A Contagious Vector of Awesome: Publishing and Culture Trends at #SXSW 2011

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

AUSTIN: Men with full lumberjack beards and ironic t-shirts flirting with women in baby-doll dresses and artful “ink,” everyone sneaking peeks at their iPhones, tapping on their Macs or pecking at the iPads: this is the annual mating ritual called SXSW Interactive, the Austin, Texas tech fest where the world has been introduced to new services and tools such as Twitter, Foursquare and more. The conference is a good place to get a grip on the trends you’ll see emerging throughout the year.

SXSW 2011

Hype, hyperbole and optimism feature heavily at SXSW Interactive, the trendsetting Texas tech conference, where publishers are granted a glimpse of what their future might hold.

In 2010 every presentation at SXSW Interactive featured an obligatory slide showing bacon. This year it was babies. “The geeks what to show pictures of their children to they can prove that they’re not virgins,” explained Jason Cohen, founder of Smart Bear Software in a panel entitled “A Bootstrapped Geek Sifts Through the Bull5h1t.”

The conference, which has 12,000 registered attendees this year, continues to grow and is attracting a younger-and-younger demographic. Perhaps because it fell in the middle of Spring Break for many students this year, there’s a notable number of college-age and even high school attendees. What’s clear is that the constituency invested in the convergence of publishing and technology –- or at least those willing to pay several hundred dollars to attend the conference -– is growing.

The event has landed on the calendars of several publishing executives and service providers. This year, the conference offered just a handful sessions directly related to book publishing -– primarily addressing self-published authors –- though these were marooned in a hotel far from from the main conference center where the main sessions covering web development, social networking, gaming and other topics central to the digital lifestyle were held. The distance between the two venues was as much a psychological as physical distance.

SXSW has spawned several books over the years and surprisingly, having a book to promote remains among the highest marks of legitimacy for a speaker. Authors such as Tim Ferriss, (The Four Hour Body), and Gary Vaynerchuck (The Thank You Economy), remain popular draws – as they were last year.

Reality is Broken

In a keynote session, gaming guru Jane McGonigal noted that her recent book Reality is Broken, was born out of a keynote speech she gave at SXSW two years ago. Her talk on the culture of gaming retreaded several of the points we wrote about last Thursday in our coverage of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, “Gamification: The New Marketing Buzzword.” But if you want to get a sense of just how fast how quickly the buzzwords come in and out of fashion, consider this: on Friday, at the inaugural PubCamp@SXSW -– a publishing-centric mashup for literati organized by Kirkus Reviews (and sponsored by Publishing Perspectives) – Rick Levine, SVP of Editorial Operations at Conde Nast noted that the idea of placing a “game layer” on top of interactive content was becoming more and more prevalent — and by Saturday, the concept of “gamification” was disavowed by McGonigal, who pointed to the essay “Pawned: Gamification and It’s Discontents” by Sebastian Deterding as a strongly worded argument in opposition of using game mechanics as a marketing tool.

“I prefer the word ‘gameful,’” said McGonigal, who noted that it represents a different set of values, those embodied by the acronym PERMA: Positive Emotion, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment, adding that PERMA will be fully explicated in the forthcoming book Flourish by Martin E.P. Seligman to be published by Free Press this April.

McGonigal is a good example of the typical SXSW star, one who delivers a presentation that is equal parts content, conjecture, hyperbole and provocation. She began her session by teaching the room of several hundred how to play “Massive Multiplayer Thumb Wrestling,” which involved having everyone in the room lock hands in a giant thumb-wrestling match, creating what she called a dubbed a giant “node.” The idea was to demonstrate how, collectively, we can all work together to have fun.

She then offered a spirited defense of gaming culture, saying that research has proven that the three billion hours people spent playing video games each week were contributing more to the health and productivity of society than we might imagine, so much so that she advocated raising that sum to 21 billion hours. Gamers, she argued were happier, and that happiness was contagious and had a multiplier effect on several hundred more people. “It becomes a contagious vector of awesome,” she said.

That “contagious vector of awesome” is evident throughout the event, which sometimes feels like a church revival for techies. There’s a pervasive “can do” attitude at SXSW and an indefatigable optimism that “if you can dream it, you can do it” which would be welcome at otherwise “woe-is-us” attitude which can sometimes become a meme at book publishing events.

That said, the aforementioned PubCamp@SXSW offered a glimpse of how that optimism is, indeed, contagious. Though it took place largely before festivities kicked off this past Friday afternoon, it nevertheless had an air of expectation for better things to come for the publishing business. Keynote speaker Sarah Wendell, co-author of the book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, and co-founder of Smart Bitches Trashy Books.com, demonstrated the “good book noise” that readers of romance novels make when immersed in a good book. It sounded a bit like a cross between a satisfied (sexual) groan and a sigh of (sexual) relief.

PubCamp event for publishers and authors

PubCamp was filled to capacity with more than 100 established people authors (thriller writer Jeff Abbott), hopefuls (self professed author/singer/songwriter Brooklyn James), publishing service providers (Sheepscot Creative’s Dave Weich), publishers (Grand Central’s digital marketing expert and author Brad Thomas Parsons and Penguin Groups VP, associate publisher, Will Weisser) and digerati both foreign (Completely Novel’s Anna Lewis from the UK, Book2Looks’ Ralph Moellers) and domestic (Apple iBooks developer Casey Dougherty).

Wendell was followed on the dias by Publishers Weekly’s Calvin Reid and Rachel Deahl, O’Reilly’s Kat Meyer, Kobo’s Ami Greko, BookTour.com Kevin Smokler and Kirkus’ Meg LaBorde Kuehn.

By the time the final presentation by Conde Nast executives Rick Levine and Scott Dadich — who spoke about Conde Nast’s 18 magazines to the iPad platform using Adobe content management systems — several dozen people left to head up the street were Apple had opened a pop-up store to provide the SXSW early adopters with a convenient place to buy new iPad 2s. With the line taking almost two-hours to cycle through, those who left likely missed Levine’ confident proclamation that as far a Conde Nast is concerned, “for the time being, the iPad is so good, that is is without question going to be the dominant platform for several years to come.”

If there’s one thing you don’t get a lot of at SXSW it’s understatement, so in that spirit . . . our bold prediction for the rest of 2011 based on the number of iPad2’s already in the hands of users at SXSW this weekend . . . this tablet thing is still going to be huge!

Check Publishing Perspectives for further reports from SXSW in the coming days.

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About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.