March 18th, 2010

SXSW: Day Four Recap

It was a big day at South by Southwest (SXSW) as there was much anticipation for the keynote presentation from Twitter’s founder Evan Williams. Williams enjoys celebrity status here at the interactive portion of the festival, causing a line to form for entry into the room where he would be speaking. The presentation turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, but there were plenty of good sessions throughout the day to make up for the letdown.

There were almost 150 sessions available today. I was able to attend the following five:

  • “The Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online”
  • “After Magazines: WIRED’s Digital Rebirth”
  • “The Life Graph: You are Your Location”
  • Evan Williams Keynote
  • “Mikey Likes It: Does the FTC?”

“The Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online” was a panel-led discussion about journalism in an online news distribution channel. The session topic was developed under the premise that news distribution has become too “bite-sized” with information shared in headline format, lacking any background information that would allow the reader to actually understand the “bigger picture” situation. The panelists used healthcare as an example: at the pace of daily news, healthcare looks like a total mess. However, when healthcare is explained at a broader level, it is easier to distill and understand.

This was another discussion that presented more questions than answers. With many journalists in the room, the discussion was lively. The general consensus was that news needs to be delivered with more in-depth context than “click here for more information” after a breaking news headline. Consumers have been conditioned to read only the headlines and hope that the torrential wash of information over them will eventually cohere into understanding and knowledge. However, this understanding is not developing, and the public is ending up uninformed during a time when they have more access to information than ever before.

“After Magazines: WIRED’s Digital Rebirth” was the coolest session of the day. WIRED magazine recognized the movement from print to digital and is the first magazine to translate its design into a format for consumption on a digital tablet. The creative director of WIRED magazine and an Adobe representative led the presentation in which they demonstrated reading the March issue of WIRED on a digital tablet. This session was tailored for designers with conversation about the custom typefaces designed for WIRED and the workflow process of design for print versus design for digital. However, the live demonstration could have been appreciated by all magazine readers, especially those that appreciate the high-end design of WIRED magazine. The designers have translated the print experience into a digital experience that is just as pleasing but with added features to take advantage of the digital format. From 360-degree viewing of objects to audio interviews to video to varying views as the orientation changes from portrait to landscape, the designers and developers created a complete experience. The digital magazine was shown on a Dell tablet, an Android tablet and an iPhone. They noted that there was much anticipation for iPad and that the WIRED app would be available for the iPad this summer. Although a pricing model has not yet been determined for the digital subscription, WIRED’s creative director said that subscribers would have a library of previous issues for their future reference, much like a music or e-book library. They will also be integrating social sharing features into the digital magazine to allow readers to instantly post articles to Facebook or Twitter without leaving the magazine.

“The Life Graph: You are Your Location” was another discussion about location-based services and applications like FourSquare, Gowalla, Loopt and Google Latitude. Location-based services are definitely garnering the most conversation this year at SXSW. The panelists predicted that in three to four years everyone with a smart phone will use location-based applications because location is what makes mobility fundamentally different.

Much of this panel’s discussion about location focused on data privacy. Again, sites like Please Rob Me were dismissed as irrelevant to security concerns. Like the panel from the earlier session on location, this panel noted that a person’s absence from home can be determined from simple status updates without revealing an exact location away from home. The privacy concerns will be with how companies use the location data they are collecting. For example, with enough data, a company could predict with 90% certainty where a user will be at a specific time in the future. (Although, according to the Loopt representative, 95% of Americans are incredibly boring, going from home to work everyday.) Additionally, they could sell the data to hedge fund managers as a prediction for success of retail locations. Interestingly, it was noted that location data can not be anonymized: it is very easy to identify who a person is based on their location data.

There will be much more talk in the coming months about location-based services, how consumers use them and how businesses will use them. This session only scratched the surface of advertising and promotion (texting coupons to your phone when you walk into or by a retail location), social etiquette (will it become rude to not “check -in?”), predictive technology services (for example, the heat in your home turning on as you get closer to home), and potential abuse (for example, tracking people with Google Latitude enable phone hidden in the trunk of a car). A survey of the 300 people attending this session revealed that approximately 90% of attendees were using at least one location-based application regularly. This is obviously not a representative sample of the general population, but SXSW attendees are early adopters and predictive of future trends.

The keynote presentation with Evan Williams, Twitter founder, was disappointing. This highly anticipated session was jam-packed with SXSW attendees; there was not an empty seat in the room when the presentation began. The format was interview-style with Umair Haque serving as the interviewer.

Williams was expected to make an announcement about Twitter and the prediction was that it would be an advertising model. Instead, the reveal was the @Anywhere platform, a way to integrate Twitter accounts/data/links onto partner media sites, allowing readers to follow Twitter accounts of people/brands/organizations mentioned in articles without leaving the media site. Williams made this announcement off the top of his interview. He went on to talk about the Twitter business model for the remainder of the hour. Unfortunately, the discussion was not very engaging and after just 30 minutes the room was half empty.

Using Twitter, SXSW attendees complained loudly about the presentation and Williams was listening. After the session, also using Twitter, he posted the message (from @ev on Twitter) “I heard on the backchannel that people want me to answer tougher questions. What’ya want to know? Will answer 10. Go.” He was, of course, flooded with questions, some relevant and some silly. The one question that was not answered, however, was whether there would be an advertising platform introduced in the future.

“Mikey Likes It: Does the FTC?” was a round-room conversation with bloggers and lawyers debating product endorsement versus editorial product reviews. The bottom line is that the FTC requires bloggers to disclose if they have been provided a product at no cost and they talk about the product on their sites. A representative from the FTC assisted in the conversation moderation and iterated that the FTC does not regulate editorial content. The FTC will step into the conversation if they believe there is a high likelihood of a consumer believing that the message is not influenced by a brand or advertiser, when in fact it is. While the FTC representative acknowledged that there was nothing improper about these relationships between brands/advertisers and bloggers, she said it was necessary to be transparent about the relationships with readers.

Day four of five is complete and the conference is almost over. Austin has been a gracious host with its abundance of Tex Mex restaurants and pleasant spring weather. Leaving will be bittersweet.

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