Thursday, March 13, 2003

Wrapping up Austin

I'm back at home in the Land of Ice and Snow. Luckily, I arrived to my sweetie and a bunch of flowers the colours of fire (meant to ease my sense of losing the southern sun).

I really enjoyed the final day and night of my SXSW experience: hanging out at the Hotel San Jose, dangling feet in the pool and sharing excellent conversations with Mike, Toke, fellow Canadian and charming young man (yes, too young for me!) Marty Spellerberg, Andrew Otwell (who is every bit as smart and interesting as I thought he would be!) and many others there and later at Bruce Sterling's party. The social atmosphere made the trip.

But what about the panels and talks? I think I enjoyed the final day the most. Richard Florida gave a passionate presentation on the Rise of the Creative Class - a really cheesy title that does a disservice to his insights into the relationships between diversity, innovation, technology and socio-economic quality of life. (Update: Heath Row's transcript of the talk.)

I also really enjoyed the Beyond the Blog: The Future of Personal Publishing panel. "This session explores emerging technologies in the field of online publishing, including weblogging and moblogging through wireless devices, nascent desktop applications, and digital identity. The panel will also examine how these trends relate to traditional site feedback mechanisms. Paul Bausch (Blogger), Anil Dash (dashes.com), Justin Hall (links.net), Ben Trott (Movable Type), Mena Trott, moderator (Movable Type)." (Update: Heath Row's transcript of the panel.)

But I'm so lame that I can never articulate a question until I've had some time to think about what I've heard - and by then the panel was over. There was some discussion of the reverse-chronological format of blogs: that it provides a "hint of structure" (not random posts), a "sharing of time" (with readers) and a "social contract" (to update content regularly). But I found myself thinking that it also privileges the new, and creates temporal boundaries. This isn't a bad thing, and I think it's worth considering a bit. I'm not the first to notice that blog conversations tend to fizzle once they fall off the front page and into the archives. Sure, old posts can be commented, but those conversations are taking place in different contexts. A conversation we have in real time is not the same as one we have in present time about something (a post) in past time. (Shite. And I'm supposed to be working on becoming more clear in my writing!) My point is that we're looking at constantly shifting contexts, shifting uses, shifting practices, shifting meanings, shifting understandings. To represent that, to nail it down, with only quantities of points of connections suggests that our social experiences of blogging can be effectively, and adequately, defined in terms of linear and causal relationships based on the transmission of data quantities. We always talk of networks and nodes, but didn't hypertext originally offer us more flexible, more rhizomatic possibilities? It seems to me that blog and blog-related software (like aggregators) seek to control - if only by filtering and structuring - the flow. And that's not very sociable if you appreciate serendipity.

Will blog software development include hiring ethnographers to study how blogs are actually used? I've already said I'm not talking about simply tracking source or provenance, or number of connections. Not even about trust mechanisms like FOAF (which I think has interesting potential). I'm talking about how each time a post is referenced somewhere away from its place of origin, it is recontextualised and takes on a more or less different meaning. During the panel discussion I was struck by the lack of consideration for any type of tool that could point to (measure) the qualitative experience of blogging - wouldn't that be valuable information if one were developing the next wave of blog-related applications? I'd like to know how social interactions differ amongst different types (genres? voices?) of blogs. I'd like to better understand how excited people (including myself) were when we actually met some of our favourite "people behind the blogs" while at SXSW. I just think blog-spaces are much bigger (less contained?) than they sometimes appear.

So, all-in-all, my trip to Austin ended very well. Good people, good talks, good food and good drinks. New friends to keep in touch. What more should I want? (On second thought - I can't believe that I missed an opportunity to see The Roots for the second time in two years! That sucks.)

UPDATE 15/03/03:

1. Heather Champ, Jason Nolan, Katharine Parrish, and Ana Sisnett looked at Conceptual Firewalls to participation in blogging. Heather's comments on gender really resonated with me: In 1995 I went to Internet World and Mac World. The most strongly I feel the division is at conferences and in the materials that are handed out to me. Last year, when I came to SXSW, I felt like it was predominately a white male conference. It's so terrible. Look, it's Joshua Davis, but where are the women? This year, SXSW has made more of an effort to find a balance. I'm concerned about women who are coming after me, who look at these materials, and who feel whether these events speak to them. Anil recently posted a photo of Dave Winer's recent panel at Harvard, and it struck me that it's white, it's male, and they have beards. There were two women there? Those people don't speak to me. Is this the face of blogging?

2. Mikela and Philip Tarlow gave an interesting presentation on being Digital Aboriginals - anthropological metaphors pull through for us again with a concentration on storytelling and (nomadic) tribal relations for a digital era.

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