Thursday, March 13, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 XXI
I have two more SXSW Interactive-related entries left in me. Then I need to let it go, get it behind me, and get back to Media Diet's usual business. One of the entries will be my wrapup of and commentary on the entire event's discussions, in which I'll draw connections between the different sessions I sat in on and try to make some conclusions.

This is not that. This entry is a quick explanation of what I was trying to do, how it felt -- and how I think it went. These thoughts aren't fully formed, but I wanted to share a little glimpse of the process behind my SXSW reports. This is that.

I've long been interested in what I consider Immediate Journalism. The Web reports I've filed during the last four annual Company of Friends Roadshows for Fast Company magazine are the outcome of my first experiments with Immediate Journalism.

For the last four years, I've taken six weeks out of the office to cut a swath across part of the world. I stay with Fast Company readers in their homes. I visit two or three companies and organizations during the day. I gather with members of the local CoF groups in the evening. And I document everything I do, experience, and learn in almost-daily diary entries on the Web. People can follow me as I travel, and when I finally get back home after the six weeks, I write an essay highlighting the major themes that arose over the course of the trip.

This experiment was slightly different. Highly inspired by Cory Doctorow's conference and panel reports in Boing Boing, I wanted to see how else this Immediate Journalism could be done. Cory's reports are relatively impressionistic compilations of what he considers the major points, ideas, and concepts of a given talk. I didn't want to copycat Cory, and I didn't want to compete with Cory, had he planned to file SXSW reports as he's done for other gatherings. So I could either go shorter. Or longer.

I chose longer. I type really, really fast, so I was able to capture almost verbatim transcripts of what went on. Oh, I didn't catch everything, but I'm pretty sure I caught almost everything. But why go so long? Why strive to be such a completist? Many conference organizers opt to audio record the event's keynote speakers and breakout sessions. SXSW does not. And if we look at projects such as DharmaNet (for whom I've transcribed Buddhist texts in the past), the Open Pamphlet Series, and Big Sur tapes, the Left and counterculture has a long history of making talk transcripts, audio recordings, and interview-driven pamphlets widely available. The world of technology culture has no such parallel. If people are going to publish a pamphlet every time Noam Chomsky spits up soup, why aren't talks given by people such as Lawrence Lessig, Bruce Sterling, and others similarly captured, published, and distributed -- online or offline? We're losing an important part of our industry and culture's conversation and history. (That's not a slag on Chomsky, by the way.)

Similarly, I just wanted to see if I could do it. And making such an effort to transcribe everything, typing real-time transcripts as the speakers spoke, lightly editing them, and publishing them -- most of the time -- mere minutes after a session ended really changed my experience of the event. While I like to think I was present and engaged with my friends outside of sessions, inside the breakout rooms, it was just me, what I heard, my head, my hands, and my PowerBook. It was kind of neat when I'd really get in the zone and almost fall away so I was typing automatically. I almost wasn't paying attention to what was being said. I wasn't ascribing any meaning to the sounds and words I was entering into the blank Word document. I wasn't really there.

But it wasn't easy. While I'm not a trained stenographer -- lots of SXSW participants have asked -- and while my hands didn't really hurt at the ends of the days, my head did kind of hurt. When you're trying not to be present or actively engaged in a given situation, when you're only trying to document, project, and reflect what's happening, you get this thin feeling. You're fragile. Light like balsa wood. And it took some effort to come out of the near-fugue state to be present and in the moment again. For much of the conference I was distracted and inattentive. That was a weird state for me to be in -- actually, that's not totally true because I'm pretty hyper -- and if any of the people I hung out noticed or were bothered by it, I apologize.

So. How'd it go? Great. I'll do it again. Response on site was amazing, and word quickly spread throughout the conference that I was documenting the talks so thoroughly. Some people made decisions on what sessions to go to based on what session I was going to go to. If I was going to publish a transcript of a given panel, people felt free to go elsewhere. That brings up some interesting traffic flow and attendance questions. I hope I didn't gut people's headcounts because I was there in the room. I also hope that Cory, who didn't report on much at SXSW -- but who has said he was busy in his own panels and sessions -- didn't choose not to take notes because I was. I have him and Boing Boing to thank for most of the people coming to Media Diet to read my SXSW reports. Boing Boing far and away drove more traffic to Media Diet over the last week than the other folks I've given shouts out to. That speaks well of Boing Boing's readership and influence.

How was Media Diet traffic affected? Let's go to the traffic logs. Since I started doing Media Diet in June 2001, I've averaged about 100 readers -- unique visitors -- a day. Thank you, faithful Media Dieticians! But let's look at the last handful of days:

March 7: 100
March 8: 223
March 9: 450
March 10: 686
March 11: 400
March 12: 375
March 13: 599 (as of 5:08 p.m.)

Hopefully, some of y'all will decide to stick around. I've gotten several emails from people who weren't able to make it to Austin for the conference thanking me for the reports, and I think that response to date goes to show that if your blog or journalism is of widespread interest, extremely timely, and not replicated elsewhere, readers will follow. That's part of why I don't regularly blog stuff that's already hit Boing Boing, Blogdex, or Daypop. Don't just mimic the memes that are already reveling in the blogosphere. Do the new. People will pick up on it.

What would I do differently? I'd let the speakers know what I wanted to do -- and get their verbal permission. A couple of people were slightly surprised that what they'd just said showed up on the Web so quickly after they finished saying it, and I apologize for the surprise. The good thing is that everyone felt like I accurately captured their remarks, so the concern of misreporting their comments was relatively low.

OK. I think that's enough. I would like to thank some of the people who really made my SXSW Interactive experience worthwhile. This, then, is a potentially incomplete alphabetical thank-you list.

Thank you: The 15 bus, Lauri Apple, Lane Becker, BookPeople, Ben Brown, Heather Champ, Joe Clark, Viki Collier, Michael Cruftbox, Cory Doctorow, Dudley Dog, Dan Gillmor, Heather Gold, Adam Greenfield, Scott Heiferman, Hiromi Hiraoka, James Hong, Don Jarrell, Kyle Johnson, Pableaux Johnson, Morris Johnston, Philip Kaplan, Will Kreth, Eric Lawrence, Jon Lebkowsky, Gordon Meyer, Monkeywrench, Jim Munroe, Jason Nolan, David Nunez, Anitra Pavka, Derek Powazek, Melissa Quackenbush, Theresa Quintanilla, Dana Robinson, Ana Sisnett, Kevin Smokler, Molly Steenson, Bruce Sterling, Sandy Stone, Toy Joy, Don Turnbull, Mike Wasylik, David Weinberger, Rick Weller, Nancy White, Evan Williams, and Amy Yan. If I forgot anyone, let me know. You all rock me like a hurricane.

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