I just returned from my 5th SXSW. Relative to some folks, I'm still a SXSW n00b, and to others I'm a veteran. As a frame of reference, my first year was the year AFTER Twitter was the break-out hit there; admittedly, I was a part of the "change" at SXSW that people bemoan. What are people bemoaning and what can SXSW do to ensure their long-term brand stays strong?
People are bemoaning that SXSW's ratio of "makers" to "marketers" has shifted to an unhealthy proportions, making SXSW too much about noise and not enough about signal.
Now, when I say 'marketers' I'm not referring to folks who have that as a job title -- I don't care what your job title and description are and marketers by job title and description are no-doubt super important members of our ecosystem.
When I talk about marketers at SXSW and on other tech "platforms" I'm talking about folks who attend and participate explicitly to promote their wares -- the folks who see SXSW as a "marketing opportunity" rather than an education opportunity.
In my experience from running the NY Tech Meetup, there are two "laws of emerging technology communities" that work against SXSW and similar platforms, including ours.
The first law is that "people who work hardest to get noticed will, by default, get noticed." What's good about this is that it rewards hustle, but what's bad about it is it both rewards budget over quality and rarely makes for the best content (that you can afford someone to promote something says you may have an interesting business, but says little about how interesting your product is). Without fighting against this natural law, the message and feeling of your conference will be dictated by the loudest people.
The second, related law is that "non-makers promote more than makers." This law is true because makers spend their time making tangible things while non-makers spend their time making ephemeral things, like the very "buzz" they want at SXSW. As someone who has been a non-maker for most of his career, I don't believe that non-makers are bad or less smart or less important overall than makers. I do, however, think that you can cater content to non-makers by catering content to makers, and not visa-versa.
And in that I see a solution for SXSW. At NYTM we spend as much energy as possible finding and promoting the makers, developing content for the makers, and working to balance out these two "laws" I outlined above. Even if makers are in the minority (as they are in the NYTM-membership) the entire ecosystem rests on the products of their labor. It's awesome that so many marketing, PR, advertising, investing professionals and service providers come to the NYTM, but they are all there to see what the makers make and what the makers think is cool and exciting.
What's super cool about this dynamic, and what makes life a bit easier for the content curator (SXSW or NYTM) is that even when the content is a bit "too technical" for everyone else, it's still super enjoyable for them. We always encourage demoers to show code, talk about their stack in details, and not once has one of the 600 of our 850 attendees complained that something was over their head. In fact, the more over their head, the more they seem to love it.
And so, my advice to SXSW is to turn its programming next year on its head. Instead of having only a small handful of truly technical sessions, dedicate half your keynotes to technical leads talking about their respective stacks, scaling issues, and lessons learned.
Because makers are less self-selecting than non-makers, go more outside the PanelPicker for this technical content. Just like getting Mark Zuckerberg to do a keynote, you have to work to source it.
Next year, make one keynote from Kellan Elliott-McCrea. (They are doing incredible things at Etsy that every single company can learn from, even if the content is highly technical.) Make another keynote from the tech team at OMGPOP, who just heroically scaled Draw Something to the number 1 free and paid iPhone app globally in just a few short weeks. Make another keynote from Karen Teng, VP of Engineering of GetGlue.
Has anyone ever heard a talk about the tech that supports Wikipedia? I haven't, and I think that would be a fucking awesome keynote.
And it's not just about keynotes. Instead of more sessions about "mobile marketing" or "the future" of something that someone pitched you guys, reach out to Mike Hostetler of appendTo to do another technical session on jQuery, or Aaron Quint, CTO of PaperlessPost, to talk about their scaling.
The thing is, SXSW, none of these people are going raise their hands -- you have to find them -- but the good news for the folks at SXSW is that people are already demanding this:
I walked by and heard of plenty of half-empty conference rooms throughout the conference the year. How can you attend another session on branding and marketing if you're out on the streets marketing your own company?
Meanwhile, the session Vin Vacanti and I did on "Learning to Code" was shoved in a smaller room in the Hilton and still had a line of people outside who weren't not allowed in and waited to get in. Mind you, almost no one at the session had "heard" of either of us... they just wanted the content we were offering. Also note: Our session was at 9:30am on a Sunday -- the day Daylight Savings changed.
That's how bad people wanted "maker" content.
So, SXSW, I'm getting this out there because you still have time to make next year better and different. Re-embrace the maker community that made SXSW a destination in the first place. Keep your content highly focused on makers and issues around making. Get scarily technical in your most mainstream sessions. The SXSW brand is still amazing but if you don't fight the natural laws that favor promoters you'll enjoy the bubble for a few more years, but will ultimately end up with a bust on your hands soon enough.
I used to think how you "changed the World" was the most important question for a startup venture looking for commercial success. Looking back, I don't think I was right.
Twitter, Wordpress, Blogger, Reddit... these Internet services have fundamentally changed the way the world works. None of these will make the most money in their class.
I believe the World is an incredibly different place now due to the freedom of blogs and speed of dissemination created by Twitter. I believe the World is also a different place because of a raucous, loosely organized network of Internet users hosted by Reddit and its cousins, like 4chan.
But ultimately, none of these services will be the most commercially successful of their genre or time. Tumblr, which I truly love, has not had near the cultural impact of Wordpress & Blogger; but, it will do far better commercially speaking. Pinterest will also do better (commercially) than Reddit, but it will never be center of a decentralized movement against Congress (SOPA) or define the next generation of cultural icons.
Twitter, we're finding out, may end up being the most significant example of this conundrum. I'm going to go out on a limb and say because of its seamless marriage with Big Media that Twitter has had an incredibly larger impact on the shape of the World than Facebook, but without going out on a limb I'm going to say it won't have near the commercial success.
Is World Change via Internet service at odds with massive commercial success?
There is at least one exception I can find: Google has has perhaps changed the World more than even blogging platforms, AND it has ended up as a massive commercial success.
One theory I've been working with is that as a people we are consumers of goods only second to being consumers of information. The Wordpresses and Twitters of the world are purely about information, and this is why the world is so fundamentally different with their presence. Google, on the other hand, realized that Search lives at this amazing junction where the flow of Information and the flow of Commerce cross each other quite naturally.
Naturally crossing Commerce and Information, however, is only two thirds of the recipe. The other ingredient is ability to reach World-scale.
The question for "change the world" companies like Kickstarter, which has clearly found some vein here, is whether or not they can achieve this World-scale. Esty and Groupon (a literal example of where Kickstarter could end up) seem to dance with the very same issue too, as both their products appear to get watered down the larger their core products grow.
So who cares, right? Well, I do. I want more "Change the World" companies to exist. I want more Googles who can use the Internet to both make the World a better place while also finding a way to be massively, massively profitable. Off the Internet, but still in the realm of technology, there's no doubt that Microsoft existed in this place as it created the proliferation of Personal Computers in the 80s and 90s (not to mention the bonus of creating a Bill Gates who is fundamentally changing the World again with his strategic donations of tens of billions of dollars he made from the company). Apple didn't produce a Bill Gates, but the iPhone started a new personal computing revolution whose effects we haven't even begun to see at its most scaled form (probably massive proliferation of Android in the developing world).
So I wonder: Who's next? Can the Internet produce another Google? With software produce another Microsoft? Can hardware make another Apple? Let's hope so, and let's work to make it happen.
Every morning, as I clear out my inbox, I find, and read religiously daily digest emails from News.me, KnowAboutIt, Percolate, and Timehop. When I'm done, I head over to New Relic to see what the worst bugs and slowest queries were in my software app overnight. What similar about all of these services is that they present small amounts of well organized information that has been algorithmically compiled and designed based on my specific interest or needs. Gone are the days of generic real-time streams, feeds, and editor-driven digests. Data Dumps be gone!
Digests and Dashboards are not everything I could know, but everything I probably should know. Instead of being oppressive, like a feed or an inbox or a newspaper, the new smart digests and dashboards are here to help -- they tell you, "It's okay that you were't paying attention at every moment. Here's what you missed."
Right now, the best digests and dashboards are aggregators. They pull from multiple sources or if they don't, they use another service's API.
In the future I think more products will want to provide smart digests and dashboards to their readers. Every blog or newspaper has a "most read" tab. Some have a "most emailed" tab. None of these tabs tie into your social graph and in order to see these you have to be on their site in the first place.
For those services who decide to make this a feature, figure out how to deliver it is key.
My favorite form to get these digests and dashboards in is email, because emails end. On a website you can get lost clicking around and pretty soon you're down a time-suck rabbit hole of the web. With a digest email I can skim through it and when I'm done I'm done, and I can move on. Smart digests and dashboards make me feel like I've accomplished something and that I've been truly more productive, not just entertained in a new medium. Entertainment is not something I need more of; I just want to be productively informed.
I'm building something right now and feeling like I'm really missing a smart dashboard experience with it. This weekend, I may start banging on a weekly digest feature for it. Could be nice to have.
Photo Credit: Scott Heiferman The fight to stop PIPA and SOPA are far from over. The word we're hearing from Washington is that PIPA's supporters are trying to double down their pressure and make this bill sail through the Senate even faster than before.
We can and will stop this bill, but before we get back to work I want to say how incredibly proud I was to be a part of the NY tech community yesterday.
We did something that's never been done before, in any tech community: Over 2,000 of us -- developers, investors, entrepreneurs, designers, salespeople alike -- came together physically to protest something that we universally agreed would damage our industry and therefore our lives, our City and our World.
No doubt, this is a turning point for us as a community. This won't be the last time we come together and this won't be the last issue we're willing to fight for.
Until the next Meetup, keep hammering away on the phones. MobileCommons has set it up so that you just need to text "PIPA" to 877877 to be connected to the Senators' offices. I called this morning and a Gillibrand staffer said she had no plans of changing her mind. It's not an acceptable answer and so I'll be calling back every day until that answer has changed.