Reflections on SXSW

I've been home now a couple days, and I'm just now starting to feel 100% again, but I wanted to compile a bunch of random things I've been thinking about during and after the South by Southwest Conference. Not everything is specific to the event, so if you didn't go, it should make sense anyway.
The Conference Itself
The SXSW panels were some of the most interesting ones I've seen, when compared to stuff like Web99 and similar shows. I realized something funny on the last day of panels: I didn't see one line of code during the entire conference. Three days of talking about the web, from 10am-5pm, plus all the after hours shenanigans, and not one bit of code passed before my eyes. That, to me, is a testament to the beauty of the conference. Every other conference I've attended discussed the hows. Typically, that includes questions like: How are we going to do X, Y, and Z? What code would you write, in what language, and what technology would use to accomplish it?
The panels at SXSW focused on the whats and whys, and instead of thinking on the level of code, talks were always a step above, or very far above specifics. Typical questions included: What kind of site should we build, what kind of information do we want to convey, and what do we want to do with our current sites? Why do we do the things we do? Why would we want to build a new site for X, Y, and Z? Asking questions like these proved to be both interesting and important. I found myself thinking about panels I'd seen earlier in the day, asking what and why questions to myself, wondering which of my ideas were worth doing. The philosophical nature of the panels was a refreshing change.
Content-wise, SXSW was a lot different than your average web conference, but still quite good.
Celebrity Cliques
Now this is something worth discussing, because I've heard a few rumblings about it again. I've always felt myself on the outside looking in, and although I never really understood the claims of cliquishness, I was accused of it for the first time. I'll mention how I fell into the same general group of people, and maybe others can understand something from that.
I showed up to Austin knowing virtually no one, having met 5 or 6 other webloggers previously and that's about it. I knew there'd be 30-50 other people I've read online and wanted to meet. I was even sharing a hotel with someone I'd never met before, and as a wallflower, I was way out of my comfort zone from the moment I stepped off the plane in Austin.
So I had some time to kill on Friday afternoon, and I had a couple cell phone numbers of other webloggers, which I called and arranged a meeting place. After some initial gitters we hit it off. The same thing happened on Friday night and all day Saturday: strangers that knew each other through their respective websites saying hi and hanging out for the first time.
The weird thing is, many of us did seem to be quiet types. I knew someone there from extensive email and icq interactions, and this person admitted to being quiet in groups of people or around strangers, but gregarious among friends. I'd describe myself the same way, I may not open up to strangers right away, but you can't shut me up around my friends.
But since we'd all had personal sites up, getting to know each other in person wasn't a big deal. The fact was we already knew so much about each other, that after exchanging pleasantries, we instantly became like old friends. It was an amazing feeling to put a voice and face to text I'd read for so long, and I've never experienced anything like it before. Very quickly, 20-30 of us fell into these circles of mutual weblog-owning friends.
I did get to meet several people that read my weblog and my personal site, but since I didn't really know that much about them, there wasn't a lot of things to say after initial introductions. I know that sounds lame, but until you've experienced it, it's really quite weird to have someone come up to you and say they admire your work and know so much about you, but you don't know much about them. I've never had to deal with that until this past week, and I don't think I did a very good job. If you came up to me and said hi, and I didn't seem too communicative, I'm really sorry, and I'll try to do better next time.
Stuff like this is probably the root and source of "elitism" claims.
I hung out with a certain set of people because I knew them and I was quite comfortable around them. I was in a strange city, surrounded by strangers, and the people I knew online and that knew me were comforting. To any "outsider" it's hard to be included into a group like this because there's not a lot of common ground or shared experiences. Why did people hang out with the people they did? They had a lot in common. Why didn't they hang out with anyone else? They didn't know other people. You might have a lot in common with someone that writes a site, but unless you ever told them in email or put it up on your site, they will probably have a hard time connecting with you.
I've been on the readership side of things before, I once attended a concert with someone I'd been reading online for over two years. It was a strange experience, I knew every story this person started to tell me, I knew all sorts of stuff about where they'd been, who they dated, and what they were currently working on. They knew little about me, and it even weirded me out when we talked. I had to explain all sorts of stuff, trying desperately to let the person know who I was.
The more you put of yourself online, the better people can know you, and the easier it will be to meet other web authors, but in general we're a shy bunch, so try not to interpret that as elitism.
Freaks and Geeks
You know what's really funny about SXSW and web conferences in general? When you see photos from it on the web, they all feature the same 20 or 30 people. It makes you think a conference is a web-celeb bash, where walking down any hall means you'll be certain to run into Carl, or Justin, and you'll shoot the breeze with Lance while you wait for coffee in the morning. But remember, the camera only captures what you point it at. It's a pinhole-sized view of the world, and rarely does it reflect actual reality.
The fact is, the 20-30 web people you see in every photo were a group of freaks with too many digital cameras. There were hundreds-to-a-couple-thousand other people at the conference that you can't see in the photos. It wasn't so much a celeb fest as any group of photos would suggest.
What brought this group of people together from the hundreds of others in the crowd seemed to be a common love of personal web publishing. These people shared a vision and belief of the magic of the web, that didn't involve IPOs, buyouts, or ad banner revenue. There was nary a rich person among us, but I'd bet more us looked forward to going to work each morning than the average web worker.
There were literally hundreds of new-media-blue-shirt clad conference attendees that couldn't give a rat's ass about a ragtag group of idealists. I just wanted anyone that didn't attend to know that is the true reality, and it isn't what the cameras frequently capture.
That Ben Brown Character
Ben Brown brought up something at the weblogs panel that's worth mentioning. If I remember correctly, he didn't like seeing web publishers reducing themselves to "a link to wired news, along with a snarky comment." He pleaded with us to move away from the focus on the short format and to do things like write long articles, regardless of our time commitments (since Jason mentioned several times that he can only do his weblog because it only takes a few minutes out of his day to update it).
Some people had a problem with that point of view, and I have a problem with the "if it's not thorough, don't put it on the web in the first place" attitude. Actually, I have a problem with any attitude that suggests that people not publish anything. It's an enormous web, there's no limit to the number of sites online, so if you don't care for someone's site, or an entire style of site, don't visit it. There's plenty of room for millions of voices. I don't expect public speakers to give speeches that are at least 15 minutes in length, there's just as much room for the soundbyte as there is for the sermon. On the other hand, I can see where Ben's coming from, the soundbyte has been taking over the world of personal web publishing. As things like editthispage and blogger come online, they encourage the short-entry, often-updated format. As our collective attention spans shorten from all this soundbyting, something is lost.
Fortunately, I've been seeing a shift away from a "links and little, if any, commentary" format on most weblogs. People are exploring the amount of personal stuff that gets into their weblog, and when all their posts are taken as a whole, I think many weblog authors pour their soul into their sites. I've felt confined by the format too, building a place for longer pieces has always been on the back burner for me, but I'm finally doing it here. Ben Brown was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. It was the kick in the pants I needed to finally launch this site. I hope more weblog authors give the long format a try, and my sincere hope is that there's a place for both the short format and the long format on weblog sites. Jack's doing it well, and now Brig is too, and Judith sort of does both the journal thing and the weblog thing on the same page, which is a refreshing format.
Oh, and in case you haven't already heard, Ben Brown is actually extremely nice and about the funniest web person on the planet. If you ever want to have a good time at a web function, invite Ben along.
Feeling Inspired
Overall, the best side effect of the conference was coming away with a feeling of inspiration about new and old projects, a rekindled love of the web, and a belief that personal publishing was here to stay and that the business world wasn't ever going to take over the web.