SXSW 2008 (aka “Geek Spring Break”) Recap

Unless you’ve been following my twitter feed or partying in Austin, TX, you haven’t heard much from me in the last week. That’s because my laptop died a horrific logic board death in Oakland Airport, just before I boarded my flight to SXSW. Emails and blogging quickly became a thing of the past, and I resigned myself to in-person interactions and text message documentation. Now I’m back online with a cheap desktop PC while the Apple store continues to try to fix my baby, and I’ve got a week’s worth of epiphanies and adventures to blog about. So here’s the abridged version.

What’s SXSW?

SXSW (pronounced “South By Southwest”) is actually three different festivals that happen all at once in Austin every March. Most famous is the Music festival, where every band who’s any band comes to town and plays a show. Then there’s the Film festival, where all the top independent films of the year screen their glories. And there’s also the Interactive festival, which no one except us geeks actually knows about, because Music and Film are far more glamorous. It’s all one big 5-day party of brilliance with exceptional speakers and wild nightlife and the most fun many geeks get to have all year long.

What did I learn?

Here were some of my major “Aha!” moments from the panels and conversations.

From Kathy Sierra on wooing users…

  • A successful website is one that makes a user feel like they are awesome.
  • Adding randomness to a situation increases the chances for serendipity, which increases the chances that people will think an experience was perfect and was meant to be.
  • Since lots of people still think the Internet is a “totally lame waste of time,” a successful website will give its users an easy way to defend their use of that waste of time to friends and family.
  • The iPhone is awesome because its animations replicate the laws of real physics.
  • A successful website will enable people to do something really cool really quickly. Minimize the learning curve for experiencing gratification.
  • There are no dumb answers. Encourage people in your organization to answer questions, and keep encouraging them if they don’t give the right ones. A culture of answers is a culture of support.
  • Jargon is valuable — it’s a rich language that passionate members of a community use to talk with one another efficiently and effectively. Don’t insist on not using jargon in order to make newbies feel more comfortable. Instead, create a space for newbies that is separate from the jargon users.

More brilliance…

  • Parents need to realize that “TV time” and “Internet time” are as different as “TV time” and “reading a book.” Don’t lump it all into “screen time.” (Henry Jenkins)
  • The best thing you can do for your health this year is see a therapist. Instead of forcing yourself to go to the dentist (or eat better, or exercise more, or meditate regularly), get some help on unpacking your unconscious avoidance of it. (Kathryn Myronuk)
  • True anonymity on the web is not a realistic goal. Whatever you do under a pseudonym, you should accept right now that someday it may be attached to your real name. (Sex and Privacy Panel)
  • Marketing is the price you pay for creating mediocre products. (via Tara Hunt)
  • “Social gestures beget social objects which beget social markers.” (Hugh McLeod)
  • You’re only going to execute on 10% of your ideas, so give the other 90% away for free. It shows people that you have them. (Jeremiah Owyang)
  • If you have a startup with a small user base, now is the best time to put energy into answering every question personally and convey that they matter to you. Don’t just put up an FAQ. (Deb Schultz)
  • Don’t treat users like they’re stupid. Explain what your service is going to do for them, not how it works. (Leslie Chicoine)

And epiphanies overheard by others…

  • Drupal is like getting a dump truck full of legos.
  • You can’t control the information that’s out there on the internet about you. But you can curate it.

I’m also honored (no wait, that’s not the right word…) to have witnessed the Zuckerberg-Lacy keynote trainwreck and ensuing analysis. I’ll let the other tech pundits give you their analysis on that one. (Or you can just watch it here.)

The panels were brilliant as usual (especially if you picked them by speakers rather than by titles). But the real focus for me this year was the partying. I was out until 3am every night (except for that last night when I was out until, um, 7am) laughing and dancing and feeling alive and revived among “my people.” This is, arguably, what makes SXSW so special. If all you want to do is talk about technology, there are plenty of opportunities to do so that don’t involve getting on an airplane. But for a whole bunch of geeks to show up in one place equally inconvenient to New York, LA, Chicago, and Silicon Valley and create meaningful experiences with people who do what they do… that’s juice of what matters.

And frankly, I’m pretty sure that when geeks party, the Internet becomes a better place.

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8 Responses to “SXSW 2008 (aka “Geek Spring Break”) Recap”

  1. Chris Says:

    Thanks, Sarah for the recap. I heard much (probably more than I cared to) about the parties at SXSW via Twitter, but I can never get enough of the nuggets of wisdom.

  2. Adolescent Sexuality by Dr. Karen Rayne » What I learned at SXSW Says:

    [...] many other conversations about technology, I’ve got to say that I disagree with my new friend Sarah Dopp’s position that TV and Internet time are as different as reading an book and watching TV. Rather, I [...]

  3. Robert Says:

    Very cool to meet you, albeit briefly over lunch. Next time hopefully I can come hang out too.

    Excellent point on marketing. My dad, an old school ad man once told me that you can tell how much the same different products are by how much they are advertised. Undifferentiated crap requires heavy marketing to create a sense of uniqueness. Things that are truly valuable, innovative, or simply useful sell themselves (almost)

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  8. @SXSW: A brief wrap-up | Richard Hartley Says:

    [...] It is faster. The wisdom of Twitterville is proving to be very trustworthy in the real world."• Sarah Dopp has some good notes on the talk by Kathy Sierra: "Jargon is valuable — it's a rich language that [...]