Categories
Technology Travels

“Aerodynamic Efficiency in Paper Airplane Design” or Thoughts on SXSWi 2011

This year marked my second visit to Austin, Texas, for the South By Southwest Interactive conference. While I enjoyed myself and had only been once before, I can tell you that things have changed, perhaps not for the better.

When I attended in ’09, I went to presentations almost every hour; nearly all sessions were in the Convention Center, and all were high quality. The close-knit experience made it easy to navigate which panel I wanted to go to and easy to get there.

This year there was simply too much. You could scroll through long listings picking out sessions and then realize all of that was just the 2 PM hour, and a large number of sessions were scattered in offsite hotel conference rooms. It’s bad enough that walking from one end of the conference center to the other takes about 10-15 minutes; some of the sessions I wanted to go to were as far as a mile away.

To make matters worse, many of the sessions were redundant panels with poorly prepared presenters, too many of which were still fixating on the importance of “social media” and other buzz words. The kind of stuff you would already have to be aware of if you’re attending SXSW in the first place. By the end of day one, I had decided that most panels were pretty much a waste of time.

The idea of having a conference devoted to the abstract concept of “interactive” is starting to feel short-sighted. It’s grown so large that it’s simply untenable. Bringing marketers, designers, programmers, and “content creators” together under the banner of “interactive” with the common thread of “the Internet”—something quickly becoming ubiquitous to American life—seems absurd.

Imagine if we held a conference for all the industries that use paper in any way, shape, or form. There would be panels on restaurant menu design, proper cardboard box construction, and buzz-worded up bullshit like “Aerodynamic Efficiency in Paper airplane Design.” This is what it felt like to browse the schedule of sessions at SXSWi 2011.

Simultaneously, the split between the Film and Interactive portions of the conference seems more and more arbitrary as the line between amateur and professional creators continues to blur.

More me, this year’s focus was less on the panels and more about the partying, networking, and actual human interaction. This is perhaps evidenced best by the plethora of panels discussing how to best party at SXSW. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is a bad thing. It seems the label of “Interactive” has taken on a new meaning, and it seems to be less about the technology and more about social interaction. Which, from a humane perspective, is better. But if that’s the case, why even buy a badge when I can party for free?

Categories
General Travels

A Prologue?

Every adventure has a beginning. Some start slow and build into the excitement. Others kick right into action within the first few moments. Either way there is still a setup, some pretext that the story is founded on. My training from iO and Second City has taught me that it’s better to start a scene in the middle and to dispense with the back story things tend to be more interesting that way as we can watch the story unfold in front of us.

At this very moment my heart is starting to slow down from a rapid pace. My brain and endocrine system are finally starting to relax from the rush of adrenaline that pumped through me earlier. I’m just happy to be here in my aisle seat electric chair typing away and listening to my favorite Mountain Goats record.

I’m heading to Austin for South by Southwest Interactive where, for the next week, I will indulge in copious amounts of learning, networking and imbibing. When I return from Austin I will only have 8 more days of work at my job of the past 6.5 years. There is a mixture of excitement and discomfort in the fact I am willfully joining the ranks of the unemployed during a recession.

My heart rate continues to slow as I sip my complementary apple juice and snack on my peanuts. I just took a minute to revised the first paragraph. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” just came on. I love this song, I don’t really even know why, I just do.

I could tell the story about nearly missing my flight this morning, being told they were booked through the weekend and how someone I’ve never met volunteered to give up her seat making her my personal, yet thankless hero. But aside from me running unshod through Midway airport, the story really doesn’t have that much anecdotal value.

I’m looking forward to the next few days in Texas, catching up with old friends, making new ones and eating amazing food. That said, I am not quite sure what to expect. I did this once before and it was extremely enriching, even life changing, will it be again?

We’ve landed in Nashville to refuel and swap passengers before continuing on to Austin. No more Mountain Goats, moved on to Gaslight Anthem now. Stop, revise. I am fully relaxed now. Another revision.

I’ll be back in Nashville a month from yesterday if only for a day. It feels like an eternity away.

The problem with the aforementioned storytelling lesson is that it’s one of the few things from improvisation that can’t be mapped directly to life. We don’t get to just cut to the action, we’re forced to endure each beginning as even the smallest detail can be a catalyst that ripples through all of what follows. In life it’s the transitions that shape everything. The blur before something ends and another begins is arguably the most interesting moment, anything could happen that will affect the future and how we perceive of the past.

I ponder my own situation as I rewrite, revise and delete. I’m mildly frustrated that this, like many pieces I write, may sit in “drafts” forever awaiting a perfection that may never come. I switch the music again to Streetlight Manifesto to get a lyric trapped in my head out.

“We’ve all been there once before and it looks like we’ve returned once more. So is this the beginning or the end?”

I don’t know what will happen, I just know we’re landing and it’s almost time to close my MacBook.

Categories
Technology

FourSquare: Social Networking for the Social Drinker

A few weeks ago, I was in Austin, TX, for the South By Southwest Interactive conference. While there, through word of mouth, I heard about FourSquare.

FourSquare is a new service for smartphone users from the creators of Dodgeball, a startup purchased and then shelved by Google. FourSquare utilizes your phone’s GPS to “Check-in” to different places you go, see where your friends are, and allows you to “Shout” status updates to your friends. On the surface, it seems similar to other “location status” services such as Brightkite or Loopt. However, FourSquare goes a different route than its competitors; it emphasizes the social potential of location status by turning it into a game.

I was, at one point, a big proponent of Brightkite. While there were functions of the service that I did like, I’ve started to question more and more why I used it. “Who cares that I’ve checked-in to my apartment? Do I really want people to know where my apartment is? If I am going to restrict the visibility of my location—why am I even using this service, to begin with?” The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a handy way for someone to stalk me and not much more.

FourSquare takes a different approach. It focuses on bars, clubs, and restaurants rather than just arbitrary check-ins to every location. It intends to connect you to your friends in a nightlife setting.

Although I’ve been using it since SXSW, it wasn’t until this weekend on a trip visiting NYC, that I really saw the potential of FourSquare. The service awards your “check-ins” in a variety of ways. For each check-in, you earn points, and you get bonus points for doing things like hitting multiple locations in one night. You can also unlock badges (yes, like in Boy/Girl Scouts) for accomplishing an objective, similar to many video games. Lastly, by checking into a location on multiple occasions, you can become its “Mayor” if you’re there more often than someone else. Each city has it’s own set of badges and Mayors (currently, there are 12 supported US cities.)

My FourSquare activity tells an amusing story about my trip to NY. According to Foursquare: I got “Crunked” on Thursday night bar-hopping through Brooklyn, earned extra points meeting up with my friend Tom (who saw where I was via FourSquare and proposed we meet up), and went on a 4 day “Bender,” which culminated in me becoming the “Mayor” of the Coyote Ugly Saloon Saturday night (yikes.) Hopefully, you can see why I’m enjoying this.

Something else that I really enjoy is the ability to build to-do lists of things/places you want to visit and view local to-dos that other users have posted. This allows for someone to craft their own adventures and come up with creative experiences. The service also includes a weekly leader board that lets you see where you rank among users in your community.

The result is a service that feels like a giant mobile web scavenger hunt that encourages users to challenge each other and compete.

Though the service is not without its flaws: Many bars and restaurants don’t show up in the listings, and there are many quirks to the website and application itself. Its creators have acknowledged that the service is still very much in development, and honestly, it sometimes feels like a very public beta. They’ve reportedly set themselves a June 1st deadline to iron out the kinks and get it working the way they want. Even taking all that into consideration, the service is very functional and very impressive.

Some things I’d like to see in future revisions:

  • More visibility to user profiles and to-do lists: I’d really like to discover new people to connect to. Right now, there are very few ways to do this. I wish profiles listed a clearer stream of what I did, when I did it, and what rewards my actions earned me. In 6 months, I’d like to know which 4 bars I went to that unlocked the “Crunked” badge.
  • Less walls between cities. It’s strange that I need to switch a drop down to see different sets of information for different cities on the website. I want the ability to see everything at once and also see my local updates. The walls are weird. They discourage people from being friends cross-city. My friend Frank has an account, but I’ll likely never see what he’s up to unless I switch my location to where he is. Sure local users should be prioritized, but just because I can’t get to Washington to meet up with Frank tonight doesn’t mean I don’t care.
  • Badges also suffer due to these walls. I like the idea of having different goals in different cities, but it seems silly that I’ve now earned the “Newbie” badge a few times and that I have to go out 4 nights in a row again to earn the “Bender” badge in Chicago because the one I earned was in NYC. Perhaps there should be global badges and specialized local badges?

These are just my 2¢. I’m excited to continue using FourSquare and to see where the service goes in the future. It’s genuinely a lot of fun. I recommend checking it out via their website: playfoursquare.com. An iPhone application is available via the App Store, and a mobile-optimized version of the website available for Android and Blackberry users for now.