Notes on SXSW 2009

Thursday, March 26, 2009

First: I’ve been playing World of Goo, a recent indie game that involves stacking sticky gooballs to one another in order to construct ever more elaborate towers and bridges and such. These goo structures kind of bobble and sway like jell-o scaffolding, so after staring at them for an hour, everything on my screen kind of bobbles and sways like jell-o paragraphs. I swear if I don’t counter-balance this paragraph some of the words are going to unstick and drop forever down into the goo pit on the bottom left-hand side of my blog. You’ve probably never noticed that. No worries. Neither have I.

I digress.

Well, not too far. So one of the guys from 2D Boy, the makers of World of Goo spoke at one of the SXSW panels I attended last week. A panel including folks from several indie game companies including Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany and Jonathan Blow of Braid fame. Well, not Jonathan Blow — a male blow-up doll in a hoodie. Blow got sick or something. Anyway. I enjoyed the panel. And not so much for any technical or business info I picked up. It was mostly, as I texted to Adam Simon, a sort of “chicken soup for the game developer’s soul” deal. Talk of second mortgages and the gloomy dark place of being six months into a game and having six months more development to go and wondering if you’re really doing anything more than wasting your (and other people’s) time. At least this stuff resonated with me, being waist-deep in my own game project (with Charles Pratt) and having a similar sort of fearful lack of confidence — which is, I guess, just the way it goes with creative projects with long development times. So it’s comforting to be reminded that successful people have similar experiences.

Ironic that Adam (and the rest of team SocialBomb) missed, because for the first couple of days they were going through their own gloomy moment, I’m sure. Their great Paparazzi iPhone game worked very well, but they had plans for a SXSW-specific game which seemed to fall apart at the last moment — and I totally, totally, totally know the feeling when it’s launch time and bugs pop up and you’re sitting at home (or someone’s parents’ home, in this case) working through obnoxious fucking fixes instead of going out and enjoying yourself. All developers know this feeling, I imagine.

Otherwise, I think the conference went fairly well for the SocialBombers. All four of them stayed with us at my parents’ home in northwest Austin. Everyone has iPhones these days, so we all got our chance to photograph and tag people in Paparazzi and get our points. Very nice. The other big iPhone app release for SXSW was Dennis Crowley’s and Naveen Selvadurai’s FourSquare — or: Dodgeball with Achievements. Both Adam and Dennis presented along with Kevin Slavin of area/code (where both Dennis and I have previously worked), another former ITPer Daniel Liss and a guy from Zynga. Good panel, though the problem with having a panel the morning of the final day is, well, people can be a bit washed-out. As in, the audience. Me. I’m often a bit hazy. Before noon. On any day.

Other good sessions: Tony Hseih, the Zappos CEO (who reminds me somewhat of Xanga founder John Hiler), gave his talk about Zappos’ business culture and some of his broader thoughts on customer service and “happiness” as a business product. Which I really enjoyed. One of the major takeaways for me was from his description of how Zappos hires new employees. Finding people who fit into the corporate culture is key, according to Hseih, so they have a variety of measures they take to make sure that personalities fit and that the people working at Zappos feel integrated into the company. I don’t do much hiring these days, exactly, but I do work on a wide range of projects with an assortment of people and I felt like some of his ideas about hiring could be applied (in less rigorous ways) to my own selection process of deciding people I want to work with. (Not that I need to ask everyone I know how lucky they are, but just as a way to guide my own thought process.) I think I’ve kind of implicitly done this, anyway, in the couple of years since I’ve graduated from ITP. With a couple of minor exceptions, I haven’t worked for or with anyone in the past couple of years that I wouldn’t call a friend aside from work — even if I first met them through a work project. And we’re all in the same extended social circle. I feel like this is such an important element of my lifestyle at the moment — I really enjoy what I’m doing. So something’s going right. Hseih’s talk definitely also dovetailed with the recent “science of happiness” movement — which I appreciate, as well. On a more business school note, he also spoke about customer service as a marketing expense — a topic which I loved. I feel like I deal with crap every month from companies like AT&T, companies that seem to go out of their way to make life difficult for me because the’ve already got my money and, so, well, fuck me. I exaggerate. But. Online, reputation is all you have (well, and price, I suppose — but I would argue that reputation trumps price, overall). And so I like to see a company that considers their core product not selling clothes — but delivering a good customer experience. Zappos has also embraced Twitter as a means of communicating with consumers and, true to form, after I twittered (twitted/twote/twat) about Zappos Tony Hseih followed me. Sweet.

An aside: Let me make one general point about panels: Look, folks. We have (for the most part) paid money to hear you panelists talk. Between airfare and a festival badge and possibly a hotel room, we’ve shelled out a lot of cash. To hear your ideas. SO. When you do your panel, do some friggin’ prep work and have some actual non-obvious points you’d like to make about your topic. Y’know, you don’t even have to be 100% right, but you should at least make us think. Open up a discussion that you seed with ideas. Don’t just mill around and jabber about nothing in particular. And for fuck’s sake don’t spend half of the panel introducing yourselves and then ask the audience for ideas about how to improve your business. I charge a consulting fee for that. (I’m looking at you, everyone on the “New Think for Old Publishers” panel, except Clay Shirky (obvs).) Rude. And you make yourself look ridiculous and out-of-touch in front of exactly the sort of people you should be trying to engage.

Two more panel notes:

  1. Josh Klein spoke about his Creative Commons-based project at the Day Stage on the first day of SXSW, Friday. Good. He’s got a good story with his experience marketing his novel Roo’d, a very good argument for first-time creatives (authors, musicians, etc.) to consider CC-licensing their work. If I might summarize, it’s something like this: Be honest — your first work is probably going to be flat-out ignored by everyone. So give it away. And reap the social benefit. And parlay that into your second project.

  2. Bruce Sterling didn’t give the final talk of SXSW Interactive, as is usual, be he gave a good one nevertheless. No crying this time. But he does what must be very, very difficult at a conference like this: He knows how to handle a crowd and really create an experience, in a turn-off-the-laptop sort of way. This time he started off light, as is the norm, and even cracked open a Shiner and popped a bag of chips while speaking (a reference to his not hosting an after-party at his home this year). But eventually he got to the sort of Big Picture thinking which is why I think he’s so valuable to a conference like SXSW. I, for example, get so caught up in the day-to-day of the web and social media and really develop a cynical view of so much of this stuff because I’m defensive about people marketing to me and I think almost anyone who seriously calls themselves a “microcelebrity” is an asshole and I think your blog is a steaming turd, you Twitter too much, and your genius idea is kind of stupid. And your “clever” t-shirt sucks. Etc. I like it when someone gracefully reminds me — hey, all of this stuff is actually ground-breaking, world-changing shit and, despite the annoyance of having several new “social marketing gurus” following me on Twitter every day and pounds of spam e-mail, it’s all really quite miraculous when you step back for a moment. Clay had a single slide at “New Think for Old Publishers” panel I mocked earlier which said: “The internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history — now what?” A powerful reminder of what’s amazing about this field. Sterling’s was (something like): Despite all of the crap that may go on in the world (collapsing economies, etc.), social media is the thing that keep society from fully collapsing into something like World War I or II. We’re all too connected, now. We all care about too many people from too many places and backgrounds to be baited into hating one another. An oversimplification, maybe. And I’ve probably somewhat distorted what he said in my week-later retelling. Regardless, I like the sentiment.

Okay. Enough about the sessions.

What else? Some dinners and after-parties. Oh: I lost the AMODA/SXSW Laptop Battle in the first round. Controversially, I might add! The judges kind of generally sucked, in many rounds totally ignoring the crowd response when making their choice. Not sure what the deal was. On a few occasions both performers would play and the crowd would almost all be cheering for Player #1, everyone waving a “1” with their fingers — and the judges would go with Player #2. Erm. Okay. Anyway, we kind of bailed after the first round of everyone performing, so maybe it improved. (At least I get to come back if they do it again next year.) It’s disconcerting to feel like you honestly did a better job than someone only to loose to them. Sounds like I’m an egotistical asshole, huh? But I don’t think I am. I just know laptop electronica because I’ve been making blippy noises with computers for the better part of the last fifteen years. Okay. I’ll stop bitching. But. I will note that Todd Simmons and the AMODA crew do awesome events and I know it takes a tremendous amount of energy to pull something like this off (just for me to crap all over). And the musical performances mostly totally rocked! The whole thing was, in fact, really fun. Just those judges kind of messed stuff up. Argh. </venting>

Other stuff: We also went out to eat with a huge crew of ITPers-and-associates, as well. Serrano’s = excellent for evening margaritas. BBQ at the County Line the night before the cenference started. Big fat steaks at the Hoffbrau on Christin’s birthday (Tuesday the 17th). And a few social media parties, including one with a burlesque show. Although way fewer than last year. There were fewer start-ups in general at SXSW this time around. Just to note.

This is getting long, so I guess I should:

  1. Mention that ten people stayed at my parents’ place this time around. Four SocialBombers, Leah Wechsler, Josh Klein, Daniel Liss, Tikva Morowati, Christin Roman, and myself. I still think the record was set the first year all of the ITPers came down. 2006. But this certainly came close.

  2. On Christin’s last day in town we rented paddleboats and paddled out west on Town Lake. Through the Hill Country. Beautiful. And a good respite from computers. We saw lots of turtles and I almost dumped myself into the river crabbing my paddle.

  3. Note the one SXSW music event I attended: the Erykah Badu + Explosions in the Sky show at Auditorium Shores on Saturday night with Joe Stern and his girlfriend Laura (a yoga instructor in Santa Fe). Warm night. Love outdoor shows. Erykah showed up way late, so her back-up band the Cannabinoids played on their own for a while before she turned up to sing about fifteen minutes worth of songs. Then Explosion came out and did their thick, pulpy thing. Followed by an onslaught of actual explosions in the sky — fireworks — over the river. Good stuff.

So. I guess that’s about it. If you’ve read this far, let me reward you with a video of a cat with its head stuck in a bag.

Oh, and AT&T sucks. They’ve been nothing but fail during SXSW. Sure would be nice to be able to get a phone call at the conference, guys! Or send a text message! I know no one could’ve predicted that tens of thousands of people would show up this year except for, well, everyone except you. Anyway. Poo.

Magic Moments

Clay and Josh Klein talk over burgers.

Dinner at Serrano’s went well…

Clay even finally revealed his superhero alter-ego, Troubleboy. (“Be the trouble you want to see in the world,” his shirt reads — an example of a clever t-shirt that does not suck.)

Christin with the biggest shoe ever.

Pillows don’t lie.

Adam and Mike Dory at the Poodle Dog Lounge. Not shown: Lots of shuffleboard.

The end!

Miss you New York!

Posted Thu, March 26, 2009, 12:15pm EST by Mom

Great pics of Austin and 'the gang!'. We enjoyed the visit and miss you all, a bunch!

Thanks for the write-up

Posted Sun, March 29, 2009, 2:20pm EST by Dan Phiffer

Wish I could've been there!

Next time, y'all.

Posted Mon, June 8, 2009, 10:45am EST by Josh Knowles

We'll probably do it again. All of you wishy-washy fence-sitters -- just come!