SXSW 99 -- What I Learned and Other Stuff

Mark Cuban (of Keynote I think Mark was trying to attract press attention, and did he ever succeed. Basically, what he did was take one of the hottest topics right now on the Web (MP3), and say that it would be dead as a format in 6 months. I agree and disagree. The big boys are going to be using similar compression techniques to deliver RealAudio and other formats to people...MP3 will probably not be a big player in this area. But, MP3 is big with the geek crowd, an audience that Cuban did not address at all. Geeks will continue to utilize the MP3 format for swapping songs and such because the other formats out there are just not made for that.

As a side note, I've never considered MP3 to be a digital music format. Technically it is, but I consider it to be a compression technology first and a format second. The problem that the big record labels have is not with MP3, but rather with people taking and trading music. It just so happens that the MP3 compression technique allows people to easily do that. I know I didn't explain that very well, but I hope you got the gist of it.

Mark also stated that with the convergence of TV and the Internet, the major TV networks will cease to exist in 7 years. The idea is that there will be so many content providers out there that the major networks will not be able to sustain the amount of viewers that they need to subsist. I disagree. There will always be a place for big-time productions....just look at movies. There are a lot of indie films out there (some good, some bad), but audiences still flock to movies like Armageddon because of the stars and promotional punch behind them. Audiences aren't going to forget the big networks any time soon...or rather, the big networks won't let the audiences forget them.

Adventures in Advertising Panel This could have been titled: "Why Banner Ads Suck, But How We're Going to Use Them Anyway." The first half of the talk focused on alternatives to banner advertising while the latter half was all about clickthroughs, banner partnership opportunities, and the like.

One of the panelists, Chris Clark from the GCI Group, kinda copped out on some of the banner ad alternatives, citing interstitial advertising in streaming media and the online version of You Don't Know Jack (which is a stand-alone application). That's all well and good, but what of traditional HTML-based Web pages? They are going to be around for a while can we advertise more effectively in that medium? My belief is that banner ads are the best that we can come up with for Web sites because of the limits of HTML & HTTP and the fact that users of Web sites have little patience for non-obtrusive advertising.

Designing Effective Web Navigation (the online version) This was a very good presentation. Somehow, Drue made Web site navigation fun and interesting. I'm not going to say much more about this one since you can go check out the whole thing online.

Building Women's Community Online for Fun & Profit Sadly, the "for fun" part of this talk was missing. It was all about what you could do with your woman-oriented site to make it profitable. Don't get me wrong, it was really interesting and the women on the panel are out there kicking ass and doing some really great things, but there's more to community than having a good business model.

A thought that I had as a result of the discussion: where's the ChickClick for general personal sites like 0sil8, Glassdog, and the like? Would it work? Would people want it?

Secrets of Successful Webzines One of the two most interesting talks I went to...mainly because I run a Webzine that wants to be successful. But, as in the Women's Community panel, a lot of the talk focused on the financial end of it. At one point, John Styn stated that he would never accept banner advertising on Prehensile Tales, and I clapped loudly. Soon after, two of the panelists pooh-poohed my outburst, saying that there was nothing wrong with accepting advertising on a Web site. After all, if you're going to spend hours upon hours providing something of value of someone, you should get compensated for it, right?

Well, my answer is: maybe. In my case, 0sil8 would be totally ruined by banner advertising...they just don't fit in with the flow of the site. However, I am an Amazon Associate...that makes me very little money, but it fits in with the flow of the site. Also, I treat 0sil8 as a hobby, and I don't necessarily need to make money on my hobby. As for other people "selling out," I say go for it, but just make sure that your site doesn't suffer visually or editorially because of it.

Another interesting tidbit, courtesy of Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News: cease and desist orders are good for traffic. He's gotten several and traffic has increased dramatically every time. AICN gets over a million visitors a day now, people come for the controversy, but stay for the content.

The XXX Files This one can be summed up in one word: boring! I can't believe they took something as intrinsically interesting as online porn and made it that tiresome. They were talking about what lessons other sites could learn from adult sites, but the only one I can think of is: "offer porn on your Web site and people will visit." Beyond that, there's not a lot. Mainstream sites certainly can't learn anything from the design and UI of adult sites; I left when they started showing examples of their Web sites because they were so poorly designed. Luckily, John Styn livened things up a bit with his utterance of "donkey dick" and "cumshot" in the same sentence.

Website Demo Session Basically, they critiqued the Web sites submitted from people in the audience. Bryan and I were going submit the Hamster Dance, but we got there too late. I left after 4 or 5 critiques...the panelists were being too nice and not getting deep enough on the issues, focusing too much on aesthetics and not enough on content and IU.

Click my Lit: The Literate Web After I got out of the Website Demo Session, I caught the last part of this panel. Maybe I missed this part at the beginning, but the panelists failed to discuss the differences between just writing online fiction or non-fiction and writing hypertext. Also, it was noted that no one reads fiction online.

:: Where Standards and Tools Come Together Roundtable :: I missed the first part of this one. Jeff Veen had some really interesting things to say about XML (among other things). I'm getting really excited about XML and wish I had the time to devote to learning it and XSL. However, I don't think the audience quite got the connection between standards and tools and the conversation devolved into a very Flash/Macromedia-oriented discussion.

Life Online Roundtable This was the most interesting event I attended during SXSW, mostly because I'm acutely interested in the culture surrounding personal Web publishing and the issues that go along with it. Justin Hall and the very quiet Carl Steadman did a nice job moderating. Justin sure knows how to get people involved in the conversation. Issues discussed included privacy issues, how to deal with site feedback, stealing time at work to work on one's Web site, and other interesting things.

Specifically, on the subject of "stealing time", I'm guilty. But, I think it helps me be a more effective Web designer. I surf a little each day, keeping current on industry news and also finding new well-designed sites. Working on 0sil8 also helps me stay fresh on design techniques in Photoshop and lets me push the envelope a little on what is possible on the Web. A surprising amount of that translates over to the more traditional design that I have to do for work. Also, my personal Web sites have allowed me to meet and stay in touch with an awesome community of people that is extremely helpful and supportive in both personal and professional ways.

I Want My MP3 Panel I only caught the last 15 minutes of this one. Again, I don't understand what the all the fuss is's just a compression technology. Piracy and copyright protection are the real issues here...MP3 is just the latest tool that allows people to more easily cross those lines. The compression technology is not going to go away. The question is, will the music (and eventually, video) industry react fast enough to turn it into an advantage for them (if it isn't already.)?

Miscellaneous Notes

The city of Austin Austin was a very nice town. The food was excellent, the people were friendly, and hospitality was super.

The trade show The trade show was sub-par. I'm usually pretty unimpressed with trade shows in general, but this one didn't really have anything there that I wanted to see. The Apple/Macromedia/Webmonkey Interactive Web Discovery Zone (i.e. a bunch of iMacs running the second Star Wars trailer) added a bit of flash and color to the proceedings, but, as with the iMac, the aesthetics mean nothing without some sort of payoff. And for a trade show with so many Web geeks attending, you'd think they'd have more than 4 computers available for checking email. Sheesh.

The Palm V Jeff Veen had one of the new Palm Vs...I need to get one of these babies. It's form plus function, pretty and useful.