During breaks in travel last week, I wrote a bunch of notes about both SXSW and Etech conferences and finished it off last night while waiting for a flight. What follows is a loose bunch of thoughts on various subjects.
SXSW was fun, and good to catch up with everyone. At this point, I think it's officially a conference by and for bloggers, as the number of mentions of code or new products was minimal and every panel seemed to focus on the ins and outs of blogging, with some CSS thrown in. I enjoyed myself and the party atmosphere of the week even though I was nervous about having two talks. I don't recall anything too mind blowing as the conference has turned into a mix of summer camp reunion with friends and a four-day excuse to party. About the only interesting panel I recall was the one on minorities in blogging. Even though anyone can blog, it's still the domain of white males by and large, and while the speaker list at sxsw has plenty of women now, there were few people of color. The panel was a good one to have since it was just about the only one to force everyone to take a look at the medium critically. There's a difference between navel gazing and critical introspection and I think this one handled it well. I'd like to see more panels challenging conventions instead of celebrating them.
One weird thing I noticed is that I rarely brought out my big digital SLR camera. Usually on a four day trip like this, I'd take probably 100-150 shots but thanks to my cameraphone and flickr, I left my SLR at the hotel and ended up taking barely a dozen photos with my full-sized camera, while I probably uploaded 30-40 shots to flickr that week. I imagine if cameraphones get up into the 3-5 megapixel range, people will just use those instead of dedicated cameras. There's no photo downloading, manipulation, or resizing necessary. You just shoot, mash a couple buttons, and send it off to flickr. It's a lazy photographer's dream.
Etech and SXSW used to be quite similar, with one a bit more technical than the other, but I think this year they really diverged. Etech felt a bit weird this time around, much less hackery and technical and much closer to what I assume conferences like PC Forum or Web 2.0 are about. The long story short is that Etech suddenly seemed to be about money. Everyone talking about getting or giving angel funding, dropping tips on talking to VCs, and half the crowd sported gray hair and suits instead of fauxhawks and cargo pants. It was odd. The cutting edge geeks at etech have always pushed code and potential product trends but it seems the bubble is back and the money guys have wised up, and they descended this year to check it out. In this year's money-ified etech, Joshua from delicious seemed like the last unfunded, unincorporated guy with a great idea and he was the belle of the ball. I saw him get mobbed after every talk, surrounded by what appeared to be VC types.
Every time I attend SXSW or Etech, it seems like the really amazing moment doesn't happen until the final day, when for one reason or another a panel or demo blows my mind. Late on the last day of Etech, that demo was Odeo.
I've long thought of podcasting as being technically cool, but problematic. You basically only have two options: download mp3 files off a website one by one by hand, or subscribe to a podcast and get everything, whether you wanted to hear it or not. There has to be a bandwidth-saving happy medium right? Odeo looks like it, offering in-browser previews and playback, a shopping cart-style download system, and the ability to subscribe in classic "download everything" podcast style if you want.
The biggest innovation of Odeo in my mind was the browser-based multitrack recording studio. You don't need to own expensive, sophisticated audio software or hardware, you can just use your browser and built-in mic to record your voice and add music bumpers or other recorded audio. You can even edit your final tracks, all in the browser. It has to be seen to be believed. Powerful tools, all inside the browser and they'll work with any browser on any system with the Flash plugin. It makes basic audio technology available to anyone, and I can't wait to see what kinds of shows pop up on Odeo once they lower the technology bar for all.
I got to talk to Ev for the first time in a couple years after his panel and I told him that while Odeo seemed to have a lot in common with flickr (you have friends and contacts and can easily find new tracks by your circle of friends), the in-browser recording set it apart. I remember telling him "It was like a flickr that included a free camera for every user." Just as Blogger+Blogspot lowered the bar and let anyone with an idea share their thoughts with the world, Odeo appears to be poised to do the same for sound.
Damn that Merlin Mann
While stuck awaiting delayed flights on the return home, I finally gave in and downloaded quicksilver and read all the tutorials. The strange thing is that while sometimes I feel like a slow, money-losing contestant on jeopardy when tabbing and auto-completing, the simple app launcher stuff is great. After training it to grab my ten favorite apps with just a couple keys, I closed down my dragthing launcher. Then I got used to the "open files with…" feature and cleaned my desktop of clutter. Now I have this zen-like clear desktop and anything I want is a keystroke away in quicksilver or expose. It only took a couple hours of tinkering but I definitely see what everyone is raving about. It feels like my mac just got that much easier and faster to use, and I finally got rid of my desktop clutter. I'm a bit of a lazy slob, often having dozens of folders and files on the desktop and now I have none. I've added App Rocket to my PC for the same effect and it's working pretty well as an app launcher too.
Conference IM stalk hacks
I was poaching folks from rendezvous in austin one day when I started to feel guilty and asked the person next to me if they ever felt pangs of guilt when doing this. "When doing what?" I heard back. I asked around, and no one among my friends had discovered a great (and potentially problematic) feature of iChat, so I might as well tell everyone here.
Open your rendezvous buddy list and your aim buddy list and put them side by side. Now, in the conference-populated rendezvous list, look for a name of someone you've always wanted to talk to over IM but haven't yet. Click, hold-down, and drag their name from the rendezvous buddy list to the aim buddy list. Ta da! You just poached someone's public aim name onto your perma-buddy AIM list and they have no idea. When you leave the conference and return home you can chat with them over AIM.
This is incredibly useful for getting friends onto your buddy list that you know personally but didn't know they used AIM. The more sinister fun/scary/stalky part is that you can also add famous people you'd never have aim names for, but that you happen to be on the same network with. When I first discovered this, I checked to see if it worked by putting Tim O'Reilly and a bunch of famous tech journalists on my list. The following week I realized I could tell when they were at their desk and it sufficiently creeped me out so I got rid of them. iChat should probably have a preference for whether or not you want to allow this feature (I would allow it personally, it's fun to touch base with conference goers afterwards), but for now it's a handy dandy free-for-all that no one seemed to know about. Now you know, so remember to poach everyone you'd like to talk to after the conference the next time you're at one. (update: several people emailed to say that it's in iChat's preferences, under privacy, so turn if off if you're concerned about this)
This year's conferences were a bit stressful for me because I had to talk three times in the span of four days, and two of the three talks were on subjects at the edge of my grasp. I don't get much practice talking in front of crowds so I always sweat these sorts of things. I think my community panel went well even though I prepared the least of all three talks. It was almost completely off the top of my head and fun to dive into the ins and outs of community management with Craig and Molly (it helped that she was an incredible moderator). My second panel at SXSW was my first time ever as a moderator and I think I did an ok job letting everyone talk and keeping the panel moving, but I did a terrible job introducing the subject and delineating the scope of the talk. My talk at Etech was more of a classic powerpoint-bullets-for-20-minutes kind of thing and in the formal confines of a standard lecture format, I think I did pretty bad. That kind of speaking takes practice and right before my talk I got to see a seasoned pro. I think I've honed in on what it takes to give a good talk in that format.
Clay's talk that preceded mine was fantastic, one of the best I've seen at a tech conference. Clay teaches at NYU and his polish from regular lecturing showed. He knows how to work the crowd and drop jokes at appropriate times and he moves his arms and body enough to keep you from drifting off but not so much that it's annoying. What really wowed me was his command of audience attention span. I've seen Lessig do it well but I think Clay does it even better.
Most folks have an attention span that cycles every 90 seconds or so, as they drift between total concentration and something less so. Clay had a knack for doing two things: he'd stay on a slide/point for about that long, and when he went to the next thing you were always ready to take it in. The other thing he did well was work with attention span on the macro level. He'd have pauses between shifts in subject matter to let the audience relax and cue everyone up for the Next Big Point he wanted to make. This entailed having a title slide for every section of the talk (maybe 8 or 9 of them in 40 minutes), which was completely black and only contained one or two words centered. Your eyes and mind could rest a bit on each one, which he used as a quick intro to a section, then he'd dive into charts 'n graphs or a meaty slide filled with bullets. After 3 or 4 slides on that section, he'd transition to another title slide that you could rest on. On an even more macro level, the entire talk created a thread between each section and made sense, and his conclusion simply reiterated the connections. It was just about as perfect as a talk could be and I can tell I have a lot to learn and a lot of practice ahead of me if I ever want to get any good at it.
Until next year…