SXSWi 2010: Themes and Thoughts

March 19th, 2010 · 7 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

And it happened. Traditional book publishers were out in force at South by Southwest Interactive this year. I was pleased to see so many stepping outside the publisher bubble and into the crazy interactive bubble. I was even more pleased by the breadth of sessions my compatriots attended. Foursquare tells all, my friends!

I don’t attend South by Southwest for “aha” moments, though I’ve had them. I tend to soak up zeitgeist, themes, and trends. Many of the ideas I note below are not unique to this year’s festival. I’d say most have been simmering along for a while. This year, they reached critical mass.

  • People Will Pay for Content: Given the nature of the Interactive festival, you’d expect a lot of praying to the God of Free. Au contraire! Of course, people who attend SXSWi are working professionals, and they expect their work to be valued. Not only did people express the desire to be paid, they expressed the desire to pay.

    Which leads to….

  • The Rise of Bespoke: During Daniel Ek’s Keynote Interview (yeah, I totally made up that phrasing), he used the word “bespoke” to describe how some features are used on Spotify. I was delighted by the lovely, old fashioned, and entirely contemporary word. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a yearning for things that are unique to them. This is why we knit, this is why Etsy thrives, this is why we put stickers on our laptops.

    What emerged as a theme throughout SXSWi was the idea that people are willing to pay for content, but they’re willing to pay higher prices for something unique, something different, something more than the ordinary mass content. Putting this in context of books, this opens up the potential for limited, high-end editions. It opens up the potential for truly enhanced ebooks (please, once again, do not confuse marketing extras with enhancements. Big. Difference.). It opens the potential for a range of price points and formats in the book marketplace.

  • Context: I’ve been waiting for this one. A few years ago, I told someone that I think the next hot career will be librarian. I’ve been talking about this ever since. We live in an age where nearly every bit of information can be found via Google or its brethren. Constant streams of information bombard our brains. As more and more information fills the silence, we will need experts who can put all the pieces together, put them into context.

    We will need librarians. Public librarians, private librarians, corporate librarians, freelance librarians. They have trained for this mission!

    Let’s also take context in another direction: analysis. The journalists on the Future of Context panel talked about pulling the pieces of news together in ways that create a richer story. This is the future of paid news. A house fire on 4th street rarely requires deep analysis, and isn’t the type of news people will consider worthy of money. Analysis, insight, putting the pieces together…that’s where the money is.

    This likely means news services that mix free with paid (which I suspect is antithetical to Rupert Murdoch’s vision). I know I subscribe to Salon because I get more than a cursory overview of the headlines. I’ve supported other news organizations because they do the same. It’s time to stop worrying about the death of journalism and start, you know, practicing it again.

  • Privacy: This is the year people thought seriously about privacy. From Danah Boyd’s keynote (which I missed due to being, oh, 35,000 feet in the air) to various other panels to private conversations, the idea of privacy is being discussed. Taking that further, the idea of privacy in an era where we are in constant online communication with friends far and wide about every aspect of our lives.

    I’ve always engaged in some levels of online privacy (like never putting my home address in a place where Google can index it). I’ve been thinking even more about privacy since last November when a weird incident — one entirely offline! — lead me to think about what I was telling people about my whereabouts and activities. The odd thing about this thinking is not that I worried about people I don’t know, but people I do know…or people the people I know, know.

    It is possible to live full, open online lives and still maintain privacy. This is why I believe authors should set up Fan Pages on Facebook rather than letting strangers participate in your personal profile, where you may also be “friends” with your husband, your mother, your children, your boss, and your personal posse. Boyd discusses the blowback from the launch of Google Buzz, and I suggest people take time to understand the technology they’re experimenting with before leaping into the void.

    There is no perfect system, and privacy breaches are not limited to the online world. We cannot depend upon others to do all the work to maintain our own privacy, meaning we must take responsibility by learning what we are giving away and to whom before sharing everything.

  • Community: This is not a new concept at SXSWi, but it remains a strong theme. It was around the idea of community that I did have a small but important epiphany. During the Community Management: Future Skills You’ll Need to Know session, it was noted that community managers should be in senior management roles in the companies they represent. All too often, this function is delegated to interns or low-level staffers who do not have sufficient authority to speak on behalf of the company or to communicate directly with decision makers.

    Without this level of authority, senior management is not kept in the loop about what their customers are saying (how often does an intern get invited to a top-level meeting, and when it does happen, how seriously is that intern’s message taken?). Company positions may be misstated or serious concerns may be overlooked due to a lower level employee’s lack of exposure to issues, lack of experience, or even desire to do the best job possible while not realizing the harm being done (which is apparently what happened to Dell Computers a few years ago).

    This is a management failure, not the fault of the people tasked with doing a high profile, public-facing job without adequate support.

    For brands of all types, community remains the goal. If you decide to create one, to nurture one, to use one to better your company, then it needs to be taken seriously and championed by senior management. Thank you.

  • Location Awareness: Where Are You Now?: This ties in with privacy and community. As our computers become more and more portable, think iPhone, we want to be able to find restaurants, to tell friends where we are, to be given virtual coupons for lattes. We want to engage in real-world tours using digital information.

    This will be weird and fun and messy (note to all Foursquare and Gowalla users: please turn off the ability to push your updates to Twitter; everyone who follows you will appreciate the courtesy). Lots of services will vie for our attention. Lots of great ideas will emerge. In fact, we are only limited by a few things.

    And they are annoyingly huge: GPS and GPS-like systems that make accuracy less-than-perfect; AT&T’s still-spotty service in major metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles (after last year’s fiasco, they beefed up coverage in Austin for Interactive, but pulled out the trucks prior to music) make the iPhone difficult for many to use; privacy concerns abound; and the sheer annoyingness of developing apps for every phone, platform, and network. The complexity of the system is likely the biggest obstacle for location aware technology.

  • You Are Not A Gadget, or User Experience Should Be Your Number One Goal: No, I’m not referencing Jaron Lanier’s book. I’m suggesting to publishers that the killer apps and devices are not Kindles, nooks, iPads. They remain, yep, laptops and desktops and browsers. I’m talking about user experience, with my own twist.

    (Note: there was a lot at the conference about user experience in developing for the web because it is that important. I would advise learning as much as possible about it.)

    Perhaps a better way to put this is: how about leveraging the technology most people are using right now? For the past several years, there has been a lot of talk about the Kindle, the Sony Reader, the nook, and the iPad (formerly known as the Unicorn), but very little movement on the part of publishers to leverage serious book reading via web browsers…which, you know, is the primary tool used by people who are online right now.

    This does not mean giving up on new technologies and platforms; it simply means addressing the reality of digital reading. Developing for specific devices while ignoring reality — or tying readers to desktop versions of proprietary reading systems, ahem — leaves a large group of readers behind. It is true that some people do not want to engage in long-form reading on their computers; it is even more true that many, many more already do this type of reading.

    As I write this, I’m thinking about the pre-orders for the iPad. Someone suggested that it won’t be long before the iPad outsells Kindle, unit-wise. That is a given. But it’s a dangerous comparison. Every person who buys a Kindle (or nook or Sony Reader or other dedicated ereader) is doing so for the sole purpose of reading books and other words. Some of the people who buy the iPad will use it for reading, but it’s a multimedia device, and to expect it to serve primarily as a reading device is wishful thinking.

    Smart people have developed readers like Ibis Reader, which allows people to read EPUB on their phones, their tablets, their laptops, their desktops, and other devices. Ibis is all about the reader experience. It doesn’t require a special device (though it works on special devices). Rather than focusing on the bright and shiny, I’d love for publishers to focus on how people really read digital books (hint: there’s a reason PDF is still the number one format for ebooks).

    Focus on the user, the consumer, the reader. User experience is critical. Always has been.

  • HTML 5, It’s What’s for The Future: HTML is the language of the web. It is the language of EPUB. It’s also, painfully, the language of MOBI. It is a mature standard, and you can’t go wrong with it. And, like all standards, HTML is evolving as our other web-based technologies evolve.

    Thus, we have HTML 5. I’m not an expert, nor do I play one on TV. But I know people who know stuff, and they’re working in HTML 5. Is this the death of Flash? I have no idea. I do know that that the iPad will not use Flash. I also know that accessibility and flexibility are improved by using HTML. Android devices maybe/might have Flash support. Apparently there’s a yet-to-be-seen workaround. If it does all that and more, great, but if you are thinking Flash only, you are limiting yourself. For content producers, this means thinking short-term, mid-term, and long-term.

    Which leads us to the final thought…

  • It Will All Be Different Tomorrow: For those of us who have been online for twenty or more years, everything is different than it was when we started. Once upon a time, we didn’t have Twitter (I know). Future-proofing is near-impossible, so the best you can do is focus on standards instead of proprietary technologies.

    Or, plan for change. It’s inevitable.

What were your takeaways, themes, big ideas?

An Aside

I participated in the A Brave New Future for Book Publishing at this year’s conference, and want to thank everyone who attended, tweeted, and asked questions. I want to share my sincere admiration for my co-panelists Kevin Smokler of (fearless leader), Debbie Stier of HarperStudio (rockstar), Pablo Defendini of (most awesome), and Matthew Cavnar of Vook (oh yes, yes). They are exceptionally smart people, and I was proud to be part of such a positive panel.

We talked about a lot of things and didn’t come close to everything we wanted to discuss. For those who wanted us to talk about copyright, I hope you attended the various SXSW sessions addressing this topic (it’s too much for an hour). For those who wanted to get into transmedia storytelling and why publishing isn’t going whole hog into it, I’ll address that in a separate post (hint: ain’t nothin’ as easy as it seems from the outside). To those who thought we crammed too many topics into an hour, well, the panel was designed to introduce the industry to non-book publishing professionals.

Coming out of the festival, Kirk Biglione noted something funny to me. For years we’ve been imploring publishers to attend SXSW, and this year was a dream come true. However, this lead Kirk to comment that he’d now suggest that people who are interested in the various topics we addressed attend the various publishing conferences that cover these topics in more depth.

Other thoughts and wrap-ups:

File Under: Square Pegs

7 responses so far ↓

  • ReadHowYouWant // Mar 19, 2010 at 10:43 am

    As usual, thanks for an extremely informative post. I always leave your pieces with a new set of answers and questions, which I think, is a great thing 🙂

  • Kevin Smokler // Mar 19, 2010 at 10:58 am

    No thank you. It was a complete joy. Please come to BEA.

  • Debbie Stier // Mar 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Great Post Kassia. Very insightful and thoughtful. Where will I see you next? What’s the next conf?

  • Nicola Griffith // Mar 19, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Good post!

    User experience. Yes. (I had to fight like a beast to get Lambda Literaryto not use those irritating-to-the-nth-degree drop-down menus. Users hate them. But proprietors love them because it’s what they’re used to.)

    Publishers should be thinking about their end users, not their immediate customers. That is, they should be thinking about their readers. Eh, but you know that; I’m preaching to the choir.

    SXSW sounds fabulous. I’m determined to get there, one day.

  • Chris Glennon // Mar 22, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Content, new technology, community, etc. We already have these things. Problem is, publishers are still marketing like they did 30 years ago. They are not leveraging marketing platforms that aggregate the existing social media and traditional marketing, utilize outbound marketing or leverage analytics for real-time marketing campaign updates.

    I also agree with Nicola’s comment regarding user experience. Give readers the information they want (social media, author bios, trailer videos, sample content, etc) where they want it, when they want it. (Marketing 101: engage customers and increase product interaction = increased sales and strengthened brand loyalty)

  • Ovi Demetrian Jr // Mar 27, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Great post, it looks like I went to some of the same panels you did at SXSW! My main takeaway is how independent content creators are starting to successfully promote themselves online. People like Gary Hustwit who did the Helvetica and Objectified documentaries (both great) pretty much handled all the marketing and distribution by himself!

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