who is the chief editor of Heat Eat Review, to have a nice cup of tea. There is something about her writing that I find quite amusing; it’s authentic and playfully wry. In person, she possesses a gravitas that makes me pay attention to what she’s saying. We talked about personal branding and our individual personal histories; about halfway through our time, I became aware that my background stories run kind of LONG, and it takes a while to get to the point. I’d like to condense that down. Partly it might be that I tend to think in terms of beginning, middle, and end when I speak, and I’m often distracted by tangents that add their own subtle flavor to my main point.

I also ran into Chris Tingom and Mike Rohde, though we didn’t get a chance to really talk that long. Chris writes the eclectic and intriguing blog Brain Fuel, and Mike writes about his daily design experiences in a resonant personal manner. I’d come across his blog a couple of years ago, and its likable low-key tone matches well with the man himself. Both Chris and Mike are 9rules members, which is how I was introduced to their work.

I met quite a few more people than this, of course, but I am terrible at recalling names and faces. I took as much video snippage as possible so I can refamiliarize myself the names that go with the faces.

Interactive Clicks @ The Adobe Day Stage

I thought that I would stop by the “networking event” for Interactive Designers, but as I went inside I immediately got cold feet and decided to leave. I just didn’t have the energy to talk to people cold, and I realized that I just wasn’t that excited about interactive design. What had been turning me on at SXSW is learning about new movements that were getting underway. Interactive Design is far too broad a group for me to get that excited about at this conference.

Core Conversations: Creating Passionate Games–A Multidisciplinary Approach

With my time freed from the onus of networking, I hopped into Ballroom E to see what conversations were going on before making a bee-line to the Trade Show, which I had not yet seen. The broad topic was “Gaming”, and having spent years of my life preparing for and working as a video game designer / developer, I felt the old surge of professional interest. This quickly died as I looked over the list of topics, though the Passionate Games title had drawn my eye earlier in the week when I was browsing the schedule of events. I am still pretty burned out on games, and had realized I lost my passion for it years ago. On my way out, a woman caught my eye and shook the sign at me in a manner that made me think that we had met before. Nope, actually she was just trying to get some asses into some chairs, but her enthusiasm was such that I decided to sit down. This turned out to be an interesting conversation, because it actually was a conversation. The moderators, Sande Chen and Anne Toole, posed questions to the small but talkative crowd, maintaining the pace of the discussion without deliberating structuring it. I felt a tiny shadow of my former passion for games and the possibly of the medium return, because here were people who were intellectually curious and driven. I suddenly understood how Darth Vader might have felt on Endor in Return of the Jedi, when the idealistic Luke Skywalker attempts to convince him that there is “still good in him”. “No”, rasped Vader in a slightly resigned tone, “It is too late for me.” Any passion I had for games got stomped out of me by the time I was 30, and I question if I was hard core enough in the first place. I’ve moved on, but I’m still drawn to the possibilities of storytelling and interactive media. What is different now compared to 10 years ago is that I am more focused on the fundamentals of good storytelling and showmanship; the technology of interactive presentation is not particularly interesting to me. When story is the emphasis in an expectation-managed environment, any technology will do.

Still…I found myself wishing that I could meet with a group of people like this regularly. The youthful gamer. The seasoned industry producer. The award-winning writers. The theater professional that loves gaming. It was a good mix of people and perspectives. I already miss it.

Hanging Out

After the Passionate Games session, I made my way toward the Trade Show but ran into Catherine Crago again, who seems to possess the ability to create a bubble of friendliness wherever she goes. We sat and chatted on the 4th floor for a while, as people constantly entered and exited the conversation. If anyone stopped near Catherine, they found themselves engaged in a conversation. Some people just have that effect on the space around them, and it’s a skill I wish I had.

It’s interesting that I’m finding that there are a few key individuals that are important to my SXSW experience. Catherine, who I have run into every year, is one of them. Then there is Jake Ingman and Dane Petersen, who are two guys I met at SXSW 2006 during the first Avalonstar Bowling Extravaganza, and I had assumed they were old high school buddies. Nope, they had just met and their natures are such that they instantly bonded, creating enormous waves of positive energy. Our interactions are fleeting, lasting perhaps only 5-10 minutes every year, but they have become part of my personal SXSW mythology, representing the very spirit of camaraderie that imbues the best kinds of collaboration. Kathy Sierra is also part of the ritual, as I’ve been lucky to have seen her presentation at each SXSW I’ve attended, and she reminds us to keep empowering the people that we can reach. That’s something of my mission as well, though I so far have lacked the clarity to execute on it directly. However, as I recognize and catch up with the various people I’ve met in passing at the previous two years, I am also reminded that I’m not alone in this endeavor. Everyone who chooses to come here every year kicks ass in their own way, and it is awesome to see how we are all changing and growing.

I ended my day by attending the GodBit dinner, which was conveniently held in the same hotel I’m staying at. GodBit is an online theology+ technology forum, and it was at the first GodBit SXSW dinner in 2006 that I discovered that there are Christians doing some very high quality work on the web for their churches and community. I also discovered a large trove of incredible nice and approachable people, all bound by their devotion to their faith. And since this is SXSW Interactive, they are fellow media creators and developers with an eye toward making a better future. I feel a little funny attending because I am not a participant in any church, but I felt welcome thanks to familiar faces Nathan Smith, Michael Montgomery, and Carl Camera, all of whom I met at the first Godbit dinner in 2006. I missed 2007, but again it’s this kind of authentic community spirit that keeps me coming back. I guess I have some faith after all.