Why I attended two monetization-resistant conferences

I spent the past two weeks betraying a basic rule of self-employment: Don’t go someplace without having enough work lined up to pay for the trip. Worse yet, I paid for a conference badge–twice.

I had my reasons. The XOXO festival in Portland promised a repeat of the mind-expanding, heartening talks I watched with rapt attention in 2013 and 2015, plus the side reward of getting to spend a few days in a city I like but hadn’t visited since 2015. The Online News Association conference in Austin, meanwhile, would bring its usual mix of professional development and catching up with old friends.

XOXO stageI had hopes of selling a post or two from each, but I’d still lose money from each trip (and then I wound up not selling anything at all). So what did I get for my $500 XOXO pass and $439 ONA registration, plus airfare and lodging for each?

This year’s XOXO was not the same independent-creativity pep talk as before, because most of the speakers didn’t address that theme. But there were some seriously compelling talks anyway:

  • Jonny Sun and then Demi Adejuyigbe talked with candor and hilarity about battling impostor syndrome;
  • Jennifer 8. Lee explained how she worked the emoji-governance system (yes, there is one) to get a dumpling emoji added;
  • Claire L. Evans retold some forgotten stories about female computing pioneers;
  • Helen Rosner spoke about being defined by an out-of-context tweet and having to defend her expertise, then led the audience in a recitation of this pithy, profane self-affirmation: “I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.”

Trust me, you will want to watch these whenever the organizers post the video to their YouTube page.

XOXO also had a day of meetups across Portland and endless conversations with fellow attendees. Somehow, this conference manages to attract some of the kindest, nicest people on the Internet; it’s a wonderful contrast to the acid bath that is Twitter on a bad day.

XOXO postcardThe people at ONA may not have been as uniformly pleasant–look, if we journalists had a full set of social skills, we’d all have real jobs–but that event had the advantage of being much more tightly focused on my professional reality. It’s not by accident that I’ve gone to every ONA conference since 2014.

There, too, the talks were terrific:

ONA was as great as ever for networking, I had more than my fill of delicious tacos, and I got to hear Dan Rather give a brief talk at an evening event and then shake his hand afterwards.

In retrospect, XOXO is an expense I wouldn’t repeat–although I’ve yet to go to that festival in consecutive years anyway. My takeaway from this year’s version is that instead of flying across the country to get these different perspectives, I should try harder to find them around D.C.

ONA, however, is pretty much guaranteed to be on my schedule next year–the 2019 conference will be in New Orleans. How can I not do that?

Advertisements

Weekly output: tech backlash at SXSW, Elon Musk, Avatar XPrize, Austin package bombings, Waymo, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

Another South By Southwest in the books (see my Flickr album), but despite moments like my getting retweeted by Mark Hamill, this one wasn’t as much fun as the six before it. The fourth item below should explain why.

3/12/2018: Tech gets a skeptical look at SXSW, USA Today

I wrote a longer-than-usual column from Austin about “techlash,” as seen in panels and a few interviews I snagged. The one with Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) happened by dumb luck: After having my exit from the Hilton delayed by a scrum of people around Arnold Schwarzenegger (no, really), I realized that the congressman was among them, so I recorded a quick conversation as we walked towards the escalator.

3/12/2018: Elon Musk: Mars will be great, if AI doesn’t kill us first, Yahoo Finance

Musk’s Sunday appearance was a late-breaking addition to the SXSW schedule–the e-mail advising journalists about the 7 a.m. deadline to put in for a press pass landed after 10 p.m. Saturday, when I was not in a fit state to do anything with e-mail. So I watched his appearance as you could have: on the SXSW live stream.

3/13/2018: There’s a $10 million race to build you a robot avatar by 2021, Yahoo Finance

Monday’s talk by XPrize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis was a dose of unadulterated tech utopianism.

3/13/2018: Austin package explosions: City on edge as police seek clues, USA Today

Monday evening, my USAT editor called to ask if I could pitch in to help cover the three package bombings around Austin, so I spent much of Tuesday afternoon taking a car2go to two of those sites and getting quotes from neighbors. The last time I knocked on random doors for a story was in late 2011, and the last time I did any reporting from a law-enforcement situation may have been August of 1998–when a woman survived trying to kill herself by jumping in front of the Metro train I was taking to work.

3/15/2018: Google’s self-driving Waymo cars will be picking you up soon, Yahoo Finance

Although Waymo CEO John Krafcik had a panel Tuesday morning, I waited to write this until after his Tuesday-evening appearance with comedian Adam Carolla–which made the post a lot more fun. Listen to Carolla’s podcast to hear his quizzing of Krafcik, including the “morgue mode” riff I mentioned in the post and a urethra reference that my editor cut to avoid giving our readers the heebie-jeebies.

3/17/2018: Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news channel had me on Saturday afternoon to discuss the grotesque abuse of Facebook’s apps regime by a contractor for the Trump-connected research firm Cambridge Analytica. My spot comes up just after the 12-minute walk; if you can speak Arabic, please let me know if the translation adequately conveys my disgust at Facebook’s tardy response.

Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

Weekly output: Android Go edition, wireless charging

AUSTIN–Although Mobile World Congress happened two weeks ago, my coverage of it continued this week with a couple of posts that I wrote before coming here Friday for my seventh SXSW in a row.

3/8/2018: If $100 is your limit for smartphones, good news is coming with Android Go, USA Today

I used my USAT column to note a positive development in Android: a version of Google’s operating system built to run well on cheap smartphones that would otherwise likely get stuck with an obsolete Android release.

3/11/2018: These companies want to create truly wireless charging, Yahoo Finance

This post about two wireless-charging companies that I met at Mobile World Congress two weeks ago should have been written sooner. But then I had a tree snap the wires bringing power to our house–the irony is duly noted–and needed a few more days than I expected to get an analyst’s take on the company. Note that we had to correct the story after publication to correct the job titles of not one but two executives I quoted, making it one of the more snakebit things I’ve written lately.

 

 

 

SXSW scheduling: indecision is the key to flexibility

AUSTIN–Looking at the glut of invitations to South By Southwest events that have landed in my inbox in the past few days, two things seem clear: Many publicists think this event starts and ends on Saturday, and I shouldn’t have bothered scheduling anything until this week.

SXSW 2018 logoI know from prior experience that this conference attracts a silly amount of marketing money that gets lit on fire in various #brand-building exercises–most involving the distribution of free tacos, BBQ and beer.

But this year–much like at CES–some sort of happy-hour herd instinct has also led many companies to schedule their events on the same day, in this case Saturday. Looking over the possibilities, it appears I could spend that entire day–starting with a 7:30 a.m. mimosa breakfast–drinking on the dime of one corporate host or another.

(I won’t. I have panels to attend, people to interview, and probably one post to write. I may need a nap too.)

And, yes, a huge number of these invitations came in the last 72 hours. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s just-in-time conduct, but weren’t all of these bars, restaurants and other event spaces booked months ago? I have to assume that after not enough of the A, B and C-list guests responded affirmatively, the sponsor reluctantly decided to invite the D-list.

Considering that you can’t tell which events will be mobbed and how you might be waylaid by random meetings at them, your only safe response is to RSVP to everything and leave your calendar looking like a game of Tetris that you’re about to lose. Then decide where you’ll go based on where you’re standing and what looks interesting nearby–as shallow and impolite as that is.

And that’s how I came to a conclusive answer to this question: What’s a less reliable indication of somebody’s attendance than an Evite response?

Weekly output: SXSW tips, Rudy Giuliani, 5G, WikiLeaks and CIA hacks (x2), SXSW marketing, Entrepreneur, Chris Sacca, Vint Cerf

AUSTIN–Welcome, readers frustrated by adjusting their Timex sport watches for Daylight Saving Time. You’re reading a weekly feature here, in which I recap my various media appearances over the last seven days. Most of this week’s items relate to the South By Southwest conference, which I’m covering for my sixth year in a row. Total number of tacos consumed so far: at least nine.

3/7/2017: 5 Insider Tips for Surviving SXSW, CyberCoders

My friend Andrea Smith interviewed me about how I try to stay on top of this sprawling conference. I was going to forget to pack a travel power strip until reading my own advice in this story–but I haven’t used that gadget here anyway.

3/7/2017: Giuliani talks security, Trump at cybersecurity conference, Yahoo Finance

I did not see the foaming-at-the-mouth Rudy Giuliani of the campaign season; instead, the former mayor drew a diagram to illustrate the cybersecurity contractors a company will need (see Violet Blue’s post on her Patreon page for context on that). He also noted that President Trump has more faith in private-sector cybersecurity efforts than the government’s, which led one reader to inquire on Twitter: “So a private email server would be more secure than a government server?”

3/8/2017: 5G data is coming, and it will supercharge your internet connection, Yahoo Finance

This last Mobile World Congress post explains the next generation of wireless generation–as in, why it’s a couple of years before you should be devoting any mental processor cycles to the topic.

3/10/2017: The real lesson of WikiLeaks’ massive CIA document dump — encryption works, Yahoo Finance

I wrote this largely out of annoyance with first-round coverage that played into the WikiLeaks-promoted storyline that the CIA has broken encryption apps. That group has yet to produce any such evidence, although some readers unaware of its increasingly apparent role as a Russian cut-out don’t seem to recognize that.

3/10/2017: WikiLeaks’ CIA-hacking disclosures, Al Jazeera

My Skype interview ended abruptly when the hotspot I’d been using ran out of battery, and that’s entirely my fault for assuming it had enough of a charge instead of checking beforehand. #fail

3/11/2017: How to avoid the marketing hype at SXSW, USA Today

There’s the SXSW that promises insights about the intersections of technology, society, culture, politics and business, and then there’s the SXSW that is essentially a Marketing Spring Break. Neither one can quite exist without the other.

3/12/2017: A Well-Known Tech Watchdog Dishes on the Writing Beat, Entrepreneur

Jordan French interviewed me in February about my history in the business. I’m not sure about the “well-known” part, but I’m not going to turn that description down either. Note that this story references me speaking at the PR Summit conference, which did not happen.

3/12/2017: Venture investor on Trump: ‘We are in absolute unmitigated crisis’, Yahoo Finance

Chris Sacca’s talk at SXSW was 💯, as the kids say. As a journalist, I had to appreciate his newsroom-level ability to use the f-word as a comma. I was only half-joking when I suggested this headline

3/12/2017: Google’s chief internet evangelist seems nervous about Trump’s tech policy, Yahoo Finance

Cardinal rule of tech journalism: If you have a chance to see the guy who co-wrote the core protocols of the thing you use everyday, you should show up. The payoff for me: a tweet that went slightly viral and a post I enjoyed writing–once I’d decided what parts of Cerf’s wide-ranging talk couldn’t fit in the post.

Travel hack gone awry: the conference that got canceled

AUSTIN–South By Southwest starts today, but I’ve been here since Wednesday. That seemed like a smart way to arrange my travel until last Thursday–when the PR Summit conference here vanished from my schedule.

You can’t tell this from the generic “under construction” page at that address, but I was going to participate in a discussion about communications strategies “in the age of Trump and Twitter.” That’s a fascinating topic I hope to address someday. But last Thursday’s e-mail announcing the conference’s postponement after a sponsor’s withdrawal ensures that time won’t be this week.

I have spoken at a lot of conferences over the past 10 years, and this is the first time one has gotten scrubbed like this. My great experience speaking at 2013’s PR Summit in San Francisco led me to expect this one to go just as smoothly–and since I was heading to Austin anyway, moving up my departure by two days and getting a better deal on airfare in the bargain made sense.

Thing is–not that I’d know this first-hand–putting on a conference requires difficult and prolonged work and demands the support of many third parties with their own interests. I should probably be surprised I haven’t had one implode on me before.

The immediate downsides of having the event cancel were realizing I’d spend two more days away from my family without any business rationale, and that I’d need to find someplace else to stay now that the conference-paid hotel room was gone as well.

But the local PR shop TrendKite put together its own small event Wednesday afternoon, at which it was comforting to realize anew that PR pros can find social media just as much of a game of chance as journalists. I stayed the last two nights with a friend from high school and his wife (cooking dinner for them Wednesday allowed an overdue introduction to the kitchen-newbie-friendly UX of a Blue Apron kit). And having last night free let me catch up over dinner with a college-newspaper friend whom I’d last seen in 2003. I can’t complain about those outcomes.