I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic

SXSW 2007I was there at the beginning.

In 2007, Twitter leapt into geek consciousness at SXSW Interactive. Monitors had been placed in the halls of this tech conference, displaying what people were tweeting about. I thought it was an interesting curiosity, like watching telegrams in real time. Little bursts of text scrolled across the screen, as people shared opinions about the workshops that they were in.

Imagine, prior to this epochal event of just five years ago, we had no easy way of getting real-time information from our friends, unless of course we talked to them. And when we went to events, we were fully present, listening to speakers without constantly checking our electronic devices. We paid attention, more or less. Or nodded off. Or wandered away, in search of something more interesting, guided only by instinct. Continue reading “I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic”

Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year

SXSW 2007
SXSW in 2007

SXSW Interactive is an annual conference of social media and web geeks in Austin. It’s a huge, exhausting event that takes place over a long weekend in March and is popularly known as the conference that introduced Twitter and other new forms of communication.

The criticism now is that it’s gotten too big and too corporate, dominated by giant corporations trying to be hip. And that it’s gotten to be such a chaotic moshpit that it leads to network outages.

I went to SXSW in 2007 and 2008, just the right moment before it became mainstream. The conference taught me to love the brilliant minds at 37signals, whose radically hopeful ideas about the future of work cannot arrive soon enough. I learned that project management should be as simple as possible. Gantt charts and MS Project should be avoided in favor of clear goals that everyone can understand. REWORK is their vision for the ideal work environment, where meetings and busywork are eschewed in favor of collaboration and results. Their philosophy is subversive and attractive for anyone stuck in boring meetings or lengthy conference calls. Continue reading “Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year”

More Thoughts on Transparency Camp 09

Some more random thoughts about Transparency Camp 09. Here are my big take-aways from the conference.

Excitement: There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among enlightened advocates of government transparency, fueled by the election of Obama and the mainstreaming of Web 2.0 tools like blogging. There’s a real can-do spirit, which is in marked contrast to continuing bad news about the economy. 

The Importance of Free Beer: How do you get people to hang out after the formal sessions of a conference, for a further exchange of ideas? You offer them free beer, of course (courtesy of Peter Corbett). I saw this at SXSW too. The convivial sharing of booze leads people to make connections they never would’ve made.

Twitter is Useful: This micro-blogging service was a great utility during the conference. Attendees tagged their tweets with #tcamp09, which enabled anyone (even people not at the conference) to see what attendees were saying about the sessions.

Macs are Everywhere: I was pleased to see so many Macs at the conference. The facility at GW had outlets at every table and wifi was available as well, which led to a proliferation of laptops, the majority of which were Macs.

Education is Needed: Advocates of open and accessible government need to learn more about the near infinite complexities of government policies and procedures. A host of rules limit what government can do online. Also, there’s not “one government” as Jeff Levy from EPA repeated over and over. Different government agencies have different IT policies and requirements. Pity the poor developer who wants to create a web application for all of government. 

As someone with a background in government and nonprofit web sites, I got a tremendous amount out of this conference. Attending events like this, you come away with renewed excitement about the possibilities of the web and a host of new ideas to explore.

10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment

Here are some more notes from SXSW Interactive.

I attended a session called, “10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment.”  Bryan Mason and Sarah Nelson of Adaptive Path interviewed stage managers and conductors on how you keep a group creative and productive.  I think both roles are very similar to what web producers and site managers do.  We often have to work with prickly creative types, with specialized skills, who we need to be inspired and working in the same direction.  Web sites, like orchestras or stage plays, are, by their very nature, collaborative environments.

Several web people I know actually work in the theater or film (like me) or music, as if they’re drawn to creative group activities even when they’re outside of the office.  There’s a psychological lesson in there somewhere…

At the SXSW Interactive session, Bryan and Sarah (a former musician) introduced us to ten techniques used by creative management professionals to get great work from a wide range of employees.

1. Cross-train entire team – teaches empathy, possibility.  In the avante-garde theater they studied, everyone got to write and act.
2. Rotate creative leadership – provides ownership.
3. Actively turn the corner – there will come a time when you must put the bad ideas away and start on production.  The theater did this by taking a smoke break between the brainstormin session and the actual planning of the play.
4. Know your roles – stay in your lane.
5. Practice as a group.  This is why it’s vital that orchestras practice together.
6. Make your mission explicit to the whole team.
7. Kill your darlings (the ideas that are good but don’t fit).  Avenue Q, the Broadway musical, had lots of songs that didn’t serve the story.  They were ditched.
8. Leadership is service.
9. Do projects around group’s ideas.
10. Remember your audience.  Avenue Q was written in coffee shops, around the type of people who would be the audience for the musical.

Bonus Tip 11. Celebrate failure… with an afterparty!

Election 2008 and Citizen Expectations

One of the more interesting panels I attended at SXSW Interactive was “Friend Me! Vote for Me! Donate Now!”  It was about how the presidential candidates are using tools like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to mobilize and communicate with their supporters.  The panel (including my old friend Colin Delany from e.politics) talked about what worked and what didn’t work in this Internet age.  The underlying assumption, however, was that of course candidates are going to use these tools because it’s what the public expects.  For a candidate not to have a Facebook page in 2008 would be really weird and out of touch.

Listening to this panel, I got to wondering about what will happen after the election, when one of these candidates takes office.  The public has an expectation that they will be able to communicate with the candidate (and each other) using web 2.0 tools.  That’s not going to change just because a candidate is now an elected part of government.  The public will expect to use MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to learn about what the president and his or her government is doing, just like they did during the campaign.  For government not to use these tools in 2008 would seem really weird and out of touch.

And yet, most government agencies do not use these tools.  In fact, in some government agencies, employees are not even allowed to access sites like MySpace and Facebook.  The free flow of information from the government to the public is thwarted by legal and IT security concerns.

I’m throwing this idea out there not as a rant, but as a potential argument that government web managers (like me) can use to speed the adoption of web 2.0 tools.  By using these tools, we’re responding to the expectations of tax-paying citizens who deserve to get government information in the manner they desire.  Whoever the President is next year, I hope they will encourage government agencies to use the tools the public uses.

Stuff We've Learned at 37signals

Without a doubt, the best session I attended at SXSW Interactive was, “Stuff We’ve Learned at 37signals.”

It was a talk presented by Jason Fried of 37signals.

I’m a fan of 37signals, as are a lot of web people – Jason’s session was held in the biggest ballroom available at the Austin Convention Center. 37 Signals creates web-based project management tools that are the opposite of Microsoft Project. Simplicity is their mantra. Here’s what 37signals has learned about project management – I think these ideas could be applied to life in general.

1. Don’t worry about unknown. Instead, concentrate your efforts on the most important day – today. Optimize for today…
2. Watch out for red flags words: need, can’t, easy, only, fast. (“Easy” always applies to someone else’s job, never yours.)
3. Make money by helping others make money. Users are happy to pay for Basecamp (their project management tool) because it helps them manage their work and make money.
4. Target nonconsumers. MS Project was too complex and people didn’t use it. Basecamp targets this group.
5. Question your work regularly. Why are we doing this?
6. Read your web site. Bad copy is biggest problem on Internet, read your site and rewrite.
7. Err on the side of simple. Doing the easy things means you get more things done. The longer a project takes, the less likely it will be done
8. Invest in your core strengths – not the latest and greatest. For example, Google invests in search.
9. Build by sharing, give away your cookbook. That’s what top chefs do.
10. Interruption is biggest enemy of productivity. He recommended one afternoon a week where no one could talk to anyone else.
11. Road maps send you in wrong direction, lock you into past decisions.
12. Be clear in crisis, builds goodwill
13. Make tiny decisions, knock little things off and launch/celebrate. Morale feeds off incremental progress; tiny steps means tiny errors
14. Do work that matters.

SXSW Interactive 2008

Trying to see the future of digital media.

I recently attended SXSW Interactive, a conference on new media in Austin, TX, from March 7-12. Attracting digital creatives as well as visionary technology entrepreneurs, the event celebrates the best minds and the brightest personalities of emerging technology.

Taking place on three floors of the Austin convention center, the event is overwhelming, with sessions beginning at 10 and running to 5 with bonus events and parties in the evening. There were usually about a dozen different things you could do at any time during the day. For example, at 11:30 on Saturday you could choose from panels on e-commerce, managing communities that work, Expression Engine 2.0 sneak peek, accessible rich media, the contextual web or “how to rawk SXSW and achieve geekgasm”. In addition to the panels, you could also go to book readings, take part in smaller “core conversations” on select topics, visit the trade show or pop into the ScreenBurn Gaming Fest.

The evenings featured parties and events where you could meet fellow techies. I went to the Dorkbot happy hour (geeks showing off their robots), a BikeHugger happy hour (with excellent barbecue), the SXSW Web Awards (sponsored by Adobe) and the “Rock Bands Rock Opera” party, sponsored by a company called Opera. These were excellent opportunities to drink free beer and meet other web folks from around the country.

It amazed me how tech-savvy the participants at the conference were. Nearly everyone had an iPhone, it seemed, and those who didn’t brought laptops to the conference to take advantage of the convention center’s speedy wifi service. The conference provided many handy online tools for participants. For example, I created my own calendar of events and downloaded it to my iPhone. SXSW also featured a mobile version of the conference program and a daily blog that I could read on my iPhone. I took notes on my iPhone so I didn’t need to carry paper around at all.

However, I was a Luddite compared to many people, who were updating what they were doing on Twitter and Facebook, uploading pictures to Flickr, making podcasts, and chatting about the sessions they were in in Meebo.

The overall theme of the conference was excitement over the future of the web. Participants in the conference shared an evangelical confidence in technology. This confidence was not placed in big companies but in small, organic teams, reflecting the DIY attitude of Austin and SXSW.

I’ll write more about the experience in the coming days.