South by Southwest, for all its somewhat dystopian unwieldiness, is also a place where chaos breeds the best kinds of spontaneity and streetside serendipity. Today I ran into dozens of old friends and familiar faces quite literally on the street, but tonight, a string of good luck made for the most magical, memorable and hilarious SXSW night yet.
1) Justin, Reeve and I ran into one another on the street and the guys were complaining about hunger. I was complaining I needed to put my computer down. We three stopped by my hotel room and walked in to find two huge bags of Taco Cabana (my favorite fast food) had been delivered courtesy of my friend Todd, the COO of Taco Cabana. It was the perfect mix of tacos and endless flour tortillas and queso and guac, and delivered at the perfect moment.
2) The weather this weekend is downright shitty, with temperatures hovering around 40 and a misty rain falling all day. Reeve didn’t want to be out tonight without a jacket, but decided to suck it up and join us for a special cast party for AMC’s upcoming drama, Halt and Catch Fire, down at my favorite Austin hotel, Hotel St. Cecelia. The event was intimate but a clearly well-produced situation. Comfy classic seating, heat lamps and fancy decor were set up with Halt and Catch Fire blankets so the screening for about 60 of us could feel like we were in a really expensive living room together. As we were leaving, AMC handed out jackets. Reeve needed jacket, jacket appeared.
3) The one guy I regretted not chatting with at the party was actor Scoot McNairy, who plays a brilliant engineer on the new show and was also in some movies like Argo and 12 Years A Slave. I met him earlier in the day when my pal Voggie was coincidentally interviewing him while I was interviewing the showrunner, and was sad we didn’t get to visit. Only, luck struck again! An hour after we left the cast screening and after attending another event, the three of us decided to do a non-SXSW locals bar. As we walked up, we realized the CAST HAPPENED TO GO TO THE SAME BAR. Fate. Everything came full circle and ol’ Scoot hung out with me and Justin for hours, drinking beers, talking Texas and trying to profile the people in the bar who might have weed. I think Justin is still recovering. I should check on him.
Conference attendance at the interactive portion of the SXSW Film, Music and Interactive Fest swelled to 30,000 this year, and it showed. Walking around Austin among throngs of people with their heads lost in mobile devices, getting Red Bulls shoved in my face by one brand rep or another, battling an inbox full of one party promo after another felt like an absurd dystopia. Reality of the festival’s girth finally caught up with the years of complaints about it.
I spent way too much time in my rental car just trying to find an unclogged artery to get downtown. Once I got close, I spent too much time trying to find a place to park. And this year, I actually had places to go: I was doing tech and culture coverage online and on-air, and Team NPR was there to launch our new 30-and-under effort, Generation Listen. Thanks to the hard work of GenListen founder Danielle Deabler, NPR HR badass Lars Schmidt, the team at KUT Austin and my Austin pals Jimmy Stewart and Elaine Garza, we were able to go from zero to awesome, geek celebrity-filled party inside of three weeks. (Nerd king Neil Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer were there, y’all.)
Despite all the marketing-laden madness and the rushing around to finish the story for Morning Edition (which also wouldn’t have been possible without the friendship and help of KUT)… a few magic South By moments did squeeze into the schedule, serendipitously.
Justin and I photo-boothed, which has become a real hobby of ours over the years.
Snuck in some time on the hike and bike trail. I was reporting at the time and didn’t actually EXERCISE, but hey, my feet touched the trail, okay?
P Terry’s! Tried the peanut butter shake. Mixed a little of it into Eva’s rice cereal and might have given her a sugar high. But I felt she HAD TO try it.
Took two groups of friends, on separate nights, to a SXSW hideout better known as The Elephant Room, Austin’s basement jazz club that was decidedly not participating in the South By madness. And how wondrous it was, for the first group — a bunch of my favorite people from Knight and MIT — and the second, politico pals Richard Wolffe and Johnathan Kopp, who spent our drinking time reminiscing about all the ‘gates of the Clinton Administration.
One night, exhausted by people everywhere and stubbornly refusing to stand in any line at SXSW, ever, my old friends Voggie, Blake, Reeve, Justin and I found a respite. A film about craft cocktail bartenders rented out a Rainey Street house/bar and almost no one showed up for the premiere party. We did. We found empty spaces with nonstop craft cocktails to lounge around in, and Friend Matt, who’d had a long day of speaking/presenting, joined us for some backyard chill time. Our friend Niran then showed up randomly, and so did my fave Austin gays – ex roommate Jarrod, ex coworker Tyler, and even more randomly, Bravo’s Andy Cohen, who the boys were rolling with that night.
A quiet brunch at our Austin hosts Melissa and Brett’s house. Melissa made bacon and sausage and quiche with her homemade crust and baked french toast and a fruit salad; the Rocaps joined us in eating it, with my five-year-old Friend Ellie blurting out “bacon!” over and over. It was pretty much the raddest.
Catch-up time with my most indefatigable boss ever, Evan. That he even found time for us to hang out despite his schedule was a huge treat.
I have many SXSW regrets this year, because there were too many events and too little time. I didn’t see a single film, which used to be my favorite thing to do during the festival back in the days I didn’t have to be accountable for my time there. I also didn’t see most of my Austin gal pals, who always provide a recharge hard to find from any other source. But the in between moments of socializing weren’t bad, and Eva was awesome to have with us the whole time. Now, I just need to go to sleep for a long time.
Those of you who know me well likely know I am fascinated by online dating, mainly because I have never done it before and I am afflicted with FOMSS (Fear of Missing Something Syndrome). So here we are at SXSW 2012, where I get to learn about what the online dating terrain looks like, how it’s meshing with new technologies and how it’s influencing the way humans romantically connect. And because journalism is ultimately about connecting with people, the lessons this can teach us about new-new media are in here if you think about it.
THE PREMISE: “Traditionally, dating sites have used algorithms that rely on user profiles and personal preferences to create matches, but what if the information submitted isn’t true? Sites such as Match.com are evolving their methods to provide more accurate results – like pairing algorithms with user behavior. We’ll hear from innovators in the digital dating world and get unique insights from people who’ve searched for love online. We’ll also see how technology is changing the dating game.” – Session desrciption
HOW ONLINE DATING WORKS: Sign up, answer questions, pay a fee and you get matches. Our moderator/tester registered for a slew of sites. Apparently, eHarmony takes the longest compared to Match.com and OKCupid, and takes much much longer than the newer sites (see below). OK Cupid is apparently pretty cool in that their questions are user-generated and their profiles include some data visualizations. And in recent years, various niche dating sites have started up, aimed at the over 50 market (OurTime.c0m), the Jewish market (JDate) and weed smokers (420Dating).
THE AGONY AND THE AWKWARDNESS: Online dating changed the way people interacted with the internet, helping usher in social networking as users became more accustomed to sharing their lives online. But online dating sites seek almost exclusively to match you up, which can be awkward. Match.com’s Mandy Ginsburg:
“They don’t do it because it doesn’t feel natural. They don’t trust that a computer will allow them to find that perfect love or spark, or it feels like it’s not serendipitous so there’s no romance … so how can we make the whole experience as natural as possible?”
Because people are bringing the funny, I will keep a running list here of funny musings from my pals (without attributing the quotes to specific pals).
– I accidentally made out with a stranger in front of Star Bar.
– I have been in bed all morning due to extreme karaokeing last night.
– I just got rained on — inside.
– I don’t want to be dramatic but … we’re gonna die.
– Whenever I put on glasses, I just end up looking like a lesbian.
– Everyone seems to just pair some shorts with some tights and call it a day.
– How was dim sum? I was sleeping on a couch with two dogs while $&#*( was making out with some girl. I would murder a Mexican child for a Topo Chico right now.
– Far be it for me to criticize anyone else’s style, but that hair really bothers me.
It has been SO LONG (okay, like three weeks) since we’ve hung out and partied together! And South by Southwest has consistently been a real championship-level debauchery event for us. Now, because SXSW itself has gotten so out of control in recent years — WTF, there’s a list and a line to get into places like Buffalo Billiards?!? — I’d love to use this time to do off-campus, meaningful connecting with some of the coolest journos and digital media folk around.
There’s also a lot of pure Austin stuff I want to do, since the last time I was in town was so short (and most of it was in Fredericksburg.) Here is my to-do list of SX and not-so-SX stuff:
1. There is a new Bush’s Chicken down on Brodie near Slaughter. Hello?! Bush’s Chicken, a staple of my post-college diet when I lived in Waco, features the best combo of chicken trips, crinkle cut fries, yeast roll, white gravy and a 32 ounce giant sweet tea drink for UNDER $7.
2. I am going to the screening of HBO’s Game Change at the LBJ Library next Sunday. The authors of the book that inspired the movie, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, will be on hand for Q/A, and YOUR employer, The Texas Tribune, is putting it on. Hope to see you. I think I will bring our favorite movie critic, Chris Vognar, if he is free.
3. We are eating the following meals for deliciousness sake: The “Regular Dinner” at Maudies. The #2 at Dario’s. The Democrat and the Fried Avocado Tacos at Torchy’s. The fatty beef brisket at Franklin BBQ. Steak Frites at Justine’s. Beef Noodle Soup at Coco’s Cafe. Chicken Tikka Masala at G’Raj Mahal. The Love Cleanse Green Juice at Whole Foods. Assorted Dim Sum with the dim sum group at Shanghai. Family-style everything at Asia Cafe. And as for new restaurants, I still haven’t tried Contigo, which Hannah raves about.
On Saturday after I spoke on a panel called “News as Infotainment,” two lovely ladies from Frontline (FRONTLINE!) came up and asked me for examples of interactive and “infotainmenty” news presentations I really loved. I didn’t have time to go over them in person, so here you go, ladies:
The ramblings and rantings of the actor, the pundit and the dictator have collectively compelled us as a nation, and while the three men are from vastly different backgrounds, the words that come out of their mouths are strangely similar. As the magazine wrote, “To demonstrate just what a struggle it is to distinguish between the mad ramblings of an entertainer, a despot, and a newsman another entertainer, we’ve put together this quiz. If you get them all right, you are some kind of savant.”
Qaddafi is leading to all sorts of creative inspiration. Vanity Fair’s “Qad Libs,” based on the childhood word game “Mad Libs”, allowed readers to “create a realistic hard-line speech by inserting your own bizarre words into the colonel’s actual defiant address.” The magazine allowed readers to fill in a string of nouns, adverbs and adjectives in their interactive form to create their own Qaddafi rants. Amazingly, every customizable rant seemed right on.
In response to the nations gazillion trillion dollar deficit, and the frightening shortfalls of state governments around the country, media companies have followed in The Times’ footsteps with interactive budget puzzles that allow the user to find ways to balance the budget. Poynter’s recent piece discusses the limitations of these puzzles (the game writers get to set the parameters of what to cut or revenue to increase) but this is a great way to make real the budget troubles of governments, teach readers about the decisions that have to be made and allow for audiences to prioritize what they think is important.
Frank’s project teaches us a beautiful lesson about how technology and social sharing can enable human connection. As you’ll read in the story he lays out, he received an email from a girl named Laura who was stressed out and felt hopeless; she asked for a song to help calm her nerves. Frank asked her to describe her feelings, which then led to a sketch of a song that he then asked his audience to record themselves singing. It led to a gorgeous result, no pitch correction required, that you can now purchase online.
The Panelists: Ze Frank, Caspar Sonnen (a Dutch guy, natch), Tommy Pallotta and Rob McLaughlin with the National Film Board of Canada.
So we’re here to learn about new ways to tell nonfiction stories, which duh, winning, can be applied to news. Pallotta started making documentaries but switched to animation and now primarily makes media for the internet. Frank has been toying with online media for many years. “I don’t consider myself a documentarian, I work with lots and lots of people to find moments and find a way to bubble them to the top,” Ze Frank. “I have to compete with the rest of the world to find the best way to tell my story.”
Buzzwords and examples (!) from this session:
TRANSMEDIA (noun): Cross-platform storytelling. Example: Creating a gaming aspect to put you in simulations/give a hands-on experience of the energy crisis. At the same time, having a documentary shown on television but also broken up into clips onto YouTube. To create an emotional anchor, filmmakers then take abstract ideas and embodied them in characters and stories. The combo: a documentary, a fictional part, and an interactive. How to tie it together? In a Pallotta film, they designed three panels at once, that slides left to right with interactive on left, fiction story in the middle, and more info with documentary talking heads and text info on the right. It’s annotated storytelling. “It’s interactive in that if you want to engage more with it, you can,” Pallotta says.
Encouraging people to crowdsource their own projects, by putting up various video archive elements online and putting up an online editing tool to allow the community to take part in storytelling. “I think so long as they’re talking about it, that’s a good thing,” Pallotta says.
Example: The Test Tube: with David Suzuki, which examines what we’d do with our global sustainability problem in an interactive. It involves an online video, with people contributing on Twitter with their reactions, what they would do with only one minute left in our biosphere. That data that comes in will then get visualized in bubbles that show the community reactions. “Sleep” was the largest bubble.
INTERVENTION STYLE: (aka the Ze Frank style) Not so much telling stories but creating small, weird little engagements that get people to experience something particular or take risks. “When you start saying you’re going to interact with audiences, the problem is it’s really hard to even interact with one person,” says Ze Frank. “The translation to online work is how do we hyper hyper simplify the goal of these interactions?”
Examples: youknowi.ly: Heavily moderated due to porn. But this is a simple way to share an interaction. star.me allows you to give stars to people you think are awesome. Your desktop is then filled with appreciations with other people. zefrank.com/youngmenowme recreates photographs from your childhood. “There’s something wonderfully special in that,” Frank says. With these submission projects, then it’s hard to get meaningful text from the users. He then has to ask questions in a “sneaky” way to get people to open up in a way that’s useful to getting a story. Pain Pack: Frank opened up a hotline for people to leave their painful experiences. Audioclips were given to sound editors, and they cut them and chopped them into a library of discreet sounds. And those sounds were then given to music makers to create songs just from sounds from the Pain Pack. “The audio of the original recordings is super compelling, the project itself, I cannot figure out how to make it compelling.”
GUIDANCE FOR GOING FORWARD:
– Having a “voice is important to interacting with your audience. If it’s playful, it’s playful, if it’s serious, serious.”
– To finance these things or monetize them after the fact, there’s no pat answer. You have to be creative with the resources you have. “Don’t worry about it right now,” says Pallotta. “Just make it.”
– Scale your idea. If you have a small amount of resources do a soft launch to get people excited and interested in your idea.
– In every industry landscape, the leaders are afraid they are missing something. If you can create a project and pitch it like “this is what they’re missing,” you can make some money.
@JayRosen_nyu and Lisa Williams from Placeblogger.com are here to talk about bloggers versus journalists. The pitch:
I wrote my essay, Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, in 2005. And it should be over. After all, lots of journalists happily blog, lots of bloggers journalize and everyone is trying to figure out what’s sustainable online. But there’s something else going on, and I think I’ve figured out a piece of it: these two Internet types, amateur bloggers and pro journalists, are actually each other’s ideal “other.” A big reason they keep struggling with each other lies at the level of psychology, not in the particulars of the disputes and flare-ups that we continue to see online.
I’ll try my best to liveblog the action.
3:35pm:“You learn to wear the mask, if you want to join the club,” Rosen says about the psychology behind journalists and the “club” we’re part of.
3:36pm: Disruptions by the internet threaten to expose conflicts within the press. Internet exports inner conflicts to the world outside the press.
3:39pm:On Bill Keller’s piece, which ribs aggregators like Huffington Post and others for “derivative work”, Rosen concludes that there’s something about bloggers vs. journalists that permits the display of a “preferred” or idealized self among people in the press whose work lives have been disrupted by the internet. “Spitting at bloggers is closely related to gazing at your own reflection and falling in love with it again,” Rosen says.
3:40pm: Yikes, I feel like I’m back in journalism school. Jay’s quoting people from Europe and stuff. This is so … academic. My brain is too small.
3:42pm: We’re focusing a lot on this notion of bloggers “replacing” journalists. That there is, or was, a view by mainstream journalists that bloggers versus journalists is a mutually exclusive arrangement. I’m assuming this builds toward the argument (now pretty widely accepted) that we’re not one or the other, but both.
3:47pm: What do bloggers get from hanging on to this divide? “By raging at newspaper editors, bloggers manage to keep themselves on the outside of a system they are in fact, part of. It’s one internet, people. The system now incorporates the people formerly known as the audience.” Bloggers and journos are each other’s ideal “other.” The conflict, for bloggers, helps preserve the ragged innocence by falsely putting “all” power in “big media.”
3:49pm: The press is us, not them, Rosen argues. Bloggers and journalists who refer to the word “traditional” — that tradition is 80-90 years old. But our experiment with is is 250 years old. Whole chapters of that history were rejected in order to claim “elevated status.” “With blogging, they have come roaring back,” Rosen says.
3:52pm: “Something dropped out of journalism between 1902 and 2002. The bloggers are the return of the repressed,” Rosen says. He argues bloggers are the return of muckrackers like Lincoln Steffens and bring back what was lost in the transition from journalism to a business.
3:55pm: So, people become journalists largely for some social justice reason, i.e., making the world a better place. But then the professional codes in place often prevent this. “It’s hard to fight for justice when you have to master he said, she said. Voice is something you have to take out when you want to succeed in the modern newsroom,” Rosen says.
3:57pm: Rosen gives us a helpful heads up that he’s almost done with his general expository talk. “I’m coming in for a landing. Five minute and we’ll have questions.”
3:59pm: In pro-journalism, the terms of authority have to change. The practice has to become more interactive, and this has to happen during a time of enormous stress. The story the press has been telling itself has broken down. It no longer helps journalists navigate the conditions today. We have to tell ourselves a new story about what we do and why it matters. Bloggers vs Journalists struggle is a refusal to change. “It’s fucking neurotic,” he concludes.
4:04pm: HEY it’s Q and A time! He says he’s for “mutualization.” We have something to contribute to journalism (as we’ve seen with all the video of the earthquake, etc), and journalists have something to contribute, namely, discipline, to bloggers.
4:06pm: Rosen: If you are accurate, and fair, and deal in verifiable information, you can write with voice or practice institutional voice. There’s no separation from truthtelling and attitude. The people telling us about the world must understand importance of accuracy, transparency, intellectual honesty. “Whether or not you voice your opinion in my view is a stylistic question.”
4:08pm: On the rise of Fox News’ agenda-driven journalism: We have to hope for building trust is more important than grabbing mindshare. This is a permanent tension.
4:11pm: Are we ever going to get beyond the conflict between bloggers and journalists?, Stacey from Paid Content asks. “In psychology, you don’t get over the things that have wounded you. You don’t dismiss the neuroses that formed you. Instead, what we can hope for is to create a lot more room for maneuvering so we aren’t trapped by these things anymore. By going right at this conflict, I’m hoping we can transcend it.”
4:16pm: We’re on shield law now and how the law should protect acts of journalism instead of journalists. Unpacks the notion that the journalism profession is the only one protected by the First Amendment.
4:18pm: This is so meta. Clay Shirky asking a question of Jay Rosen. Question is about the role of journalism schools. Rosen essentially argues there are two kinds of journalists – those educated in j-school, and those educated in the school of life. “[Journalism school] about taking something that was a working class trade and elevating it to the status of a profession,” Rosen said. “That’s where the notions of objectivity come from.” … Then we get a comparison to the phone sex industry.
4:21pm: A question from Twitter on the projection screen is about “the NPR vs. sting video fracas”. Waiting…
4:25pm: Rosen says James O’Keefe is a blogger in terms of using tools of self publishing. But he thinks of O’Keefe as a performance artist whose work objective is to create panic in institutions. “NPR gave into his performance by panicking and firing its CEO,” Rosen says. (See his argument on PressThink.) Rosen argues that if NPR doesn’t realize there are enemies out there, they won’t do enough to counteract it. “I think there’s lots of people in public media who know that, but it’s the people at the top who don’t know how to reconcile that.”
4:29pm: Rosen gets a paywall question. He says he’s not religious about it. He thinks it’s a practical question. “It’s really hard to tell people who are producing commodity content that they’re producing commodity content, so that’s a huge barrier right there. He says we need journalism to bring attention of something to the community of the whole. But paywalls threaten to make journalism, which is about informing the public, more like private newsletters. That then creates the “insider class.” What’s at stake is that if we go to a world where newsletter model supports professional journalists, then we say that informing the public as a whole is something we’ve left behind.
4:34pm: More Rosen advice for NPR, namely to embrace transparency of individual views and “pluralism,” which is explained in his post linked above.
4:38pm: With our remaining time, we look at how money relates to blogging and bloggers. “What makes a big difference is whether you need to keep doing what you’re doing. An accidental journalist who doesn’t need to continue to do that, is in a different position than a person who’s trying to make their living at it. The investment needing to pay returns changes the relationships with the user.”
4:41pm: Something about phone sex workers again. AND WE COME FULL CIRCLE!
I think that does it for me … off to SXSW parties galore. More to come tomorrow.