SXSW suckup, 2012 edition

It seems wrong to be thinking about next year’s SXSW conference when I’ve only just started digesting the inevitability of CES 2013. But the annual routine of picking panels for next March’s gathering in Austin is already upon us, with voting opening on Monday for SXSW Interactive and running through Aug. 31.

Last year, I had the luxury of being asked to join panels other people had organized, one of which made the cut and yielded a great discussion about the SOPA and PIPA debate. My pitch for this year, “How Traditional Media Got/Get Tech Policy Wrong,” started with a great insight from that conversation: Bad tech-policy coverage in traditional media sources yields poor Congressional understanding of these issues.

So in this follow-up, I want to get into the history of this subpar coverage and the reasons for it, based on what I’ve seen in the reporting of others and my own faults. If you think that’s an interesting topic, please vote for my panel. (That requires a free registration, but I can attest that the SXSW organizers aren’t spammy.) Internet votes count for “about 30% of the decision-making process,” with SXSW’s board and staff making up the rest.

But don’t just vote for my panel: The SXSW PanelPicker site features 3,117 proposals in all for just the Interactive segment of the conference.

I spent several hours earlier this week browsing through all those entries, employing such scientific methods as looking at their titles (how I made many of my last-minute attendance decisions in March) and searching for friends. After the jump, you can read about the ones I know I’ll be voting for, grouped under categories I made up for this post. I can’t promise that I’ll actually attend all of these between March 8 and 12, but I will at least feel slightly wistful about missing some of them.

Updated 8/21 to add another handful of picks and re-arrange the panels listed under each category to suggest where each ranks on my must-attend list.

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A SXSW first-timer’s take

It’s been over a week since I got back from South By Southwest Interactive conference, and I’m still not quite caught up on sleep. (That may have something to do with having a toddler at home, and having that toddler come down with a cold.) I’m also behind on many of my post-SXSW digital chores: I only uploaded my photos to Flickr Tuesday, and here I am still writing the  “what did I learn?” post that I’d meant to crank out a day after coming home.

So let’s get it over with already. In a word: Go. SXSW is enormously informative and entertaining, it can be a good business-development proposition and takes place in one of the more pleasant American cities you could spend a long March weekend in. It’s easily worth having to recharge every device you carry every time you’re sitting still.

But you should be prepared for the chaos. I knew there was a lot going on, but I didn’t realize that, for instance, there would be 52 other events happening in the same 3:30-4:30 time slot as my panel. This made a mockery of many of my plans to meet other folks in the tech and journalism businesses, even with the help of battery-draining people-discovery apps.

It’s a shame, because there’s so much concentrated brainpower on display at most of SXSW’s talks and meetups. But there’s nothing you can do except try to appreciate the value of serendipity.

I also didn’t factor in how spread-out SXSW would seem. My talk took place in the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, next door to the University of Texas campus. That was only a mile and a half on foot from the convention center, with frequent shuttle-bus service–but that still made for a round-trip commute of close to an hour in traffic. And because it was raining buckets that afternoon, only about 16 people made the trek to my panel. (Which was fine: We had an excellent discussion anyway.)

Aside from Saturday, however, none of the commuting involved was too objectionable. Downtown is eminently walkable, and I had the good fortune to share a rented home that was a pleasant 30-minute stroll from downtown. From there, I could also walk in about five minutes to a stop on Austin’s sole light-rail line that was just a three-minute ride from the convention center. Considering the insane cost of hotels during SXSW, I strongly endorse sharing a house with friends, or strangers if necessary–not that I needed much encouragement doing so after my successful shared-housing experiences at two NASA Tweetups in Florida last year.

I wish I’d thought to record my panel in some way, since it was not Webcast and nobody else seems to have thought to do so. That was apparently the case with most SXSW panels. At one I attended, “Preserving the Creative Culture of the Web,” archivist Jason Scott noted that he’d set up his phone to record the session for that very reason. So the only trace of my panel is tweets from people in the audience; I will try to append links to them to my earlier entry about it.

The last surprise at SXSW was the volume of free food and drink. It was a weird sort of corporate-subsidized gift economy–somewhat like other conventions I’ve attended, but with less of a sense that the publicists involved had to show a measurable return on the effort. It was easy to get used to the thoroughly enabling notion that you could show up someplace and not have to pay for whatever you might nibble or sip there. As I commented to a friend at one point: “It’s like being in the mob, except I can’t actually have people killed.”

(Even if you do have to pay for a meal, Austin offers perhaps the best dining value of any city in the U.S. And it’s fantastic eating: I don’t know how everybody there hasn’t bulked up on $3 tacos and $5 BBQ sandwiches.)

As you might imagine, I’m already set on returning next year, when I may even feel like I know what I’m doing on day one.

Self-promotional note: If you have other questions about SXSW–or anything else I’ve written about lately in the world of tech–ask me from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow during my Web chat on CEA’s blog.

Help improve my SXSW panel: Why doesn’t Congress grok the Internet?

My SXSW suckup was not in vain, even if it wasn’t efficient either. After a prolonged round of back-and-forth with the conference’s management, including one outright swap of topics, my panel on “Why Doesn’t Congress Grok the Internet?” is scheduled for 3:30-4:30 this Saturday afternoon in Austin.

The theme is pretty straightforward: Sixteen years after the Communications Decency Act, Congress still comes damn close to passing tech-policy legislation almost as boneheaded as that bill; what gives?

I’ll be discussing that topic with two staffers for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): Jayme White, staff director of the Senate Committee on Finance’s Trade, Customs and Global Competitiveness subcommittee and senior tech advisor to Wyden; and Jennifer Hoelzer, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the senator. Both worked on Wyden’s successful opposition to the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP Acts.

I don’t intend for this panel to be a “Congress sucks” beatdown, as fun as that might be. I want to get into the institutional, political and economic factors that lead to tech-ignorant bills appearing as often as they do. Here are some of the questions I have in mind:

  • The stereotype of Congressional knowledge of the Internet is Ted Stevens’ “series of tubes” monologue. Is that a fair perception these days?
  • Looking at the relative influences of the entertainment and tech industries in Washington, how much of a difference can that make on a relatively obscure tech-policy bill? What about one that’s become a headline item?
  • Describe the feedback your boss’s constituents typically provide about tech-policy issues. How often do they bring up the subject at all?
  • How much does the need to raise campaign funds from people who may have intense interests in these matters tilt the legislative process?
  • How would you grade the traditional media’s coverage of recent tech-policy disputes? Has it been part of the problem or part of the solution?
  • What sort of input did your office get from entertainment and tech-industry types, respectively, in the run-up to SOPA?
  • The revolving door is a reality on Capitol Hill (and, I should note, in many newsrooms). How much can the prospect of more profitable employment in private industry weigh on a staffer’s conduct? Among your former colleagues who worked on tech policy on the Hill, where did most of them end up?
  • Did the way Hollywood got rolled on SOPA and PIPA represent a fundamental change in these debates, or was it the product of good timing and good luck?

Now it’s your turn: What questions would you add to that list? Would you strike any of those above?

The SXSW suckup

If certain tech-savvy friends have been sounding annoyingly needy about a four-letter tech gathering, it’s just the time of year. The annual South by Southwest campaign season has arrived, bringing a flood of hopeful attendees groveling for votes in favor of the panel discussions they’ve proposed for next March’s conference in Austin.

And this year, for the first time, I’ve become part of this circus. I have an entry on SXSW’s PanelPicker site on tech policies that promote or hinder innovation, while my Discovery News colleagues have listed me as a panel member for a proposed discussion about orchestrating a news organization when few of its personnel are in the same room.

I’ve tried not to be too much of a nag with “please vote for my panel” requests on Twitter or Facebook–by the way, please vote for my panel!–but with 3,284 proposals for SXSW Interactive alone, I can’t neglect that angle. As the PanelPicker FAQ explains, Internet voting (anybody online is eligible once they create a free account) “accounts for about 30% of the decision-making process,” with the conference’s advisory board and staff providing the balance of the input.

My understanding is that getting your panel picked provides a nice ego boost and can deliver terrific exposure. It also gets you free admission to SXSW’s Interactive and Film events (a badge for just SXSW Interactive runs $595). And SXSW, while a logistical nightmare, has also served as a launch pad for such startups as Twitter and Foursquare. Further, Austin is an excellent place to eat, drink and hear live music.

(So why haven’t I attended SXSW already? I wish I had a better story, but first I showed a pathetic lack of initiative by not even putting in on my calendar for several years running, and then the Post turned down my travel requests. I should have gone on my own dime this spring–but by the time I realized I might need some SXSW-fueled job networking, I couldn’t find a hotel room much closer than San Antonio and had a schedule conflict anyway.)

I feel reasonably good about my chances. I can’t tell how many people have voted for the two panels involving me, but I’ve been flattered to see the tech-policy proposal get a shout-out from Techdirt blogger Mike Masnick (movie-ad quote from his post: “Rob Pegoraro is always interesting”), while Mediabistro blogger Maurice Cherry judged Discovery’s panel proposal one of the 15 most relevant journalism proposals. And I’m continuing to plug these two panels in places like Facebook’s DC Tech group and, of course, right here.

Voting and comments run through 11:59 p.m. Central Sept. 2–please vote for my panel!–and hopefully things will work out. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of room on my own SXSW ballot beyond the votes I’ve already cast (Kim, Cecilia, Paul, Nate: you’re welcome). And I should start drafting a proposal for SXSW 2013, one I’ve had in my head for a while: a panel in which we’d discuss the finer points of running panels.