SxSW Interactive Journal: 2009
Spring is in the air, and to celebrate I joined in the annual pilgrimage to Austin for the South by Southwest Interactive conference. This is my second year attending, and though knowing the lay of land makes many things easier, every day still has more than one can possibly take in. The days full of sessions, packed with more food for thought than a week’s reading in regular times. The nights are filled with events, many offering free drinks. Since it’s rude to refuse a drink, one must take pains to visit them all and not risk offending the hosts. In between, it’s a carnival of BBQ, which isn’t so great if you’re vegetarian, but makes for good memories for the omnivorous.
Normally on trips like this my SLR camera would be a nearly-constant companion, making the best of a fresh context and different light. I got in some decent still shots, but most of my recreational photography was with a Flip Mino HD camcorder. I had this in my pocket most of the time, and shot about an hour’s worth of footage. A few hours in iMovie 09 has trimmed that down to about 8 minutes.
The Flip is just about as perfect as you can get for a casual camcorder: easy to bring along without getting in the way and unassuming in the pocket, and drop-dead easy to use with only a record and minimal zoom. The minimal feature makes you less of a camera operator and more of a participant who happens to be holding a camera, something I appreciate quite a lot. iMovie 09 also proved flexible, and through this project I got very comfortable with the new paradigm of editing video that the product introduced to boos and hisses last year. Not being overly attached to the sacred timeline of previous versions, I’ve found iMovie’s editing style much to my liking, but such is the benefit of exploring the new without baggage.
Video fun aside, I have some further notes worth sharing after the jump.
Having an iPhone makes many little obstacles in daily life easier to overcome. Having an iPhone at SxSW makes finding friends and keeping tabs on the shifting sands of the crowd’s interests much easier, possibly obligatory, and in a way, exhausting. This was a crowd where any phone except an iPhone stood out as rare, and the amount of incidental footage I picked up of iPhones in use made it easy to carve out a chapter in the video just for that. A casual poll at rate.sxsw.com, which turned me onto the populist candyland styles of SurveyGizmo, shows just under %70 of attendees responding having iPhones. I suspect that number, possibly higher, would hold if everyone who attended replied.
One iPhone-specific tool in particular proved very useful for me, and that was the mobile webpage conference schedules, pictured below. The lightweight pages carried just the essentials, and let me move around without a paper schedule. In fact, I didn’t bother picking up my shwag bag at all this year, and didn’t feel like I missed anything.
Have You Heard of this Twitter Thing?
From a fragile house of cards that one couldn’t resist touching to resilient web service, Twitter can mark its birthday in the geek mind by the SxSW calendar. This year, between the double-whammy of intensive use by SxSW attendees and the crush of confused watchers of The View and Ellen, Twitter’s fail whale did not favour me with an appearance. What did let us down was the AT&T 3G network. In the first night there, I was hearing the same thing from many people: lots of signal, no bandwidth. Word was that AT&T noticed some of the rage, where else but on Twitter, and responded by deploying extra capacity to the area. Sure enough, service did seem to pick up, but throughout the week there were many moments of slow or no web access on the 3G network. T-Mobile customers with their jailbroken phones apparently had bandwidth to spare, but didn’t act smug about it. That just wouldn’t be very Southwestern of them if they did.
Twitter has become a firmly entrenched aspect of the festival. Pepsico scored a win with the hip kids by sponsoring Twitter visualizer screens throughout the convention center, and has kept it going with a web-view. These weren’t so much useful as they were nice to look at when standing around for a few minutes, and didn’t require one to fall into the absorption of a personal display in order to touch base with the murmur of the crowd online. A bit of digital in your analog space, as it were.
Your Analog is in My Digital
I also got to experience a unique analog-digital intersection at the Media Temple/Virb closing party, where nobody could get web access. Seeking friend and roommate Hillary in a place too loud to call, I was trying to get this tweet out: @quepol where are you? I got the word from new friend Shiloh that the women’s washroom seemed to be a zone of internet access, so I gave her my phone and asked her to go in and hit send. She did, and came back to say she couldn’t get the message out, but did one better. She had Hillary in tow.
What’s so great about this? Hillary and Shiloh hadn’t met. Hillary happened to glance at the screen in Shiloh’s hand and recognized her Twitter ID, and identified herself. There’s a neat sense of intersection and inversion in that vignette, which feels like a milepost on the way to ubiquitous communication through channels that blur ever more cleverly the online and offline.
And somehow it captures a lot of the spirit of the SxSW experience. For all the technology we can deploy to the event, there is something irreplaceable about the in-person experience that moves us to spend great effort and resources just to be around each other. The online world can feel cool and organized sometimes, especially when viewed through the cleanroom design aesthetic of Facebook, so being reminded that we’re all squishy beings and finding inspiration in the messy chaos makes SxSW a fine balance to the same old same old.