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Split by SouthWest: My SXSW 2012 Diary

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, March 15 2012

danah boyd and Alex Howard at SXSW 2012 (Photo by Micah L. Sifry)

I've just come back from three-and-a-half days at South by Southwest Interactive, the venerable Austin mega-gathering that this year brought together something like 20,000 people from all over the US and the world for a nonstop shmoozeathon of panels, keynotes, pop-up events, parties and god knows what else. Believe it or not, it was my first time there, because I'm not a fan of huge crowds and long lines, but this year I was asked to speak on a panel on the internet's role in the 2012 election, and figured it was time to dive in.

What I saw and experienced was an event that encapsulates pretty well the state of technology and culture today. That is, SXSW is still a place where sessions packed with thousands of attendees cheer for the iconoclasts and the game-changers. It is also much more of a business networking conference than an internet futurists' playpen. In short, it has a split personality. (And it's definitely getting too big for Austin.) What follows are my notes on the various sessions I attended, including the US premieres of two new fillms, WikiLeaks: Secrets and Lies, and We are Legion, a film about Anonymous.

The not-so-dark arts of online campaigning
Friday night at the CNN Grill, which was conveniently located a half-block from the Austin Convention Center, I bumped into Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call, who gave me the scoop on the coming relaunch of their Congress.org site (which just went live March 13). Then we went downstairs, first to hear CNN"s Peter Hanby grill Romney consultant Wesley Donehue and Democratic consultant and Ruck.us start-up founder Nathan Daschle about the "dark arts of online campaigning." The contrast between the head-shaved Daschle and the bow-tie wearing Donehue was entertaining. And then Hanby did a one-on-one semi-post-mortem interview with Governor Rick Perry, who showed up in a leather jacket, blue jeans and hiking boots, and was so relaxed I thought he just had a massage. (That's my photo of the two of them, Perry on the left, Hanby on the right.)
A few highlights from their conversations:
-Daschle thinks that Obama '08 "probably got too much credit for their tech savvy," and that Republicans surpassed the Democrats in 2010 in their use of social media.
-Both parties are now dealing with internal factions that are stronger thanks to the net, Peter Hanby notes. Now where have I heard that before?
-Opposition research used to be held tightly and doled out carefully. Daschle says now SuperPacs just dump their research online to make it easier for others to use. (An interesting point but he didn't give much evidence to back it up.)
-Only the most inside baseball of political junkies care about the Fake Mitt Romney Pinterest page. Donehue got lots of laughs for pointing out that it had barely 750 followers.
-Donehue is proud of the $2.5 million he helped Rep. Wilson raise online after the "You lie" incident at the 2010 State of the Union. "It was sick money," he chortled.
-Perry tweets himself. Spelling errors are his.
-Using social media like Twitter to get around the mainstream media filter is "the name of the game," says Perry.
-Assuming he gets some debate training, expect Perry to run again in 2016. He didn't come out and say this, but body language speaks louder than words.

Making sense of WikiLeaks
Later Friday night, I went to the Austin Convention Center to see the premiere of WikiLeaks: Secrets and Lies, a documentary made by Oxford Film and Television in the UK. The filmmaker Patrick Forbes got direct access to Julian Assange, his ex-deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg, all the key players at the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel who were WikiLeaks partners, and even scored interviews with ex-hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned in alleged leaker Bradley Manning, and with P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman who resigned his post after criticizing the government's treatment of Manning.

If you've been following the WikiLeaks saga closely, the film covers familiar ground, with everyone reprising their roles and rehashing their outstanding conflicts. And if you haven't been paying close attention, Secrets and Lies may serve as an ideal primer. However, it elides some important details, such as the fact that WikiLeaks did not initially leak all 250,000 State Department documents, and the fact the ultimate release of those files was not simply because Assange always wanted to (as the film claims without proof), but also because the Guardian mistakenly published the password to an existing copy of the files that was available online.

Personally, I would have liked to hear more about the conflicting reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations in the United States and abroad (here the media mostly downplayed the news, while the Europeans made much of the stories of secret assassination squads, civilian deaths, and torture), and some discussion of the battle that erupted after companies like Amazon, PayPal, Visa and Mastercard catapulted to political pressure from various American politicians. But the movie does offer several revelations of its own, including clear evidence of Adrian Lamo's disingenuousness. After Lamo tells the camera that he never promised Manning confidentiality, the film shows several verbatim snippets from their chat transcript that contradict him, and then gives one of Der Spiegel's reporters plenty of time to condemn Lamo's behavior. There's also a small but disturbing moment when Dean Baquet, the New York Times deputy editor, is asked about Bradley Manning and he admits that he simply doesn't think of him much. The story, apparently, has moved on.

SXSW's divided soul: the 'start-up of you' or the 'story of us'?
First up Saturday morning, I went to hear Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha give a keynote talk on their new book, "The Startup of You." The book aims to give today's job-seekers advice on how to navigate today's turbulent marketplace, where the old world of settled career tracks is disappearing, and the concept of a company loyal to its workers or workers loyal to their company is said to be dead. Instead, the values of entrepreneurship, and in particular Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurship, should be paramount. Think of yourself as living in "permanent beta," constantly pivoting to take advantage of the shifting market. Strengthen your personal network, and think of it as a "virtual company" that can help you build your career. And don't try to minimize risk, embrace and learn from it.

I have to admit, I had mixed feelings about their pitch. On the one hand it's true that people can take a lot of initiative in today's hyper-networked, hyper-empowered age. And I admire what Hoffman has done with LinkedIn and how he serves as a mentor to many younger entrepreneurs. But Hoffman and Casnocha didn't offer their audience anything but life from the point of view of the winners. Sure, as they noted, Mark Zuckerberg was smart (or lucky) to partner with smart roommates like Dustin Moskowittz and Chris Hughes. In retrospect, given what these three men have all gone on to do, it looks like having a strong personal network is critical to future success. But that's only because they won the chase; in retrospect success makes every winner look brilliant. The hidden role of luck, timing, and sometimes subterfuge, went unaddressed by Hoffman and Casnocha.

All humans were born entrepreneurs, they said, citing micro-finance pioneer Mohammed Yunus's famous saying. We all had to use entrepreneurial skills to survive as cavemen, they claimed. Uh, I don't think so--we've been cooperating and sharing with each other as much as we've been relying on our wits and competing; that's what all the latest social science shows. (Go read Yochai Benkler's book "The Penguin and the Leviathan.") But today's net culture is a contradictory mix of capitalist bravado and communitarian impulses; depending on where you went in Austin you could get a full blast of each. Of course, business trade shows are all about boosterism and pitching. If you wanted to find out more about how the whole Interactive space was built, and how it can be sustained at a time that more and more of the Internet is being corporatized, you had to look elsewhere for that conversation. It still exists at SXSW, as I found later.

The start-up scene in India
Seeking to learn something new, I next went to a panel called "Not Just Tech Support: Online in India." It's always a good idea to make time at mega-events like SXSW for sessions where you don't know anything, and this one didn't disappoint. India is in the middle of rapid change, fueled by technology. It currently has 660 million mobile phone subscribers, with 10 million more signing up a month. That rate of increase is actually slowing down, as the market is nearing saturation. More people in India have access to phones than to working toilets.

And lots of these people are getting online--125 million in total as of now, of which 60 million are doing thru mobile. India is now the second biggest province of the Land of Facebook, with 45 million users (surpassing Indonesia). And when you factor in the country's new system that is aimed to provide every citizen with a unique ID (and biometric tracking), you can see why many entrepreneurs are flocking there--including Indians leaving Silicon Valley to go back home and launch new companies.

Some of those companies are trying to use technology to solve serious social problems, like helping people find jobs and gain access to useful public health information and services. Sean Blagsvedt, CEO of Babajob.com and a former Microsoft employee, is working to make it easy for poor Indians to find entry-level jobs using everything from call centers and SMS to mobile apps. mDhil, an online health community founded by Nandu Madhava , is making health videos on usually taboo topics like women's reproductive health, and spreading them using social media and social networks. It was inspiring to hear about these projects. Said Blagsvedt, "Social media isn't just helping anti-corruption fighters like Anna Hazare take on the government; it's also about helping solve local problems."

I was hoping to hear more about how the explosive growth of connectivity in India was changing the society, but this panel--in keeping with SXSW's split personality--was more about the benjamins. Thus, when I asked the panelists what kind of Internet Indians were actually experiencing, and gave the example of Facebook Zero, which is giving mobile subscribers access to a circumscribed version of Facebook free of data charges, they didn't seem too perturbed. "There's no net neutrality in India," Blagsvedt observed. "Facebook is the thing used to get people to buy phones. It's the driver." And Madhava, the panel's moderator, said, "I applaud Facebook for understanding the market opportunity here."

Laughter (and coding) against the machine
Next up was the Saturday keynote, starring Baratunde Thurston, the agitator, comedian and author of the new book, "How to Be Black." ("If you don't buy this book, you are a racist," his first slide read, eliciting much laughter.) The talk was titled "How to Read the World," and at its heart was a not-too-serious meditation on the power of comedians as the last truth-tellers most of us listen to. Today's hyper-connected environment was creating a lot more noise, Thurston said, but "noise and confusion creates an opportunity for trust," he told the packed hall. At a time when most institutions have lost public trust (and "the media just reports on the media,") who is left? Comics.

Thurston used a good chunk of his talk to give a tour of the satiric horizon, drawing from his own work at the Onion (as Barack Obama's hillbilly half brother, among many other characters) and then showing harder-edged clips from Egypt, Nigeria, China, Afghanistan and Iran. Thurston's message was simple: "Everyone can create now. It's the magic, and the tragic, of our times. Everything is connected. The Internet of crap is coming." Comedians are the "sacred clowns" who, using humor, smash idols and force us to question authority. And coders, he argued, were part of that subversive tradition too. "We're about more than just the checking in. We're about upgrading humanity."

The Indie Web is Dead; Long Live the Indie Web
That was a perfect lead-in to the next session I attended, on the "Rise of the Indie Web." (Here's a link to my pencast of the conversation.) It was led by Tantek Celik, an "alpha geek" who I've known since when he worked on my brother David's company, Technorati. Celik started the discussion by telling a story about the old SXSW, which he first attended in 2002 and has been coming to since. Back then, he told us, the conference program was one-quarter the thickness of today's heavy tome, and it included a listing of every attendee's name and affiliation. That was possible in 2002, when SXSW drew about two thousand people. Today, the tens of thousands of attendees would fill a small city phone book.

But more importantly, Celik said, the early SXSW was a place filled with brilliant designers, experience architects, and developers who later built awesome sites like Flickr and Twitter. The online world was just opening up, he said; "The web started indie." But while we were all now enjoying the results of those creative years, some very important things have been lost or are on the verge of being lost, he argued. And that was the subject of the ensuing conversation: what the independent web was good for, and how to strengthen it against the silos and walled gardens and user lock-in that come with sites like Facebook encircling the open web. "If you post your content on these sites, you're basically giving up your rights," Celik pointed out.

And it's not just Facebook. Celik pointed to a recent case where someone's homemade nature video got taken down by YouTube because its Content ID algorithm had determined that the birds singing in the background matched some copyrighted material, and the owner of that material has the power (given to it by YouTube) to determine whether that content was infringing--ie, to determine whether your content was actually yours.

Together, the group of 50 or so people in the room catalogued all the ways that running your own independent website on your own server was better: You will have better uptime (think of the Twitter fail whale, for example); you will own your own content and data; you won't be walling off visitors who aren't a member of Facebook or some other walled garden; and you can monetize your own traffic instead of someone else sharecropping off of your content. And then the challenges: You are cut off from everyone else engaging in their social silos, and it's often hard to set up and deploy an independent site.

Celik had several concrete proposals to push. First, to take advantage of the social web by making content on your own site and then pushing it out onto other platforms, but always pointing back to your url. This wasn't nearly as good as figuring out how to make favoring or liking or commenting as frictionless as it appears on Facebook et al, but it was a start. Then, he urged attendees to explore using tools like Status.net, that plugs into Twitter but is more of a native tool for a site owner. "We made progress with OAuth," a tool that delinks user ID from some personal information, Celik noted, "but now it's tied to more social silos." It was clear this was a one-step forward, two-steps-back kind of battle.

If there was anything I got from this session it was a sense that some of the best minds of our time aren't just working on getting more people to click on more ads. One person in the room summed up the spirit nicely: "Let's say that generative creation is the sweetness we all want. Facebook makes you feel like you're creating but you're not. You're a clicker, not a creator." The Indie Web session at SXSW showed that the creative spirit that animated the conference when it was smaller hasn't gone away. (Check out IndieCamp.com IndieWebCamp if you want to get more involved with this conversation.)

Parties? Who said anything about parties?

I didn't take notes during any of the several boozy events that I went to each night, hosted by the likes of Hacks/Hackers, the New York Tech Meetup, the Knight Foundation, and Fast Company. But I did take a few pictures. Here's danah boyd and Alex Howard, with their head coverings reversed. I believe this took place Saturday night. I could be wrong.

"I pick on Facebook"
While the issue of user rights and user control of their data was on a relatively abstract plane during Celik's Saturday afternoon session on the indie web, the dangerous realities were brought home by a great Sunday midday panel on "How to run a social site and not get people killed." The speakers were Jillian York of EFF, Danny O'Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Sam Gregory of Witness, and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin moderated. Andy Carvin, who was in the audienceYork took some great notes, and posted them here.

This was a more advanced conversation than some at SXSW, as nearly everyone in the room was aware of the many ways that users have gotten killed or otherwise hurt because the sites they were using didn't protect their privacy, or disrupted their service in other ways that hurt their cause. The case of Facebook abruptly cutting off Wael Ghonim from his pseudonymous administrative control of the "We are All Khaled Said" page just before a major demonstration in the fall of 2010 came up, and there was no need to rehash the whole litany of examples available.

Jillian York seemed to keep returning to Facebook. "I pick on Facebook," she said, in part because unlike Yahoo, Google and Microsoft, Facebook hasn't joined the Global Network Initiative and compared to other sites "it's been more resistant to listening to user complaints." She granted that Facebook doesn't have nearly enough employees to respond personally to the number of appeals the company gets, but noted that Google was also a huge company, and when the "nym wars" erupted over Google Plus' no-pseudonyms policy, the company "gave in a little bit." By comparison, she noted, "Facebook doesn't have many avenues of recourse, and they are still doing user cutoffs without any appeal," even after saying they would stop that proactive. YouTube, she added, "has a robust appeals process for video takedowns."

At that point, Danny O'Brien, who has fought many of these battles for years, spoke up to say that "Facebook has made some improvements." But Sam Gregory responded, "We have to pick on them because so many people are using them." He called for starting "Developers for Human Rights" as one response to the problem, arguing that that it was vital to educate the next generation of engineers so they would code better protections into their platforms. O'Brien agreed. "What we're dealing with here is algorithmic human rights violations," he said. But when some people in the room suggested that what was needed were better terms of service, O'Brien pointed to a deeper issue. "The real problem is centralization, and what we need is radical decentralization again." Shades of the indie web.

Expect Us. We Are Watching
Later that Sunday afternoon, after my panel on the 2012 election, I wandered back to the convention center with Zeynep Tufekci and her friend Dave Parry, a UT Dallas academic whose writings on the web and politics became must reading for me and others around the time the Arab Spring began. (See his post on the ""internet public" as one example.) They were off to enjoy the Austin nightlife, but first I needed to recharge my batteries. So, on a whim I decided to go see the screening of "We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists," a new film by Brian Knappenberger about Anonymous. To my delight, it was the cherry on the icing on the cake. Go see it.

The film starts and ends almost at the present, with the indictment of 18 mostly young Americans for participating in the DDoS attacks against PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and other sites in the wake of the WikiLeaks cable release in the late fall of 2010. (It may get updated with the most recent news of the arrest of the hacker turned informer "Sabu" and the other people arrested thanks to evidence he provided.) But at its heart, We are Legion is the most lucid depiction I've yet seen of the origins and shifting ethos of the Anonymous phenomenon. Anchoring the tour is Gabriella Coleman, a young academic now teaching at McGill University who has been doing ethnographic studies of the Anon culture for years. (Her recent essay on Anonymous' culture and politics, "Our weirdness is free," is must-reading.) But what brings her analysis to vivid life are all the one-on-one interviews Knappenberger has gotten with many Anons and their sympathizers, like Gregg Housh, a former member of Anonymous who often speaks publicly on its behalf, and Barrett Brown, who distanced himself from the movement after part of it, LulzSec, started exposing personal information online.

If you've ever wondered how the "Anonymous" identity began on 4chan, We are Legion explains just how it arose from that site's rabid culture of anonymous posting and pranking, and people begin to wonder, what if all these anonymous posts were from one person or identity. And then there is this: When "Anonymous" began its "Project Chanology" campaign against Scientology, none of its adherents had any idea if they even had compatriots who shared their views. The film takes us through the day that the Anonymous movement first hit the streets, wearing Guy Fawkes masks and showing up in stunning numbers, thousands, in cities all over the world on February 10, 2008. Told through the first-person recollection (and hand-held video) of one excited participant, the rallies come off as stirring and consciousness-raising. Indeed, many in the packed audience at the Vimeo Theatre in the convention center were cheering at this point in the film.

While We are Legion is clearly pro-Anonymous, the film does note that the movement has done some stupid and immoral things, and that its youthful participants have sometimes gotten into much deeper trouble than they would ever have chosen had its leaders warned them of the dangers of, say, firing up a Lower Orbit Ion Cannon on their computer and pointing it at a commercial website. At the same time, the film also makes clear that the punishment for cyber-crime is often way out of proportion to the actual damages caused, and that it's high time we adjusted those laws to some more reasonable level.

A unicorn chaser
Monday before I had to leave for the airport, I managed to squeeze in one last session. Howard Rheingold, who began writing about online communities in 1987--probably before half the people at SXSW were even born!--was doing a launch talk for his new book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Eight years ago, having just written his seminal book Smart Mobs, Rheingold keynoted SXSW and essentially predicted the world we are living in today. Thus it was a little sad to see that the conference organizers hadn't seen fit to promote his 2012 talk more aggressively; there's that Split by Southwest personality disorder again.

But Rheingold (who is a friend) is very much still in his prime, and his talk was a pristine distillation of the 25 years of active learning and teaching that he is doing about how the net works and how to make it work for you. It would have been amazing to see him in conversation with Reid Hoffman; I suspect the two probably agree more than they disagree, but Rheingold frames his work in terms larger than just how to live a profitable life; the question that motivates him is how to live a purposeful life.

I didn't try to take notes during his talk. I just tried to give him my undivided attention. And to be honest, that's a hard thing to do in these times. Your mind wanders to your Twitter stream. Your thigh twitches as if your phone is vibrating. The thrum of people outside the room beckons you.

Stop, Rheingold was saying. Breath (email makes you breath more shallowly). Focus. We can still master the present and reinvent the future. Ok, go.

[Note: This post has been updated with two corrections.]

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