Two worlds collided at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival this week. Online media of all sorts is coming of age, and the festival was one of its biggest defining moments. The event aims to bring together new technologies and their practitioners to spur innovation. While the mainstream press was barely present, the conference-cum-weeklong-party was more thoroughly reported on than some national political conventions. And central to the whole movement are companies from the Bay Area, ranging from San Francisco news aggregators like Digg.com to giant video-sharing sites like Google’s YouTube.
One moment at the festival the other day signified the passing of a baton from old media to new media.
Dan Rather, the 75-year-old former CBS anchorman, had just finished a keynote speech in which he exhorted American journalism to “find its spine,” after which he was whisked backstage for a series of television interviews.
Out on a patio of the Austin Hilton Hotel, Rather courteously spoke for 20 minutes with Amanda Congdon, the 25-year-old former host of the video blog Rocketboom, who has turned her 15 minutes of online fame into a gig with ABC News’ Web site.
The ironies of their conversation abound. Rather, who once epitomized old media, now works for Mark Cuban’s high definition cable and satellite channel HDNet. Congdon, who helped pioneer video blogging, works for ABC News online.
During SXSW, as the festival is known, bloggers copiously wrote synopses of the talks, often with their own take. Podcasters performed a similar service with audio. Vloggers, shorthand for video bloggers, made increasingly sophisticated news episodes for a range of Web sites. Everyone with a camera — or even a cell phone — uploaded pictures to photo sharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket. The Internet crackled with posts, commentary, stories and episodes, delivered to people’s inboxes via RSS readers.
“I walked into the conference and saw the press suite and said, ‘Forget that.’ The press suite is the entire place,” said panelist Jose Castillo of Johnson City, Tenn. “We’re in an age when anybody can be a journalist. I take pictures, and suddenly I become an outlet.”
Castillo, 30, who podcasts at www.thinkjose.com, led a panel discussion on “How to make your lame podcast listenable.”
Even among the roughly 100 people who registered as press, very few were from traditional media.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact it’s really hard to get the mainstream press to cover what we do at South by Southwest Interactive,” said Hugh Forrest, the festival’s director. Its more famous sister festivals, which focus on film and music, “are a lot more accessible to cover and mainstream audiences to understand.”
“But the new media press was here in full force and online and in the blogosphere,” Forrest said. “The message certainly gets to our audience.”
With wireless Internet access becoming nearly ubiquitous, and cameras, video recorders and audio recorders capturing the event digitally, the attendees don’t have to worry about how history will view them. They are a well-documented group.
A range of newer tools even added to the experience. People could go to news aggregators like Digg to see what the top stories were. They could check blog aggregators like Technorati to read the latest comments in the blogosphere. They could send instant messages to large groups via Twitter, a new technology that allows people to make instant networks with friends via their cell phones.
Digg, Technorati and Twitter are based in San Francisco, along with Flickr, Photobucket and scores of others, helping to cement the city’s status as the home of new media. It seemed this week that all the coffeehouses in San Francisco must have emptied out, sending their patrons to the Texas capital.
But the movement is national in scope. Alex Williams and Marshall Kirkpatrick from SplashCast of Portland, Ore., shot video for the Web. Other vloggers produced segments to run on Blip.TV, a New York company. San Mateo’s PodTech covered the goings on inside and outside of the conference — high-profile blogger Robert Scoble offered interviews and commentary and video blogger Irina Slutsky dug out the quirky stories, including a memorable segment on “Geeks with Guns,” in which attendees put down their BlackBerrys and picked up Berettas at a local shooting range.
“This is one of those places where the new influentials, or new journalists, hang out,” Scoble said. “We’re moving toward a world where everybody is published.”
In the old days, media gatekeepers decided what content would receive precious airtime. “I would have had to convince ABC or CNN to publish my video,” Scoble said. “That’s a daunting challenge for anybody, certainly one where you have a video that might only get 200 viewers around the world. But now you don’t need to convince a committee to publish. You can just put it right on YouTube and see what happens.”
That’s not to say it’s all good. One vlogger at the convention, Nick Douglas, posted a video of himself going on a drunken rant outside a bar about how he can’t stand to use condoms. He put up a warning about foul language, and wrote, “Mom and Dad, maybe watching this one is not such a fun idea for you, and that’s OK.”
But much of the coverage was useful and even insightful. Even Douglas, the aforementioned vlogger, offered a live blog of author Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks that was followed both inside and outside the packed room where he was speaking.
Nate Pagel, 38, of San Francisco, who was one of the founders of the interactive festival 14 years ago, said he uses the new media coverage of the event as a way of finding the gems in the vast information generated by 540 panelists speaking at 178 sessions.
“I not only want to see what’s happening, but I love to look at stuff when it’s been filtered through smart people’s opinions,” Pagel said. “We all have 100 e-mails a day. Any condensation of that is welcome.”
Pagel, who joined Congdon and others on a panel, “Show Me the Money! Making Money From Independent Video Content?,” is the co-founder of Podaddies, a startup looking to help video bloggers put ads on their vcasts, as online video broadcasts are called.
The conference organizers also are putting a podcast, or audio recording, of every conference session online, although that will have a slower rollout.
For the new citizen-media brigade, motives and methods differ from the mainstream press. Alex Williams, who has worked in newspapers and television, is director of community development for SplashCast, a Portland company that lets people create their own online channels, and he was covering the event as well.
“The way this new media brigade covers events is quite different from the mainstream media,” he said. “They are posting things immediately. They take a picture, put it up, tag it (with key words or phrases for easy searching) and wait for it to be discovered.”
That has helped create the concept of what Williams called the “Internet rock star.”
“You can be a rock star for a very small group of people,” he said. “A guy who does (an Internet video) show on home brewing can go to a home-brewing conference, and people mob him. He is a rock star. That is a cultural shift.”
What is new media?
Blogging: Many companies offer free or inexpensive software for anyone who wants to write a blog, which is usually a collection of thoughts, reportage, links and reader comments, increasingly including photos and videos. Leading companies include Six Apart, which makes Movable Type, Typepad, Vox and LiveJournal; Google (which makes Blogger), and WordPress, although many other companies offer blogging capabilities.
Vlogging: If blogging is a contraction of Web log, then vlogging is mashing the word “video” in there. It can range from episodes posted to sites like YouTube and Revver, to companies that are producing their own content.
Podcasting: When Apple unveiled the iPod, Internet audio took off. You don’t need an iPod to listen to a podcast; they’re all available online, and can be downloaded to a wide variety of digital audio players. Podcasts run the gamut of music, journalism, walking tours — almost anything anyone can think of saying with sound.
Photoblogging: As digital cameras proliferate and now outstrip their film antecedents, people are uploading thousands of photos to the Internet. These pictures tell millions of stories.
Aggregating: With the vast array of blogs, vlogs, podcasts and news on the Net, someone has to filter it. Some users do it themselves through RSS feeds, a simple way to have headlines sent to a dedicated page (such as Bloglines, or the home pages offered by Yahoo, Google and MSN). Others rely on aggregators which pull from a range of sites and rank the results in different ways.
Texting: As people become increasingly mobile with their technology, they are looking to get information on their cell phones, BlackBerries, and Treos. Text services and users send short messages to these devices.
Where can you see it?
These Bay Area companies are among the leaders in the new wave of new media.
PodTech: A Web site based in San Mateo offering professionally produced coverage of the tech world in audio and video.
YouTube: A wildly popular site, now part of Google, that proved that users can upload their video to the Internet and find an audience.
Twitter and Dodgeball: Texting services that enable people to send short notes to friends, or tell them their whereabouts. Also good for spreading news in short bursts. Twitter is owned by Obvious Corp., and Dodgeball is owned by Google. (Note: Obvious ultimately spun Twitter out on its own, and Google ultimately discontinued Dodgeball, whose founders went on to establish Foursquare.)
Digg and Technorati: Aggregation sites that help make sense of the online info-glut. Digg lets readers rate stories, so those with the most “digs” make it to the front page. Technorati scours and sorts the blogosphere, so readers can see who is saying what on various topics.