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SXSW 2009 Interactive – Day 1 – Friday, March 13

SXSW has been rockin’ and rollin’ for over two decades, and for a few years the main interest that pulled people to Austin was focused mainly on music. But, as independent film gained ground and technology played a larger roll in the business and distribution of music and film, the SXSW format expanded into three areas of focus – Interactive, Film AND Music.

As the number of music fans and bands coming in from all over the world has increased significantly in the past six or seven years, causing one to proactively plan as to not be shut out from a show, the same has happened with Interactive. Before, you could stroll in, find a seat, and that that was it. But as I walked into my first panel, “User Generated Content,” ten minutes before it started I found myself sitting on the only seat left. The floor.

At “User Generated Content: State of the Union” the CEO from Topix, Chris Tolles, ran the panel, starting off with the question that has plagued the technology, specifically the Internet industry, for some time—“how do we all get paid?”

A million dollar question indeed. The state of the union is, how does a company, large or small, take advantage of user generated content to fiscally impact and benefit its operations.

Citing Facebook as an example, that entity is turning to the traditional advertising model and it’s working quite well for them. Twitter? The number of users generating content through this social media tool has increased exponentially, but no one really knows how Twitter plans to generate revenue, if they’re moving in the advertising direction, or they have something else up their sleeve.

In television, folks with a small video camera and big imagination are creating webisodes. If things go well and the metrics show the popularity of given “show” the TV execs have been known to jump in and take it to the traditional television channels. This is a win-win for actors and writers with aspirations for showbiz, and is a more economically feasible gamble for the TV execs, producing a show with a built-in audience without having the cost and time to create and run pilots.

Just about then, there was some yelling and hailing going on in the room next to us, which of course led some curiosity with most people in the room. I have no idea what was going on over there, but Tolles didn’t find it as funny as we did, and continued to move on to the next topic of LinkedIn.

In the end, the answer to “how do we monetize?” was about as clear as mud. It’s dependent on many variables—what works for Facebook may not necessarily work for Twitter. Managing user generated content on a platform such as Digg doesn’t work the same as LinkedIn. It’s apples, oranges, and pomegranates. So it’s up to each individual entity to set parameters on an individual basis–who are your users, what is of value to your users, what do you hope to gain from your users, have you set up an environment that supports self-monitoring, and yes, can you make money from the content they generate. And all the while, watching those that are winning at the monetization game.

It’s no news that the news business has been in a world of hurt for some time now. Yes, I get most of my news online, but my idea of a perfect Sunday morning is sitting with the New York Times at a restaurant patio table with a mimosa and a plate of Eggs Benedict.

Steven Johnson from, and moderator of “The Ecosystem of the News,” is also fond the format of news on print, when as a young kid in1987, he would arrive at the bookstore the third week of every month, just in time for the newly arrive issue of Macworld, which he would read cover to cover.

“It’s essential to travel back [in time] because of the devastating effect the Web is having on our news intuitions; to talk about what life was like before the Web. If you wanted to find out Mac news, like about Hypercard,” at which a number of us chuckled, since he hadn’t heard that term, since like, 1987, “one channel available to you. There was only Macworld.”

Johnson then flipped the coin on print media such as the magazine, that often times have a three-month lead-time, versus the real-time nature of the Web, or even the daily paper. “You were still getting the news too late,” pointing out that before reading about the Mac news that happened three months ago the same day you learn that Steve Jobs was pushed out of Apple after reading an article in the New York Times.

One can even point to the tagline for Johnson’s, “What’s happening. Where you are. Right now.”

Johnson believes that if 19-year old Steven Jobs could have travelled forward in time, he would be amazed by where we are today, where news is being distributed in seconds. That people from around the world can see and hear him live as he speaks at a press conference.

Jobs and other innovators of that time would have never expected that technology itself would be so integrated into our culture. That’s it’s no longer just the nerds living and breathing tech. And our consumption of media is greatly responsible for that.

“Media is an extension of our nervous system. Today it is much closer to a real-world eco system in the way it circulates information, complex and different from an assembly line, making it more difficult to predict where we’ll be with news in the next five years.”

So how many traditional news media outlets will be here in the next five years and how will they survive?

While most of us expect to get and do get our news for free, there are areas and opportunities for monetization. Remember regular television before cable? Then came cable, with better content that we wanted. And then came more channels and more content; better content than we were finding on “for free” broadcasters like NBC, CBS and ABC. And now we’re willing to pay $40 to $150 a month for all access hundreds of channels.

Then there’s the Kindle. “I’m going through the same experience as I did when he first bought my iPod.” He’s paying for things that he used to get for free. He’s paying for subscription to news that he could get online for free, such as the New York Times.

While Johnson is bullish on the future of news, he’s not bullish on the future of traditional newspapers. As with other industries, it’s the evolve or die scenario. They’ll have to pick their battles. They may not be able to afford to have a bureau in Afghanistan, but they’re focus could be more on the local level, where local advertising, both in print and on the Web, can drive the kind of revenue they need to survive.

Yes, the news ecosystem is becoming more diversified, where a Twitter post connects many to the full-length story or to an ebook. The only thing that concerns me, ultimately, is the future of investigative journalism. That has been the ultimate tool in making people accountable and keeping people informed of not only of the every day stories, but what is going on in our world that can be written up over night. The only thing I can think of to support that is to contribute to NPR and get at least a Sunday subscription to the New York Times. And then cross my fingers that neither are going away any time soon.

My interest in the panel, “Brave New Dating,” wasn’t so much for business as personal. Once again I found myself sitting on the floor. At this point I was too tired to care.

Sitting there, I thought about my own online dating experience from 10+ years ago. Living near San Francisco at the time, my first was one guy who should have gotten in touch with his sexual preferences side and click “men looking for men.” The next thought it was cool to chase after the hot chick mascot at the Giants game. There was a third, I can’t even remember, probably for a good reason. I’d tried online dating about 10 years ago (or more…can’t quite remember), and it wasn’t that pleasant an experience.

So what has changed since then? Mainly, that romantic pursuits are no longer limited to sites such as Match or eHarmony and the like. Ryan McMinn from Microsoft, Ali Watkins from Rough & Tumble Industries, who both ran this panel, pointed out what we already knew or have experienced first hand. People connect on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter for many reasons, one of them being, “who you doin’?”

This has created a whole myriad of situations, some good, some not so good. One of the attendees pointed out that he had been contacted by an ex-girlfriend via Facebook, asking to become friends. Since he had a girlfriend at the time, he felt uneasy accepting the invitation. It’s one thing to run into your ex at the grocery store, laugh over old times, and then go your separate ways. No harm. No foul. It’s another for your girlfriend to walk up mid-laugh. And that’s the online world we live in, where things that used to be momentary, secretive even, are out in the open…forever.

I also learned the difference between how men use dating sites and women use them. Basically, men don’t bother reading the profiles. Both men and women seemed to agree on this point. Men just look at the picture and hit the button. And in the way that some women are known to peer into their mate’s drawers, wallets, and bathroom cabinets, they’re not able to do that via online social media profiles. When it comes to the aspect of dating and human nature, even with all the technology innovations, not much has changed in the last 10 years. It’s only gotten more complicated, and in more places.



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