March 14th, 2010

SXSW: Day Two Recap

This post also appeared at Talk Business.

It was a long second day of the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, TX. There were almost 150 sessions offered today during the six scheduled time slots. In the five sessions attended, today’s themes were community and trust:

  • “The Era of Crowdsourcing: Guiding Principles”
  • “How to Create a Viral Video”
  • “I Don’t Trust You One Stinking Bit”
  • “Opening Remarks with danah boyd”
  • “Media Armageddon: What Happens when The New York Times Dies”

“The Era of Crowdsourcing” was a panel-led discussion with Scott Belsky and Jeffrey Kalmikoff. These two gentlemen have experience working at well-known social-based companies like Digg, Threadless and Behance, making it fitting for them to lead this presentation. The most common complaint about crowdsourcing is also the most common misperception: that is simply a means to access free labor. Crowdsourcing is a term that was coined in 2006 with the following definition: “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agency (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people.”

We can understand why a business would want to crowdsource: it gets the benefit of the crowd’s wisdom. But the definition of crowdsourcing begs the question: what is in it for the crowd? The benefit to the crowd is the opportunity to engage with a community on a level playing field, where it doesn’t matter what your resume looks like, and the opportunity to contribute to something larger.

Crowdsourcing is the next iteration of the social web. Ultimately, crowdsourcing is about the community that is created to solve the problem, not the challenge of the problem itself. Companies and brands may help foster the community, but the community can survive even if the brand ceases to exist. The example provided by the panelists was Harley Davidson: if Harley went out of business tomorrow, it would be unreasonable to assume that all the communities around Harley would cease to exist. Businesses will need to keep this in mind as they reach out for the wisdom of the crowd, help foster that community and become part of it.

“How to Create a Viral Video” was a panel discussion that included Director of Film and Video at TED, User Experience Manager at YouTube and an OK Go band member. This was definitely a team of people who know a bit about the magic of online video. I admit I was a bit skeptical having recently read that the odds of a video going “viral” are about the same as winning a lottery jackpot. Nevertheless, the panel had some implementable ideas.

This “Viral Video” hour turned out to be the most entertaining session of the day. Jokingly, they started the session by telling us all that in order for a video to be successful virally it must include boobs and kittens. This garnered a laugh, but is not necessarily untrue; there are thousands of examples to prove this combination, or elements of it, equal success.

Turning to practical advice, the panel discussed the components of a virally successful video: content, production value, a sense of surprise and wonderment, a positive tone, and accurate title and tags. Content must be relevant and interesting. Production value can be high or low, its effect depending on the end audience’s state-of-mind. A sense of surprise and wonderment comes down to the reveal. A positive tone because people prefer to spread the love than cause the shedding of tears. Accurate title and tags will help with search and not mislead the potential audience. Surprisingly, the panel never warned that doing all these things right does not guarantee a video will go viral.

Additionally, when it comes to getting the video viewership numbers up, the panel talked about the importance of actively building a subscriber base to communicate with before you are ready to promote videos. Online video is not about creating entertaining content and hoping people will come. We should never forget that the Internet is about community; if we want users to spread our message, we need to interact with them and encourage their involvement. This directly relates to the last aspect of a virally successful video: it should encourage shoot-offs, parodies and satires. If a brand is scared about what users might do to the original integrity of the video, then it should not put the content online.

“I Don’t Trust You One Stinking Bit” featured Internet and social media celebrities Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, authors of the New York Times bestseller “Trust Agents.” These co-authors and obvious friends were great together as they responded to each other’s remarks like an old married couple. Their loose presentation was entertaining, funny and informative, although they strayed far from the topic at times.

The session was meant to educate on building trust with a cynical and skeptical online audience. Brogan said that trust is now currency in our favor-based economy. As an example, Nikkon gave Brogan a camera to use under the assumption that he would like it and write about its greatness. Being a trusted source of information for his audience, if Brogan likes the camera and he writes about it, Nikkon will sell more cameras. Eventually in situations like this, both parties will have to work even harder, as online audiences are skeptical when they realize this kind of favor-based activity is happening behind the scenes.

The conversation shifted to building a personal brand, as this is the most fascinating thing about both Brogan and Smith. They talked about making yourself more interesting, investing in your network of people by showing reciprocal interest in them and doing something different to stand out.

danah boyd (she prefers her name be written in all lowercase letters) was the keynote speaker for opening remarks. As a social media researcher and ethnographer, boyd works closely with teens to understand their interactions in the online space. The theme of boyd’s presentation was privacy versus publicity in social media. According to boyd, a recent example of a privacy “fail” was the launch of Google Buzz, which integrated a very private channel (email) with a very public channel (news feed of user actions). Gmail users had to opt-out of Buzz rather than opt-in, and suddenly users’ actions were being broadcast without them intending that to happen.

She talked in depth about the difference between publicly available information and publicity: just because information is publicly available does not mean that people want it publicized. People understand that making their information available is necessary for social bonding. They recognize that they make themselves vulnerable by putting information online, but need to reveal that vulnerability to ultimately build trust and relationships. However, people are now thinking through when to make something private versus when to make something public; information is public by default and private through effort.

“What Happens when The New York Times Dies” was a discussion about the quality of journalism from a well-established, time-honored publication versus that of community bloggers. Panelists included a New York Times columnist, a New York blogger, founder of the popular Daily Kos blog, editor of Reason magazine, and founder of Blogads.

The moderator started the session by polling the audience to get an understanding of New York Times advocates versus dissidents. The majority of attendees would be disappointed if the New York Times disappeared and responded that they would be willing to pay for access to its content. The discussion following was whether the blogger population of New York could effectively take over the reporting duties of the New York Times staff if the paper were to disappear. There was clear animosity between the Daily Kos and the New York Times, as the Daily Kos believes that Times staff writers are allowed to be sloppy in their reporting due to the paper’s built-in credibility. Because the Daily Kos does not have that institutional support, they work harder to prove the quality of their work and that makes their work better. The Daily Kos representative went so far as to say that the New York Times is a stenographer for power. While no definitive conclusions were drawn, there was agreement that people will always want news and will be source agnostic while seeking out quality coverage.

Day two of five is complete. If you ever attend SXSW, adopt and live the following motto: “It is a marathon, not a sprint.” To prepare for SXSW, I read several blog posts from those with festival experience offering survival advice. While I processed all that information and took some of the advice, I didn’t take it all. Today was the first full day of sessions, with the opportunity to attend six hour-long sessions (with 30 minutes between each session to relocate and refuel). I only made it through five before I was thirsty, hungry, just generally tired and my computer batteries were dead (actually, my computer batteries were dead after only three sessions and then someone tripped over my power chord, causing an injury to the charger that is going to require duct tape). They were right when they said it was a marathon, not sprint. And when they said stay hydrated. And when they said bring extra batteries for all your electronics. They were all right. Oh, so right. Despite a few bumps today, I survived and will be better prepared for tomorrow, even if only by a little bit.

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