SXSW By the numbers

Here’s a quick round-up of how I spent the four days of my first SXSWi

  • Sessions attended: 15
  • Parties attended: 3
  • Business cards collected: 16 (it seemed like more – I probably lost some)
  • Moo cards collected: 5
  • iPhone sightings: I lost count
  • Minutes spent waiting in line for the bathroom: 0 (the best part of attending a heavily male-dominated conference)
  • Most professionally relevant panel: Textbooks of the Future: Free and Collaborative
  • Most endearing panel: The I Can Has Cheezburger guys
  • All around favorite session: Kathy Sierra’s 20 Ways to Woo Users

It was an exhausting, exciting, inspiring, overwhelming experience. I can’t wait to come back next year.

SXSW Day 4: Thick as Thieves: When Your Fans Break the Law

This was supposed to be a panel about piracy, and how to handle it when fans stop paying for your stuff and start filesharing. Instead, the panelists talked a lot about copyright and fair use, and how to draw the line when fans make potentially transformative, possibly infringing new works. It probably had to go that way, given that there were two copyright lawyers on the panel: Jason Shultz from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Dean Marks, the Senior Vice President for Intellectual Property at Warner Brothers.

I was surprised to learn that Warner Brothers has (or claims to have) a very liberal policy when it comes to no-budget and student filmmakers requesting licenses to use clips; while WB can’t legally grant free permissions because of agreements with unions and guilds, they do issue “no objection” letters guaranteeing that the student can use the clip without fear of a lawsuit. I can’t wait to tell my Communications and Art & Design faculty.

There were also two filmmakers on the panel, and I was particularly charmed by M dot Strange, an independent, pro-piracy animator. His philosophy is, “You should be happy if anybody wants to watch your movie in any way, and you should try to figure out how to make money from it after.” He suggests making the DVD value-added – his offers 8 alternate soundtracks to the film, along with very cool cover art – in order to encourage your fans to buy your movie after they’ve already watched it for free online. He also argues that “If you don’t have a P&A [Prints and Advertising] budget, piracy is your promotion.” The torrent seeders essentially worked on dot Strange’s behalf, not only providing free distribution, but also promoting the film on their websites and creating subtitled versions in several languages, instantly expanding his potential audience. He’s my new poster child for the power of unauthorized distribution.

SXSW Day 2: Tools for Enchantment: 20 Ways to Woo Users

At the heart of Kathy Sierra’s entertaining and enlightening talk was the question “How do we help our users really kick ass?” Her focus, on web and software development, doesn’t directly apply to libraries, but the question resonated with me, and probably all the other librarians in the room. As individuals, especially in face to face interactions, I think librarians do a great job helping our users kick ass. But the tools we offer them – the terrible catalogs, the obscure controlled vocabulary, the clunky metasearches – are not helping our users kick ass. More often, the tools are kicking the asses of our users. I know a lot of work is going into improving those tools, at Michigan and elsewhere, and there are already signs of progress, but as we move forward it couldn’t hurt to keep not just navigability and accessibility in mind, but also good old-fashioned ass-kicking.

The follow-up question, “What do we help our users kick ass at?” was challenging for me, because my copyright specialist job involves a lot of different things, and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to do them all. Do I help my users kick ass at negotiating with publishers? Maybe, but it’s not what I focus on. Do I help them kick ass at understanding copyright? Maybe, but “understanding” is not a particularly active or ass-kicking verb. Do I help them kick ass at advocating for their rights, as creators and as users? I hope so. Enough blogobrainstorming, back to wooing users. More on this in the future.

A lot of the material in the talk was stuff that Sierra has covered before, but most of it was new to me. She spent some time discussing stress, and how we should help our users manage stress and do our very best not to create more of it. One way to do that is to give people patterns and shortcuts that will help them do things faster. “Best practices” are not motivating; shortcuts are.

She also brought Gary Vaynerchuk up on stage, as an exemplar of someone who does all 20 user-wooing things. He seemed very charismatic, and his advice to novice wine drinkers sounded good to me: 1) Try different stuff (“Stop drinking Yellow Tail people!”), and 2) Respect your own palate.

SXSW Day 2: The Textbooks of the Future

The panelists talking about Textbooks of the Future represented a nice diversity of perspectives, though they’re all strongly in the Open Educational Resources camp. We had Melissa Hagemann from the Open Society Institute as moderator (she didn’t say much, unfortunately), Richard Baraniuk from Rice University, Samuel (SJ) Klein from One Laptop per Child, and Erik Moeller from the Wikimedia Foundation.

Baraniuk and Moeller saw the textbooks of the future coming out of print on demand technologies, while Klein believes that POD is all wrong for updatable fact-based works. He argued that the web is superior for textbooks because our understanding of science and lots of other things is constantly changing, and those changes can be incorporated into a networked electronic text instantaneously, while paper is static, and therefore instantly outdated. I don’t agree; print books are still a very useful technology, even for fact-based textbook-type things. Customizable, cheap, print on demand books have the potential to be even more useful.

I thought the most interesting part of the session was hearing Richard Baraniuk from Rice University talk about Connexions, a nonprofit that provides “a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc.”

Connexions offers a collaborative medium for quickly creating and sharing scholarly work, and they’re working to provide some sort of peer review-esque credentialing system. My understanding is that while it’s a collaborative platform, it’s also closed. They aim to have experts creating and developing content, and have partnered with groups like IEEE to recruit authors and reviewers.

They use XML to turn all their pieces of content into recombinable building blocks that can look like a single, unified textbook. The final products end up costing many times less than conventional textbooks – the sample engineering textbook that Baraniuk mentioned would have cost $130 from a traditional publisher, and cost $20 from Connexions. It seems like a very promising model.

According to Baraniuk, three big changes made Connexions a viable project:

  1. New technology (XML)
  2. New intellectual property regime (Creative Commons)
  3. New quality control mechanisms.

The panel also spoke a bit about the copyright regime that open educational resources require. Creative Commons has been a boon to Connexions, while the OLPC folks prefer works without any licensing restrictions at all. According to Klein, once the XO laptops are widely available, “The only barrier… to getting textbooks to the third world [will be] the licensing barrier.” I’m not sure if I buy this, given the other major barriers to education in developing countries, but certainly in an online world, I agree that licensing is the biggest barrier to access.

SXSW Day 1: Attracting Girls to IT

The panelists at this session all work for organizations or on projects that aim to attract girls to math, science, and technology and then retain them in math/science/tech professions once they become women. They were mostly preaching to the choir, and I didn’t hear much I didn’t already know: girls begin to lose interest in math and science in middle school; most kids don’t really understand what careers in science and technology are like and so they think they wouldn’t want to have them; mentors make a big difference in retention and morale.

For me the most exciting part of the session was to see that J Strother Moore, the Chair of UT Austin’s Computer Science Department (one of the 10 biggest CS departments in the country), is an old white guy who is very invested in recruiting women to his department, improving their experiences once they get there, and helping them go on to have satisfying careers in Computer Science after they leave. He clearly has a good grasp of the problems and challenges that women face in his field, and his ability to speak frankly about those things, and his evident dedication to fixing them, gave me hope.

Favorite moment: During the Q&A section, a young CS professor asked what he can do to support the only two girls in his programming class.

Dr. Moore’s answer: “Don’t hit on them.”

Exactly.