SXSW: Panels, Part I: Miscellany

There’s a simple reason why it’s three weeks down the line and I’ve yet to write about SXSW Interactive, which is the part of SXSW with the most panels: Every time I sit down to do just that, I feel like the top of my head pops off and things just start pouring out — unsorted thoughts, ideas, information, complaints, exclamations, genuine glee. It’s just SO BIG. It’s a nerd and tech conference; it’s got too many tracks to keep track of, unless you’re really focused on the design aspect or the development stuff or the personal stuff or … whatever it is you want out of it. You make your own SXSWi out of the pieces you put together. And since this was my first time to the event, I tried to grab a lot of pieces.

(Lesson one: Get to Austin on Thursday. Get your bag o’ crap and your book o’ info and settle in somewhere and do your goddamn homework. Figure out what’s most important to you. Don’t lock yourself in, but prioritize. Remember that the big book has names and associations of panelists. These are important.)

I started, on Friday afternoon, with a workshop called The Revenge of Editorials. It started with the history of publishing. It meant well, but after a suprising fire alarm moment — hello, Twitter, proving your extra special SXSW worth from the word go — I opted to skip over to Pay TV vs. Internet: The Battle for Your TV, which, according to NYT writer David Carr’s Twitter, was getting feisty.

In retrospect, these two panels taught me two very important lessons about SXSW panels:

1. Look at where the people giving a panel/speech/workshop are from. Are you interested in their business? If not, don’t go. Several times, I ditched panels because I felt like people from specific businesses were just there to promote their offerings. That’s great if it’s what you’re looking for, and mildly agonizing if not. (This isn’t why I left the Editorials panel early, to be fair.)

2. Too much is built on dualities and either/or scenarios. This is true in the real world, but it was particularly frustratingly true at SXSWi, where I felt like we should have been looking for new ideas, new visions, not pitting old media against new, bloggers against magazine writers, one new gizmo against another. Watching Mark Cuban and Avner Ronen talk about whether the internet or your television would dominate in terms of eyes on TV programs, I grew more and more uncomfortable. Why is this an either/or question? Why does there have to be one victor, one way to do it? Why do we frame so many questions in this way? Can’t we watch TV on Hulu and on cable? Don’t we watch TV on Hulu and on cable? So one makes more money than the other. So what?

Friday was a slow day for panels, which got started later than they would the rest of the conference, but from then on, things got busy. So: SXSW Panels, Part One: Miscellany (Keep reading…)

Why Keep Blogging? Real Answers for Smart Tweeple
The short answer to the question the name poses: Because you want to. Because you’re passionate about what you write. Because it’s a different format. Though the answers are common sense, the panelists were smart, engaging and funny. They spoke quite a bit about not stagnating, encouraging bloggers to keep changing, keep thinking about how the conversation evolves and changes, and work with the way blogs allow for a more sustained conversation than the blasts that come out of Twitter. It’s that sustained conversation that keeps me a blog addict and a Twitter junkie at the same time; I want sustained thought and argument and engagement, but hey, short attention spans need to be fed, too.

Booze Blogging: Liquid Conversation

If someone offers you a pickleback, don’t drink it. That was the main thing I took away from this panel, which was fun — hey, there were drinks! — but disorganized. After a bit of basic cocktail history, it veered off into talk of viral drinks (the pickleback, a shot of Jameson followed by a shot of pickle juice) (No, I’m not kidding. See above, though the cups are reversed), food laws affecting bartenders (no egg drinks allowed? Sacrilege!) and the idea of bartenders being treated with the admiration of chefs (as, panelists said, some were pre-Prohibition).

And then a woman from a Texas vodka company started talking her employer. Remember rule #1: If someone on a panel is from a specific business, be sure you’re interested in that business before you commit to the panel. I grew steadily more frustrated with what felt like a promo for Tito’s (perfectly good) vodka. It veered back into the topic at hand — blogging — via a discussion of ethics and trends. I was hoping for more nerdy cocktail history than nightlife and trends, but so it goes; panel descriptions are brief, and you can’t always know what you’re getting into. And there’s nothing wrong with an afternoon hour spent listening to people talk about drinks, especially when there’s a, shall we say, hands-on aspect.

A Brave New Future for Book Publishing
Last year, there was a panel about book publishing that a friend referred to as “a bloodbath.” You could hear the screams all the way across the country, thanks to Twitter. (Here’s one summary. There are plenty.) This year was not a bloodbath, but at least one person who works in publishing felt about it the same way I felt about a yet-to-be-blogged panel about journalism: too much of the same old topics. Will art books — not books full of art, but books designed to be art as well as text — save publishing? What do print on demand and e-readers mean for the industry? How is the publishing landscape changing, from editors (who may be more “curators” in the future) to bookstores (will they consist just of printing machines, coffee bars and couches?)?

One of the most interesting things that I got out of the panel was the change to the process of selling books; Pablo Defendini from (a superb publisher website, by the by) said that big publishers’ audience used to be book buyers for chains and Amazon; now, it’s the readers. If that’s how the future looks, obviously publishers are going to have to reconsider their marketing and advertising strategies. They’re going to have to find ways to connect, be it via a really interactive Twitter account or as-yet-un-dreamt-up web presence. Whatever it is, I think it’s awesome: Books are for the readers, not the book buyers, so why shouldn’t they be the people the publishers are talking to?

I used to work in book publishing and so am deeply attached to this topic, but I know not everyone is. So I’ll save the rest of my thoughts on this topic for a separate post.

Next: SXSW Panels, Part II: Journalism topics