Technology Travels

Aerodynamic Efficiency in Paper Airplane Design or Thoughts on SXSW Interactive

This year marked my second visit to Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest Interactive conference. While I very much enjoyed myself and having only attended in ’09 I can tell you that things have changed, perhaps not for the better.

Two years ago I attended presentations almost every hour, nearly all were in the Convention Center, they were all higher quality and it was relatively easy to navigate which I wanted to go to.

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

To make matters worse, a multitude of the sessions were redundant panels with poorly prepared presenters, the bulk of which were still fixating of 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. Utter wastes of time. By the end of day one I had pretty much given up on panels to spend time with my friends and meet new people.

The idea of having a conference for “interactive” is beginning to feel short sighted. It’s grown so large and out of control it’s simply untenable. Marketers, designers, programmers and content creators are coming together under the banner of “interactive” while many of these people have little in common. With the common thread of the internet becoming so ubiquitous in American life it seems absurd to blanket everything under one banner.

Imagine if we held a conference for all the industries who 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”. Still many of those things would have about as much in common as the sessions at SXSWi.

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

The focus this year for me was less on the panels and more about the partying, networking and actual human interaction. This is perhaps evidenced best by the multitude 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. The thing is though, if that’s the case, why even buy a badge when I can party for free anyway and get about the same?

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.


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 it’s competitors, it emphasizes the social potential of location status by turning it into a game.

I was, at one point, a big promoter of Brightkite. While there are functions of the service I did like, I’ve started to question more and more why I used it. I started to wonder: “Who cares that I’ve checked in to my apartment? Do I really want people knowing where my apartment is? If I am going to restrict 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 really useful 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’s intention is 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” 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 then someone else. Each city has it’s own set of badges and Mayors (there are currently 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. Hopefully you can see why I’m enjoying this.

Something I’m really enjoying 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. There is also a weekly leader board that lets you see who in your area is really partying it up and where you rank.

The end 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 to unlock the “Crunked” badge.
  • Less walls between cities. It’s strange that on the website I need to switch a drop down to see different sets of information for different cities. I’d like 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 our 4 nights in a row again to earn the “Bender” badge in Chicago because the one I earned was in NY. Perhaps there should be global badges and specialized local badges?

These are just my .02 cents. 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: There is an iPhone application available via the App Store and a mobile optimized version of the website available for Android and Blackberry users for now.