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#BlogathonATX – This could be the start of something big

BlogathonATX logoI’m blogging from BlogathonATX, being held at Conjunctured Coworking here in Austin. It’s pretty clear already that this event is a big hit :) I’m in the Talkathon room at the moment, one of the two rooms people can go to for expert advice (the other is Techathon). The conversation is lively, there’s lots of laughter, and people are making all sorts of new contacts. The two Writeathon rooms are quietish, with writers hunched over their laptops blogging away.

people working in the writeathon roomClearly there’s a demand for this type of event. It’s not quite a BarCamp — there are no presentations — yet, like BarCamps, it’s a free event and plenty of opportunities for attendees to bring up their own topics.

I’m a roving expert, wandering back and forth between Techathon and Talkathon, but one of the really cool things happening here is that pretty much everybody is an expert in something. An official Social Marketing Expert might need tech help, and a Tech Expert might need Social Marketing help. I ended up offering some advice as a Travel Expert, which I sure wasn’t anticipating, but kind of the nature of this event. Conversations are all over the place.

Ilene Haddad is our Ringleader. This is her brainchild, and I’m quite certain she’s astonished at what it’s become. She has done an absolutely fantastic job putting it together. It’s been a blast being part of it — I can’t wait for the next one :)



Some Things Shouldn’t Be Crowdsourced

Crowdsourcing: The Good

Crowdsourcing has been behind some truly great products and initiatives. Wikipedia and Linux are perhaps the best-known, and there are indeed stellar examples of the power of this model.

Other great examples include:

  • The Netflix Prize for a 10% improvement on their recommendation engine.
  • reCaptcha and their innovative use of the millions of typed words to help digitize old books.
  • Foldit invites people to play a game that ultimately results in new protein-folding strategies.
  • Microlending companies like Kiva are pooling small amounts of money and loaning it to poor business owners with enouraging results.

Opinions can do well as crowdsourced projects, although I contend people are more likely to supply them when they are bitching rather than raving. Still, reviews and other opinions certainly provide value, and I admit I readily use them when deciding on restaurants, books, and products. Companies like Yelp, Amazon, and Ebay are learning to navigate the intricacies (and legalities) of the relationships between businesses and reviews, making the content even more valuable in the process.

What do all these good examples have in common?

  1. wikipediaLogoThere is governance. Although anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, all contributors are not equal. A hierarchy of editors ensures that spam and misinformation are quickly weeded out. It’d be nice to think it’s all perfectly democratic, but it’s not, and it wouldn’t work if it were.
  2. Crowds are used to solve problems or to offer commentary, not to determine strategy or any decide critical business issues.

There’s gray area, of course. Most software developers actively solicit feedback for new features and general improvements. Notice, though, that they rarely promise the most popular suggestion will be implemented. The people responsible for the business strategy are wisely learning that what their customers want isn’t always what they need. They know better than to leave the final decisions to the public. The customer may be good-intentioned, but they just don’t know enough to always be right.

For some excellent crowdsourcing stories and analysis, be sure to read Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.

Crowdsourcing: The Bad

Logos. I cringe every time I hear someone brag that they crowdsourced their logo. For one thing I have an intense distaste for doing work on spec. Most logo crowdsourcing sites (as well as contests) do just this — a bunch of designers create a logo for free, getting paid only if the company likes and select it. But logos are critical to the identity of a company. It’s not just a matter of what looks nice on a business card and on a website. Do you really want to entrust this critical piece of your brand to starving artists out there eager to get their hands on your $200? Pay someone what they’re worth and get it done right.

Strategy. No one knows your business as well as you. Get Satisfaction and UserVoice are great for site-based feedback and ideating. Customers and readers make suggestions and vote on their importance, and the companies do with those suggestions what they will. Austin’s own BountyStorm lets companies post questions with a bounty (usually in the $5 – $15 range) for the best idea. Some questions are perfect for this model — creative Valentine’s Day ideas, for example. Some are a bit worrisome — ideas for a first tattoo (Yikes! Isn’t that supposed to be a deeply personal decision?). And some just don’t belong there. There are a ton of people asking for business names, taglines, and marketing strategies. Do they really think they’re going to get what they need from a stranger? For $10?

Crowdsourcing SXSW: The Ugly

And now we come to the issue that drove me to write this post in the first place. Programming at paid conferences should not be crowdsourced. Not even part of it. This will be the 6th year SXSW is letting the general public vote on panels, and the 6th year that attendee complaints have swelled about the quality and selection of that programming. Lots of folks come to town and don’t even bother attending the conference, opting instead for the appropriately crowdsourced BarCamp Austin. Last year at SXSWi some really great panel ideas with excellent panelists never made the cut, while panels presented by often pathetically underprepared heavy hitters filled the schedule. The panel-picker was at least a little easier this year, with the option to vote thumbs up or down rather than assigning a number of stars as a rating.

This approach sounds really good in theory, but what ended up happening last year was would-be panelists filled our Twitter streams with panel pimping promotions and micro-celebrity popularity contests, while many deserving panelists truly working at the cutting edge of our industry were left in the dust. Bloggers with tens or hundreds of thousands of readers ready and willing to vote for their panels crowded out those doing interesting, paradigm-changing work. SXSW is too important to the industry to run it as a popularity contest.

I’m not sure what the best solution is, but I have a few ideas that would improve the SXSW experience..

  • Make it clear that there is a committee that is ultimately responsible for the programming. Not just 40% of it. All of it. There should be 2 (preferably divergent) experts in each area of content (coding, architecture, marketing, social media, business, etc.). The committee could be nominated by the public, and chosen by SXSW staff. Or nominated by staff and chosen by the public. Continue to accept panel suggestions from the public, but leave the deciding to the committee.
  • Create a SXSW advisory group committed to uncovering and featuring new voices and industry trends. Some of the A-Listers are fantastic presenters. I’m in no way saying they shouldn’t be on the schedule. But there are some amazing thinkers doing innovative work right here in Central Texas. Commit to finding them. Ask the public for suggestions of inspiring speakers they’ve seen in other settings and personally encourage them to submit a panel.



What do you think? Is it time for SXSW to change the way they manage programming? How do you think it should be done?


SXSW programming

SxswKhoi Vinh has an excellent discussion going on the quality of the programming and the growing pains being experienced by SXSW. He starts of with a sentiment I’ve heard from many attendees now (at least about the interactive portion of the conference):

I’ve never been to a business conference of any kind that’s as usefully friendly as the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

That said, he points out that SXSW may be getting to big to maintain the quality. It’s true that most of the programming rooms were fairly bursting at the seams. The extra rooms provided by a recent addition to the convention center (rooms 8/9/10, which I came to call the dungeon) were too difficult to get to. The choice was standing in line for one of two very slow elevators that held 12 people each (and mislabeled the floors!) or walking to the far corner of the building, taking an escalator, then coming all the way back to the original corner. Neither option made for a cheerful audience for the programming in these rooms.

Khoi Vinh, and several of the commenters, agreed that many of the panelists weren’t prepared enough, and that the lectures overall tended to be better. My sense is that the panel is misused at times. In the 25-minute sessions, for example, the panel simply doesn’t work. There’s not enough time for several people to say anything meaningful. Moderators of these short sessions didn’t adapt to the format, either – one started with 10 minutes of telling us what he was going to tell us. Again, that just doesn’t work in the “power sessions”.

But sometimes, even when the panelists were interesting and prepared, it seemed to be the wrong format. The panelists ended up either talking “at” the audience, or turning to talk to another panelist, which sometimes had the effect of ignoring
the audience. For the more conversational topics, I’d like to see the table removed and the participants placed in a half circle. Let them have a real conversation, and let us listen in. I love listening to a bunch of smart people talk.

Jeff Croft complains about presentations that aren’t much more than a list of bullet points. I heartily agree with that — give me some examples! Show me what you’re talking about.

Like most conferences, the SXSW programming was hit or miss for me, but I know I came home smarter and more enthusiastic about what I do. And I like to think I learned something from every session I attended, even if it was how not to give a presentation :)


SXSW, Day 4

Sxsw_14th and final day. Recap: the first panel of the day for me was Web Typography Sucks, which proved to be far more in depth than I expected — I learned a fair amount and got some good suggestions for working around the traditionally poor type treatment provided by most blog engines. I’ll share them here once I’ve ha a chance to check them out. After that I went to Combinatorial Media as Self Expression, which was a fun, engaging panel. Text, audio, video, mashups, comics, roll-your-own community — where are all these varied forms of media headed? The panel discussed what is, ultimately, the 2007 version of “multimedia”, and what it means for playful and/or artistic content as well as more serious/educational purposes. Again, I have lots to look into as a result, and I’m really looking forward to sharing what I did up with everyone.

The afternoon keynote was delivered by Will Wright, creator of theSims, SimCity, and all the other Sims games. He’s a visionary, to be sure. He talked about the nature of storytelling, and how games offer an opportunity for a different kind of empathy — taking the viewer out of the role of a character and putting them into the role of director. This led into his demo of Spore, which pretty much had the audience drooling.

SporeIn most world-building games, you create an environment that entices settlers. The better you run your government (city/settlement/country), the more your community grows in size, wealth, and sophistication. Spore has several modules — you start with a single cell, navigating around the primordial ooze, until you consume enough matter that and evolve enough to move onto the land. You must learn to survive on the land, mate, and eventually be part of a tribe. The creature into which you evolve depends on the earlier play and on choices you make. The creature-creator (six legs? eight? one eye? four eyes? purple? red?) is incredibly flexible, allowing you to stretch and mold as much as you want, taking milliseconds to render beautiful, complex creatures. You then move on … you must run a city, get civilized, and eventually achieve the ability to travel in space. Now the universe is your oyster, and you can visit planets created by other users. You have complete terraforming capabilities, so your world will be out there too. The worlds will be populated by creatures evolved within other players’ games. You may well visit a planet populated by a species that wants nothing more than to eat you, or you may find a compatible species with whom to settle. Will says it’s not a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) so much as it’s a Massively Single-Player Online Game.

All I know is I can’t wait. During the demo, Tori turned to me and said “I’ve never wanted to buy a computer game in my life, until now.” She also suggested that I probably shouldn’t buy it, as I’d never leave my house again. Fat chance :)

The final program item was the traditional wrap-up talk by Bruce Sterling. He’s always an engaging speaker, but I was kind of surprised at his speech. He seems to be part of the rumblings of the “backlash” I’ve been hearing about. My paraphrase of his sentiments… blogs suck, twitter sucks, mashups suck. He predicted that in 10 years we wouldn’t know what a blog is, that the format would be dead. As much as I do consider Bruce Sterling brilliant, truly a visionary, he sounded a bit like a cranky old man at these closing statements.


SXSW, Day 3

SxswOk, so blogging during a conference is harder than it seems, I admit. So much to catch up on! Day 3 of SXSW was Monday. The Henry Jenkins interview was fantastic. His book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide has been on my to-read shelf for a couple of weeks. After hearing him talk, it’s moved up to “next” on my list. He discussed the impact all the new options for media consumption has on the relationship between  producers and consumers. He credits early sf fan fiction with launching much of today’s convergence culture, in fact refers to himself as a “fanboy.” If his book is as interesting as he was in person, it’ll be a great read.

Thanks to an unannounced (at least via SMS) room change and the ridiculous layout of a recent convention center addition that forces everyone to take a circuitous route to one set of rooms I’ve named “the dungeon”, I missed the first half of the When Communities Attack panel. On the other hand, it didn’t seem that I missed much. Granted, this was one of those panels I could have given, but judging by the grumbling in the halls afterward, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. It’s really clear that some of the presenters simply didn’t bother to prepare, or bother to look into presentation skills 101. There was too much assuming the audience knew all the acronyms, web sites, and personalities mentioned. Unfortunately, this was pretty common. The panel I attended after that was Virtual Teaming. Again, some basic presentation skills would’ve been helpful. This was one of many 30-minute “power sessions”. 30 minutes simply isn’t enough to really cover much meaningful information, IMO. In this case, the presenters wasted 10 minutes telling us what they were going to tell us, which just doesn’t work in such a short session. Could’ve been good. Wasn’t.


SXSW, Day 2

SxswIt’s been another good day of programming. Making Your Short Attention Span Pay Big Dividends was fun and rather validating for me. Short attention span: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature! The Designing for Global Audiences panel had it’s moments. There were occasional juicy examples… when you say “I need it at 5 on Friday” to someone in India, that pretty much means Monday or Tuesday. Much of the presentation meandered, though… a couple times I caught myself wondering “man, is he ever going to say anything? Online Advertising: Is It worth it was interesting, but they never really addressed the actual topic or answered their own question. Fictional Bloggers was delightful. Odin Soli talked about his years writing a personal blog detailing the daily life of a bisexual woman, grew a huge audience, and was eventually outed. I met Liz Henry at the BlogHer event Friday — turns out we peripherally know each other through the world of Science Fiction fandom. She had so much to say – it’s unfortunate that this was one of the short (1/2 hr) panels – it really deserved more time. I’m eager to read lots more of Liz.

Tonight it”s the SXSW Awards Cermony, at which the Dewey Winburne award is given out. Dewey was a visionary and a friend of mine. Last year the award went to Dale Thompson, with Austin Free-Net. I’m proud to say I’m a co-founder of Austin Free-Net.


SXSW, Day 1

Sxsw_1I’m blogging from SXSW today, straight from the Austin Convention Center. So far, SXSW is being a blast. I went to the BlogHer MeetUp at Freddie’s Place last night, and met several new folks. I think the turnout was much better than they had expected – we kept having to take over more and more of the patio. It was a beautiful night, the margarita machine was cranking out plastic cups full of frozen goodness, and conversation flowed, making for a great kickoff to the festival.

Today it’s been solid programming. First it was Emerging Trends in Social Media and Technology — a topic near and dear to my heart, of course, but perhaps a bit too broad for a one-hour panel and 6 panelists. Next was Turning Projects into Revenue, which was decent, but really kind of too-basic for me. The Opening Remarks by Kathy Sierra were delightful, as expected. She really knows how to engage an audience (as she should, given her focus is “Creating Passionate Users“). Now I’m waiting for Wiki Commercialization to begin.

I’m blogging, twittering, posting like crazy, and basically doing all things social media in the interest of total immersion. Am I making myself a little nutty? Well, yes, but it’s fun :)

Tonight there’s the Dorkbot party, sponsored by Make, followed by the Frog Design party. And rumor has it that there will even be a small after-after party at my place. See you there :)


Be nice.