Lanyrd started as a side project for developers Simon Willison and Natalie Downe, but it became clear from day one in September last year - with 14,000 visits in the first two hours - that it deserved a life of its own. This year’s SXSW has been an intense special project for the pair, who’ve been exploring new features on a dedicated SXSW microsite during the week that will now be rolled out across Lanyrd. In three weeks up to SXSW, that microsite has recorded 15,692 unique users and 90,000 page views; not bad (even taking duplicated users into account) when the total number of SXSW Interactive delegates was 19,364 this year.
"The starting idea was that it is hard to find conferences to go to and that you’re interested in, but we follow friends with similar interests on Twitter," said Downe. "Lanyrd pulls in the social graph and shows events friends are speaking at or attending." Lanyrd socialises, organises and documents conferences. "Conferences are an inefficient way of sharing information. People put a lot of effort into talks, but often that is only shared with those in the room or, if they are posted online, that’s not collaborative. We give a permanent URL to every session at every conference so we can be useful before, during and after the conference and all crowdsourced by the community."
The pair successfully pitched for Y Combinator funding in the batch announced two months ago, with an initial investment of $17,000 and a small stake for Y Combinator, then won $150,000 in additional funding from Russian investor Yuri Millner of Digital Sky Technologies. “Lanyrd proved way more popular than we’d expected and we needed to turn it into a company,” said Willison. What the pair didn’t know about the investment scene, marketing or sales, Y Combinator provided mentoring and support during a three-month bootcamp, including weekly dinners with business leaders that explained growing a business, acquisitions and investments.
From launching the site during honeymoon in Casablanca, Lanyrd now has 27,000 registered users and lists 7,000 events. The real coup for Lanyrd could be if major events, like SXSW, could adopt the service as its official session planner.
The mainstreaming of geek culture 15 March 2011, 11am 2 / 5
The Facebook film, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings - what used to be at the fringes of culture has been co-opted by the mainstream along with the rest of the technology industry. This rambling discussion would have benefitted, like most of SXSW’s lower-profile specialist panels, from clearer talking points rather than unfocused reminiscences about the geek days of old. The panel, of course, asserted their geek credentials by kicking off with various references to Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, early affairs with Star Wars toys and comic culture.
• Austin resident and journalist Brendon Boyer said the first 15 yeast of his life was about seeking out people who liked the same stuff, and when he did it was “like a ray of sunshine”. He got his Mum to drive him to a night where he could find other kids in ‘Halo Benders’ t-shirts. “I used to write 20-page letters to people because I needed that feeling of connection and there was no electronic way to do that yet. We [geeks] were stranded geographically until 1997, but found pockets of zine culture. The internet can let us define ourselves purely by our interests and that can get into weird dangerous fetishy things if you only stick to those things.”
• Isn’t mainstreaming geek culture just making it more accessible to people with money? Games, phone, merchandise and gadgets are expensive, but that said much geek credibility comes from DIYing gadgets, plus smartphones are relatively cheap these days. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, but geeks find a way,” said Sanders.
• Microsoft community director Kathleen Sanders looked like she realised she was being a bit too candid about Microsoft’s management: ”Look at the senior leadership of Microsoft and they’re not modern geeks - more classic geeks. You see people saying they want your ideas, but the fact they have to have one day like that a year rather than an entire culture of innovation is telling. As the company becomes more profitable, the more it’s the dollar signs they are interested in.”
• Sanders asked whether the mainstreaming of the geek would result in better geeks; will they continue to develop and evolve, or will that culture get diluted? Geekdom is a lifestyle, rather than a culture, said one questioner, who asked whether the mainstream geek references might be more about patting homage to its new credibility than carelessly jumping on the bandwagon; if the mainstream is going to try and talk geek though, it has to get the details right.
• Does mainstreaming just mean Chatroulette? It should mean that geeks find it easier to get other people interested in things like gaming, where it had been hard to find other girls, said Morgan Romine of Ubisoft. “We want more women making video games - diversity benefits new genres, not just shoot-em-ups and platform games. Like Kelly Santiago and Flow - that was a different groundbreaking thing that came from a guy and girl working together.”
Wikileaks: the website that changed the world 15 March 2011, 12.30 4.5 / 5
Carne Ross, who resigned as a diplomat in 2004 after giving secret evidence about how the UK government had put forward an exaggerated case for war, dominated the session organised by the Guardian about the impact of the Wikileaks site.
• Describing the cables as of “unique political and diplomatic significance”, Ross said the newspapers were not the ideal manager of this information and went on to push that point many times. “The cables have reinforced the government argument against transparency because several of them should not have been released - one detailed the aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack on an embassy in Yemen, and one nuclear sites in Spain. I can’t see any public interest, just value to potential attackers.”
• Rather than methodically analysing the cables, Ross argued, the papers picked out stories by searching for keywords, indicating that plenty of less obvious stories will not have been covered, while the NYT missed a significant and explosive story about the US government conducting secret aerial surveillance of Hezbollah on behalf of the Lebanese government, while a British paper misinterpreted a story about the US offering british nuclear secrets to the Russians during disarmament talks. Given the falling resources of newspapers, they are not equipped to properly manage this type of release said Ross: “There needs to be an intelligent network of experts to look at the cables, ensure damaging ones are not released and that the full set are analysed. They should work with people in Western Sahara and Sudan - the New York Times and Guardian should not be the arbiter. And given the amateurishness of Wikileaks as an organisation and how arbitrary it has been in its decision making… we need new forms of transparency and to think imaginatively about credibility.” But he also said that if Wikileaks has shown governments that they can and will be breached, we can hope that they will begin to realise their obligation “to do in private what they say in public”.
• Ross tapped an upswell of feeling among the mostly American audience who felt the NYT had broken its trust with readers by, according to one, holding back stories on the US decision to go to war because it was two weeks before the US election. That just proved Ross’s point further; that established institutions, from the press to Congress to NGOs, have failed to hold power to account. “There has been an abject failure there - the old ways don’t work. We cannot rely on traditional freedoms and there should be a collectively richer discussion that is promoted in an intelligent way.” The cables, he said, ultimately show self interest on behalf of Assange and the newspapers who need to sell copies.
• Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz, who has the honour of being the “last person at the Guardian on speaking terms” with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, opened by explaining the steep learning curve of dealing with the vast amount of data involved in the 250,000 diplomatic cables made available through Wikileaks. A team from the Guardian’s technology department were brought in to make an accessible database out of the raw data, though attempts to use ‘burner’ style mobile phones to communicate securely (as inspired by The Wire) were farcical, not least because no-one could remember the changing numbers.
• Over the course of a year, the working relationship with the New York Times grew from guarded to close. The relationship with Assange, now famously severed, could not have been handled any differently though, Katz concluded. “That’s partly because of the personality he is, but also when your source becomes the story there’s an inbuilt tension there.” Katz did say that in retrospect the paper “wished it had covered more extensively and energetically” the case of Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked the cables to Wikileaks.
• With only a slight interruption from a peculiar drumming through the audio system that could have been the supernatural presence of Assange, Katz described Assange as “an impresario… giving out data to create maximum impact” but also found himself of positioning the white-haired Australian hacker. “People have been tough on Julian - he’s damned if he does and if he doesn’t. He started saying he wanted to dump all the documents and people rightly criticised him for confidential sources. So he needed to find a mechanism to make documents safe, which was working with us.
• Issandr El Amrani of the Arabist reminded the room that the kind of freedoms provided by both Wikileaks and the Western press are very far removed from the reality of many Middle East regimes: “In egypt the public archives of documents has not been open to the public since 1952… these papers don’t have a lot of Middle East experts going through these documents to put them into context but are privileged in Britain and the US to be able to act like this… The media ecosystem in the Middle East is just far less complicated.”
• ProPublica’s Stephen Engelberg predicted than Wikileaks will one day surface a fabricated document unless its material can be subjected to scrutiny and contextualised. Engelberg showed he was prepared to accept a very basic definition of a journalist by saying that ‘obtaining and publishing documents’ was enough to classify Assange as a journalist, though “dumping data isn’t journalism”. As for the responsibility of the papers in choosing what to publish, he doesn’t doubt that they would take the blame if a seemingly related terrorist attack came six months after publishing Wikileaks-sourced information.
• Audio of this session is available on the SXSW site
I was intrigued by what discussions would take place on the music festival panels after being at the interactive conference this week and I picked one that both sounded interesting and in an area I knew nothing about and I was rewarded with possibly the best talk I’d seen all week. Dan Charnas led the panel and the audience through the concepts which run through his book ‘The Big Payback’, which examines the influences of how hip-hop changed American culture.
The first half of the talk was a compare and contrast exercise showing pictures and video from the past and breakthrough moments for cultural change. First up was the desegregation of the music business and how hip-hop became more mainstream. One video advert we were shown was a Houston radio station saying “what if you could throw away all the hip-hop and chatter and leave the good stuff like Phil Collins”. Just another day in paradise indeed.
The second point was ‘the browning of America’ and Charnas showed front covers of mainstream glossy magazines and how they had changed. Third was the birth of street teams and how one record label could propel an artist to success without radio play and how this has affected the advertising campaigns of today with the use of flyers and talking to people on the street.
This led nicely onto the ‘rise of the super-empowered artist mogul’ like Puff Daddy, who had managed to get better deals with record labels leading to the switch of an artist needing to become part of a label to a label wanting to be part of the artist.
The final points were starting to move away from the music business and more onto cultural change. The first is the breaking of the Hollywood colour barrier with Will Smith landing the lead role in Independence Day and the second was the election and inauguration of Barak Obama.
I’m really glad I took a chance of this session, it was enlightening to see this self-reflective view through the eyes of a subject I don’t have any in-depth knowledge of and a culture I’ve only seen from the outside.
I had the fortunate luck of relieving a friend’s VIP pass that they had won to see the Foo Fighers on Tuesday evening as they were leaving SXSW a little early. We arrived at the venue at 8.30 as described by the company who were giving the passes away to find a VIP queue. It wasn’t too bad especially compared to the public line that stretched about three blocks. So we went to the end of the line and was told it wasn’t the right line and we were sent back to the gate. Back at the gate they sent us back where we’d just been but a helpful staff member came with us and got us into the right place. The queue was slow moving, but we had been told that the Foo Fighters would come on stage around midnight, so we wasn’t too worried.
By the time we’d got halfway down the line a band struck up. No-one in the queue around us had knew the song being played, so we all happily told ourselves it must be the supporting band. When the second song came on, it dawned on me that it was the new Foo Fighters single. There was little we could do apart from listen, but the taco stand serving where we stood cheered us up with Stubbs famous BBQ sauce.
The line started moving quicker and when we got to the front, the reason for the speed became evident with the many scraps of paper with guest list names on it in no apparent order. As the door staff scrambled through the papers it looked like our names were not on the list. The bouncer seemed to take pity on us when we asked if we could just get through without the VIP pass, and we slipped in.
Two friends who had queued from 6 were already inside and as we jostled into a decent view of the stage we walked straight into them. Not a band turnout all things considered. Others had conceded defeat to the giant queue and had found an ingenious alternative of standing at the top of a multi-story car park opposite the venue. I’m not sure how much they would have seen, but being an outdoor gig I think they would have heard it quite well.
As for the gig itself, the Foo Fighters seemed to be really trying to cover as much as possible. There were two bands supposed to play after them and we had heard rumours of a midnight closing. Then Dave Grohl said the first words of the night (that I had heard after missing the first few songs) “That was the new record, now we’re going play some massive hits for a little while” before launching into My Hero. The Foo Fighters played for around 2 hours in total, closing with the track “where it all began”, This is a call. The stand out moment for me was when Dave Grohl, knowing it was the last night of the Interactive festival shouted “Come on you nerds, dance!”
All in all not bad for a gig in what is effectively a beer garden, but Texas style.
LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman on what Web 3.0 looks like
Reid Hoffman: Data as web 3.0 15 March 2011, 3.30 4 / 5
We’re stumbling towards a defining of Web 3.0, said Reid Hoffman, executive chairman at LinkedIn and partner at VC firm Greylock. When we thought about the future we thought of flying cars, the Jetsons and teleportation, and while we don’t have that but the future is stranger than we often think.
• Web 1.0 was a low-bandwidth environment where we’d search for HTML files, PDFs with a notion of going into cyberspace, some alternate reality where you went as animalthing or lostinaustin, and were worried about your credit card details being stolen or finding out that girl you were chatting up was a bald old guy.
• Web 2.0 is were the web and real world become more integrated, and Web 2.0 apps help us navigate the world using our real lives through social networks, blogging and so on.
Everything from revelation of truth in Wikileaks to revolution in the Middle East. Tribal and global conversation of Web 2.0.
• Where should we put our entrepreneurial energy to invent the future of Web 3.0? Definitions have variously included bandwidth, video, location, real-time, mobile… but data is the common connection between Web 1.0 and Web 3.0. Of the concerns about the volume of data being generated, government use is the most worrying because data can also be used to identify and persecute people. That future is both Orwellian and Huxleyan: “Since you’re generating all this information, how do you discern truth form lies and fact from opinion? Trying to make a data trail invisible for people is nearly a Sisyphean task, said Hoffman.
• How do we create Web 3.0? Hoffman outlined some rules for entrepreneurs, though he did qualify that by saying there’s another rule that says don’t listen to the old rules all the time. If you’re doing something that’s never worked before, maybe it’s going to work some time. Be prepared to disrupt an industry, “aim big because if you have a good idea, you’ll have multiple ways of navigating it” and plan for both good and bad luck. Entrepreneurs also need to learn to balance flexibility with persistence, and launch early enough that you’re embarrassed by your product because “unless you’re Steve Jobs, you’re likely to be partially wrong.” Have people around you who adapt and learn quickly rather than people who are experienced. It’s about your willingness to keep learning, because there’s a revolutionary cycle every two to three years.
• How realistic are the current lofty valuations put on Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and others? If it could get to that value then it could have that valuation now. “I don’t know that the valuations now are right, but high growth rates that can go to high numbers fast are really valuable.” It doesn’t mater if those business are reliant on a platform, like Zynga on Facebook, as long as that platform is stable. “The fact it starts there doesn’t mean it ends there, or that it can’t be really big.”
Interactive narratives: creating the future of storytelling 14 March 2011, 12.30 2 / 5
There were few practical tips and no long-term strategy for tackling interactive storytelling in this session which was too focused on case studies, but we got a handful of brief examples of the ways that social media platforms have been used to enhance stories and characters.
• Social media is a fascinating way of exploring character development, said Esther Lim of The Estuary. It can help enrich the story by adding character details, extend that story into other, related, ‘story universes’ and seemingly bring fictional characters to life in the real world. Added to that, talking about the story publicly helps to promote the project, starts to syndicate and share that story, increases visibility on search engines and helps build audience. Creators need to understand their audience and the social media platform that is most relevant for them as well as for the character. And if it’s an older story that might not directly translate, try using the device of ‘rabbit holes’ to link contemporary characters with, perhaps, their relatives in the older story.
• Josh Koppel of Scrollmotion explained the process of translating an older story to a platform like iPad. Public domain material is a great place to start, particularly since Google started digitising a huge amount of public domain material and making it so easy to access. Koppel explained optimising images, making them much larger on the page than in a conventional print book, and showed finding high-resolution images online. Using swipes to move to different parts of the same image is an interesting navigation device and audio can also be used to embellish the story for users.
• Robert Pratten from Transmedia Storyteller had some good examples for using Twitter. On Twitter, the Three Little Pigs and the wolf can have accounts. Transmedia Storytelling has its own platform called Conducttr which manages tweets. Readers (or are they players?) can tweet ‘blow’ to the wolf or ‘run’ to the pigs, and eventually the pigs might die or the wolf might fail - ‘this Twitter account does not exist’. “This facilitates social play,” said Pratten. “With the story divided into 20 minute sections that gives decision points at key moments in the story.” Pratten has also used QR codes to add subplots to stories and email to create a kind of ‘alternate reality’.
• Even publishing a short story in print can include supplemental play. Previously a writer might have had no idea how many people had read a story in print but if they follow up a note at the end about tweeting the characters, it’s a good way to get feedback. “Tweet this guy with a hex or love.”
• Pratten described the core experience is pigs vs wolf. Below that is exploration, so use of social media profiles and other narratives with those characters or locations. Above that is a third layer of discovery, through Facebook, Twitter and other networks.
David Haynes of SoundCloud and Matthew Ogle of Echo Nest presented ‘Love, Music and APIs’ this morning and it was a heartwarming walkthrough of the growing music hack day events and an ode to the developer. The talk started off by identifying the old gatekeepers of good music, the radio DJs and record shop owners and how things have changed in two ways. The first way is curation by Simon Cowell produced TV shows, and the second is through the building block that is the API.
With the continuing commoditisation of infrastructure through platforms like AWS, Heroku and Github, people have been free to be more creative which has helped with a proliferation of music based applications and APIs. Olge listed the categories of APIs for music:
artist stats / metadata
content / streaming
search (e.g. auto-complete)
The presentation then moved onto some examples of hacks completed at various events and whats of real interest is that the hack days give people a playground to be innovative without commercial pressure, resulting in some fascinating results including:
Invisible Instruments: an incredible project that uses a device in each hand and a selected instrument followed by acting out the moves to play that instrument. Magic!
City Sounds: using data about the music played in each city, get the sound according to that city.
Swing Thing (currently down): add a swing beat to any song, Guns and Roses Paradise City was used to great affect.
Find the band: build a Spotify playlist of similar artists to an artist the user gives. A nice recommendation application, not unlike parts of the Guardian’s Band Tracker.
Through the innovation playground, commercial or collaborative projects can be born. It’s great to see projects like:
iSteelPad: now available in the AppStore, play steel drums on the iPad.
jsonloops - Looking for funding on Kickstarted, an open source project for creating drum loops.
There’s still lots of uncovered areas from hack days, with location and gaming at the top of the list. Theres also a desire for more musicians to attend these events and I think that could be a really exiting mix. I’ll definitely be looking out for the next music hack day near me.
You’re dead, your data isn’t: what happens now? 14 March 2011, 9.30am 4 / 5
Digital technology is changing the way we live and changing the way we die. Digital death probably isn’t high up the development list for Facebook, but what happens when a user dies? Who has access to that information? What should remain up and what taken down? In various examples in the introduction by John Romano of Digital Beyond, the family of one soldier were refused access to his email by Yahoo, one blogger’s family insisted on deleting her entire body of work after her death though her fans pleaded against it, and one man tried to wrest control of his dead wife’s Facebook account from abusive commenters.
• Jesse Davis, a lively entrepreneur who founded the ‘digital death’ service Entrustet, was blunt. “One day we all buy the farm. We’ll leave behind a mountain of data and mixed in with junk about stuff we’ve sold on eBay will be photos of our kids’ piano recitals. We need a way to deal with this.” Consultant Adele McAlear painted a picture of fragile web. “Link rot alone means things will not live forever… Internet Archive will not save you.” When we invest time and money online, we should think about who could and should have access to that after we die, which communities should be notified and who in our family we should entrust with that responsibility so that we “safeguard our digital legacy”. “Some people don’t care what’s left behind and that’s fine too, but if you do you need to take action like telling a significant other.” The physical life of media also needs to be considered; a photo collection kept on CD won’t last much more than five years, a hard drive three years - and then there’s file formats that can become obsolete.
• Davis explained that the funeral services industry in the digital space is booming, from digit estate planning to memorialisation, online obituaries to digital property reports and searches. There are around 40 startups in this space - including some quirkier sites that let you decide how to ‘haunt’ those you leave behind, or plan your last tweet. Grieving is one of the fastest growing of these sites, providing spaces for a community to remember someone.
• Accounts connected to a credit card will expire, like a Pro Flickr account, and we should also consider how spaces like Facebook are important because they provide a space for friends and family that is now part of the grieving process. There’s little consistency in how large firms deal with ‘dead’ accounts; Yahoo and Facebook both mention death in their terms of service, but these companies also operate under California state law though they provide an international service, while Apple deals with enquiries on a case-by-case basis according to the local law of the person concerned. Google has a seven-step death reporting process that involves printing and posting documentation: “This is the same Google,” said Davis, “that taught a car how to drive itself.” Facebook’s death reporting process uses a form that asks for a URL to an obituary or memorial page as proof of death, which means anyone outside the family can take control of a dead person’s Facebook page. “That lacks the desired intent for a dead person to say what should happen,” said Evan Carroll of Digital Beyond. “Where going to a funeral service is a single, fixed time and place to remember someone, Facebook walls continue to be a place to remember.”
• Oklahoma, strategist Dazza Greenwood noted, now has a law that passes control of social media accounts to the legal executor. “There needs to be an informal working group that starts to develop models to deal with some of these key questions, and present this to social networks as an example of something user-centred that can be standardised. Consumers need to know what to expect, like what happens to your account and how control is designated, and there’s also those issues around verification of death. He added that if the wealthy are physically remembered with lavish mausoleums, what is the digital equivalent of that? “Look at the way society has dealt with war veterans, for example, so that they get a respectful burial even if they have no cash. Should we have subsidised server farms where everyone can partake in the digital heritage of society?”
• If each of us lifeblogged, we could produce 20 petabytes of information in a lifetime, can we really expect that all to be keep forever? “Individuals need to begin to curate their content,” said Carroll. If you take hundreds of photos in a trip, maybe only keep the best 10. “We’re in danger of leaving an ever-increasing pile of digital crap for future generations to deal with. We need to curate our legacy so we’ll be remembered in the way we want to be.” What does digital death need? Maybe a killer app to help us manage all these implications…
RC Johnson of Bazaar Voice and Grant Ingersoll of Lucid Imagination walk through a Solr implementation for Bazaar Voice (http://www.bazaarvoice.com/) and Ingersoll starts off with the mission for Lucid Imagination, the company behind Lucene and Solr, is to be the Redhat for search. It’s a frank discussion of what BazaarVoice has done to get Solr to work the way they want including the shortcomings of the current Solr implementation.
The pattern the team has developed is to use Solr to query a dataset to return the keys to the document in a database. Solr provides the richness in querying that you tend to lose if you move away from a relational database in range, ad hoc and complex queries. This effectively was using Solr as a NoSQL application onto of their database.
There were some announcements dropped into the talk too, with Solr 3.1 having improved location searching, ongoing work for auto re-balancing and other elastic features coming within the year (using Apache Zookeeper for management) and relevant changes Twitter made when moving to Lucene last summer scheduled to come in Lucene 4.0.
Andrew Weinreich of meetmoi.com and Joel Simkhai hosted a panel on the future of online dating. The focus was largely on mobile and in particular location based features of a dating application. One of the core concepts running throughout the session was that although there was a feeling of online dating adding to your social life, it wasn’t until the features that these two companies and others like those bring to the online dating scene have we seen their users encouraged to be social away from their desktop computers.
Weinreich spoke of the trends in the online dating space:
- simple profile to rich media (woome)
- search to push (match vs eharmony)
- online to offline (hurrydate, speeddate)
- general to vertical (jdate, asianavenue, singleparentmeet)
Weinreich also spoke of the enablers of this movement with smart phones and location available on the device. Before phones started getting GPS components as part of the device, location was determined by the network carrier, generally at a per request cost basis.
Simkhai started his part of the talk with horror stories of long registrations and how the experiences have to move toward simple, reliable, unique and memorable. Simkhai went onto explain a lot of the decisions they made about their app, Grindr. Those were focusing on the mobile, using location and having a simple user experience. Simkhai said “it’s all about small screens and photos” before going onto show the only three pages (photos, profile and messaging) that the app has.