Connecting people and ideas through improvisation

A Beginner’s Guide to Attending SXSW

SXSW '09, Austin Texas by John Rogers

SXSW ’09, Austin Texas by John Rogers

This year I’ll be attending my fourth South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in wonderfully weird Austin, Texas. If you’re not familiar with it, SXSW is an enormous festival with three parts: Music, Film, and Interactive. I would love to attend all three, but usually go just for the Interactive piece. This is where you will find some of the most interesting developments in technology, social media, and crazy startups. Twitter got its start at SXSW, as did Foursquare and several other game changing applications.

SXSW has become ludicrously large, and innundated with big companies trying to make their mark, but I still love the thing. For me, even if the tech/social media/interactive excitement has gone mainstream, I would still go for the people, connections, and discovery. South by Southwest is an incredible place to learn and expand your horizons if you’re willing to put in some effort.

Several friends of mine are going to SXSW for the first time and asked me for tips on managing the chaos. I’m not sure I’ve really puzzled out this crazy event myself, but I’m happy to share what I’ve learned so far.

Before you go to SXSW

Plan to be on the run constantly – And by constantly, I mean it. Constantly. Take comfy shoes, and pack light. This includes your electronics. Don’t take every gadget you own, just the ones you will use regularly. If you can, double up. For example, don’t take a separate video camera if your smartphone can shoot video (just learn how to use it). Take a purse or messenger bag that holds all your stuff because you’ll get sick of carrying it in your hands all day.

Bring backup batteries and cables – I’m a gadget geek all year round but I never… ever… use my electronics as much as when I’m at SXSW. A few years ago I bought two iPhone rechargers to take with, and this year I think I’ll upgrade to a full USB charging device to keep with me. Power outlets and charging stations can be tough to find, so juice up when you can!

Review the schedule and sessions in advance – Use the official SXSW scheduling tool, or the SXSW app, but get an idea of what you want to attend before you get there. It can be tricky to plan on the fly, so get it sorted out in advance. Know other people going? Check out their schedules in the tool, then download an app to your phone or add them to your calendar.

Choose panels you don’t know, not the ones you do – Choose your panels wisely, and choose items you don’t know much about. If you’re an SEO expert in an SEO panel you’re likely to be bored. SXSW is an incredible chance to explore so go learn something new. If the panel isn’t good, get up and leave (this is encouraged!)

You can’t do it all – I heard that warning 100 times leading up to SXSW and it was absolutely true. Just pick what you’re going to do and commit. This is doubly true for the after hours events (a.k.a. parties). Even with your handy schedule there will be some (maybe many) meetups or panels you will wish you had seen. Accept it.

Work + Play = Ugh – I was doing some work related stuff while I was at SXSW my first year, and it was a big mistake. Going for Work or going for Me would have each been fine, but doing both just got really frustrating. Decide why you’re going, what you want to accomplish. and don’t clutter it up.

When you’re at SXSW

People trump Panels – This might be the #1 piece of advice I can give you. If you have a chance to meet someone new in a hallway conversation or join a cool group of people for a beer, ditch any panel you had planned and do it. The connections you make with people in small groups are the best thing about SXSW. In four years of going I can name about six panels that significantly changed my outlook or business, but I can name great people I’ve met there all day long and well into tomorrow.

Best part of the panels is afterwards – Related to the above, panels are more than good info – they’re a place to connect with people who share an interest. Stick around for a while after a panel to talk with the panelists or people in the crowd who are discussing what just happened.

Support your hometown – Maybe this is just a personal thing, but I try to attend every panel where someone from Phoenix was speaking. Support!

Write on business cards – People will give you business cards for a million reasons. If it is someone you want to connect with later, write down Why on their card right then and there. Otherwise you will come back with a wad of cards the size of a baseball and be unable to remember who you want to follow-up with and why.

Meet your Friends, hang with Strangers – Phoenix is usually well represented at SXSW, and it’s great running into the local crew, but I can see many of them 360 other days of the year. If you connect with someone new, hang out with them for a while, meet their friends, and work out from there.

No Fear – On a related note, don’t be shy to talk to people. Step outside your comfort zone if necessary, and just do it. I’m not a shy person so this isn’t a problem with me, but I met several people who were nervous or downright afraid to talk to someone they liked or admired online. If they sucked it up and took a risk, they were almost always happy. Just be honest and considerate of what other people are doing and you’ll have some great encounters.

Parties are Overrated – Some were fun, most were not. My first year I wasted a lot of time trying to chase the “best” ones and hop all over town. Now my strategy is to pick one or two parties at most and just hang out and enjoy it.

BLACHOOOO! – There is something called “SXSW SARS”, which is what happens when thousands of people gather at SXSW from all over the world, swap germs, then head home. I have a strong immune system and rarely get sick, but I still try to take extra vitamins and wash my hands like a fiend. Be aware that you may come home not only exhausted but feeling a little ill. If you can, schedule a day or two off work for when you get back. You may need it.

Explore Austin – Austin’s quirky personality and culture are part of what makes SXSW so much fun. Take some time to try new restaurants, eat at food trucks, and wander down 6th Street in the wee hours of the morning. If you don’t try some good BBQ by the time you’ve left Austin you will die an emptier person. I’m also a beer fan and heartily recommend the Ginger Man to hang out and catch your breath.

Must see 2012 SXSW tracks for authors

If you’re an author looking to explore the digital side of things at SXSW, check out the best SXSW sessions for authors over at our ePublish Unum author site.

Say Hello!

I’m easy to find on Twitter or Google+, and will be running all over the place. Give me a shout or say Hi if you make it out to South-By!


Pinterest for Men

Dapper Gent by Paul Stevenson

Dapper Gent by Paul Stevenson

One of the fastest growing social networks out there has almost entirely been taken over by women!

Pinterest is a visual-board sharing site where people can easily share images that catch their eye. They “pin” interesting items to their pinboards, where others can comment, “like” them, and “repin” the images onto their own boards. Technically the site is still in beta, but invites are easy to come by.

Less than two years old, Pinterest launched in March of 2010 and has a current estimated valuation of $200 million. They were just named TechCrunch’s Best New Startup of 2011.

This easy, visual sharing has attracted users in droves, especially females. Pinterest has about four million users, and 1.5 million visit daily. The most amazing number might be that as many as 80% of them are female.

So what’s a lonely, curious, pinterested man to do?

A Manly Guide To Pinterest

Men are visual, too. They just like looking at different things. The key to Y Chromosomal equality on Pinterest requires moving past the footwear and redecorating ideas.

If you’re a gent looking to give Pinterest a try, here are my recommendations:

  • Delete the default pinboards you get and make ones that appeal to you, whether it is Epic Beer Labels, Gadgets I Want, or All Things Mustache.
  • If you’re working on a project or planning a trip, pinboards can make excellent ways to document your progress and ideas. For example, here’s a pinboard on building a bike, and one on great travel gear.
  • You can search for pins, or full pinboards. Look for people who are cultivating whole boards on manly topics like Scott Stratten’s Tattoo pinboard, or Rebekah White’s Guns pinboard.
  • You can follow all of someone’s pinboards, or just the ones you like. Unless you are gazing upon the manliest of manly men, I suggest following individual pinboards. For example, Drew Hawkins has the mantastic Board of Man, but if you followed everything of his you will also get his pinboard on Crock Pots (not that there is anything wrong with that…)
  • Re-run your searches every so often to discover new people and pinboards. A search for beer turns up lots of interesting pins and boards, but doing it again in a week will turn up loads of new material.

If you crave still more, Kevin Spidel also has some tips and pinboards for men to check out.

That should be more than enough to get you going, but if you really can’t find a manly way to approach Pinterest, then perhaps Gentlemint is more for you. Billed as a mint of manly things, it is chock full of gadgets, gear, and of course… mustaches.


I did a TV interview this morning on Pinterest for Men and convered some of the links I mentioned here, including Gentlemint:

Organize and Share Using an Online Pinboard:


My Beef with Klout

original image (cc) FotoosVanRobin

If you’re unfamiliar with Klout, it is a service that tries to measure social influence for people who are active online, and assigns them a score. The goal is to make it easier for companies to identify influencers in a topic area. If you haven’t checked your own score, hop over and take a look. Klout is watching you!

The big question is how good Klout does its job. In my humble option, Klout not only doesn’t do that great, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible for Klout to work the way businesses want it to.

The problem is that social influence is a hideously tricky thing to measure. Is it how often someone tweets? Is it what they tweet about? Does a retweet or reshare measure influence? Klout looks at all of these things and more, and has a ton of very smart people distill what works from what doesn’t to constantly improve your score.

There are two reasons I think it can’t work. The first is practical, the second is theoretical.

Klout Is Easily Confused

My first example of why I think Klout is silly is that I am not a terrorist.

I am many things, but not a terroristSee, a few months back a Phoenix area smart-ass gave me a fake +K bump on Terrorism for Klout. Others thought it was funny and did the same. I get a new one every so often, and for the past few months Terrorism has been my greatest topic of influence on Klout.

The thing is, I never talk about Terrorism. I only talk about it now in a weird meta-discussion about how I don’t talk about it, but that’s still a fraction of the things I say and do online. I work on local Phoenix events, work on digital publishing, and a ton of other things. To Klout, all of that falls below a practical joke. If you want hard proof that Klout’s engine is easy to game and trick, even with all those smart people they employ, here you go.

Summaries Are Always Incomplete

The second example is a bit more abstract, but I think just as real. Social relationships are a complex system, and you cannot simplify a complex system to a simple number without losing important information. Yes, Klout has more aspects than just the the Klout score, but even if you add in the other Klout items you still have a very small set of graphs and indicators to look at. Like the meat grinder at the top of this post, once the hamburger emerges you can no longer tell if what went in was Filet Mignon or leftover scraps.

Consider movie reviews as a less graphic analogy. Roger Ebert famously distilled the complex discussion of movies to Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down, and he has talked about the difficulties that creates. Does the Thumbs Up for a silly comedy like City Slickers mean the same as a Thumbs Up for a classic like Casablanca? They can both be good movies in their own way, but you need a lot more discussion to really compare the two. I personally love and respect Ebert’s opinion on movies, but I’ve disagreed with his ratings many times. I’d have missed many great films if I only used his Thumbs Up list as a starting point.

And that’s the problem with Klout – it will always be incomplete or wrong, and never be as good as business want it to be. Sadly, businesses want a shortcut to finding influencers, and they are going to start with Klout generated lists. This will drive people to try and game the system, and away we go. I understand why businesses want this short cut, but there will never be a replacement for simply being active in a community or social sphere. Then you will really know who the influencers are.

PS – If you want to opt out of Klout, you can do so by deleting your account an your Profile Settings page.
PPS – Krystofer James vanSlyke isn’t JUST a smart-ass. Check out his VoiceMuze project creating music from voice mail…

Improv session: Twitter Uncovered

Last year Evo Terra and I sat down to riff on social media topics, and we’ve been working to get some videos out with the goofy output. This time up, the topic is Twitter – why it is so popular, how it evolved, and how it can make money:

These were fun sessions, and worked well because Evo and I both are nauseatingly familiar with this topic, and because we actively employed Yes, And. There is always an element of creation to improv, but if you don’t know the topic you’re improving about you’re going to get tangential comments at best. By always agreeing and accepting what the other players say and building on it, you find yourself going in new directions that neither of you would have explored individually.

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