SXSW Coverage

A quick directory of the flurry of SXSW posts from over the weekend.

Bummed I’m not there for the Cluetrain: Seven Years Later discussion today…

If This Is Monday, I Must Be In Washington DC

After the Henry Rollins session, had to go straight to the airport for a flight back to the Bay Area. (SXSWi goes on for two more days, and I’ll be trying to keep on top of the sessions via the blogging that’s going on and on Flickr.) Traveling on Monday from SFO to Dulles / Alexandria for a meeting on Tuesday, back to SFO on Tuesday night.

Anyone interested in getting together for beverages on Monday night in Alexandria, VA, drop me a line… ccarfi (at) cerado (dot) com…

SXSW: A Conversation With Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins @ SXSW Henry Rollins PICT0711.JPG

Session description:

“Musician, author, actor, iconoclast, stand up/spoken word performer and host of IFC series “The Henry Rollins Show,” Henry Rollins will join us for a special, candid discussion. Rollins will sit down for a one-on-one chat with journalist Andy Langer (Esquire), to address his feelings on the current state of the media, pop culture, politics, education, and all the ties that bind them.”

Choice quotes:

“If any of you people are media people, I wish you’d get a backbone.”

“In my P-Funk/Ramones block party world that I live in, we don’t need a military. But then there’s reality.”

“[Traveling to entertain troops in Iraq, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Egypt with the USO] was completely eye-opening. I was not expecting the ultra-earnest 20-something, who hands me a picture of his kid, who he’s never met. They can’t wait to get through this to get to that. It’s very personal.”

“It’s that fog of war thing. It’s very confusing. Through the USO, it’s very personal.”

“Back in those days, with Black Flag, it was young rams butting heads. Now I’m old and grey…they’re like ‘give him prunes! give him fiber!'”

“Now my anger is civically rooted. It’s six months later, and there are still cars in trees [in New Orleans]. To be an American and not be angry, you’re kinda sleeping on the job.”

“I think education is the key. It eradicates racism, homophobia, and the things that hang us up.”

“People come up to me and say ‘It’d be an honor if you hit me!’ and I’m, like….huh?!”

“If you’re going to do what you truly want to do, don’t expect a placid lake to pedal across. You need to grow a thick skin, or a Mark Twainian sense of humor.”

“The music was done with me, before I was done with the music.”

“I have a three pythons, one of which is named Bunny. She eats rabbits.”

“If I shut up, I’m sleeping on the job.”

(more pics here)

(Of course, this post would be incomplete without a link to Leisure Time With Mr. Rollins, by Brandon Bird.)

SXSW: Sink Or Swim-The Five Most Important Startup Decisions

Michael Lopp
Cabel Sasser
Joshua Schachter
Joel Spolsky
Evan Williams

A number of interesting points raised. A few of the top ones:

Joshua Schachter, who developed was asked “ was a simple app, with a really simple interface. How did it end up going so viral, and become so popular?” Schachter:

“One of the things I did was put an RSS feed wherever I could in, so that people could access their information easily. They could take their information, put it in their blogs, share it, do anything they want with it.”

Question from the audience: “How do you turn your brand into users?”

Joel Spolsky: My blog, Joel on Software, has a big brand and a big reader base. Fog Creek makes bug tracking software, which isn’t something you buy every day. But it is important to our core audience of readers. So when they need bug tracking software, they think of us. When we’ve tried to develop things that were less applicable to my readers, those products didn’t catch on as well.

Question: How do you hire?

Joel: The one thing that works for us it to have summer interns. After the end of three months, we know if they’re going to be good or not. If they are good, we make them an offer that’s going to be the best offer of anyone in their graduating class. We can do that because there’s no risk…we know they are going to be good, and that it’s worth it. Also, your first five-six-seven hires have to be generalists…they need to be able to design, to build, to market, to do Quickbooks for a couple of weeks. After that, you can get specialists.

Evan Williams: In venture funded companies, there’s a situation where you hire too fast. You have to be careful of timing…your VCs, your board may be putting pressure on you to hire fast. When you have more than the two or three founders, and things are uncertain, and you have a dozen or twenty or more people to get up to speed when things change, it can be deadly.

Schachter: With, we did a variant on the intern thing…we’d hire consultants. My first hire was a guy who kept sending in bug reports to my code. He worked for us for six months before I ever met him…he lived up in the boonies in Toronto. The other thing is to get an office assistant…all that stuff that’s “not the product,” and I was wasting my time on stuff that wasn’t part of our core.

Question: What if you have a great idea, but aren’t technical. What do you do?

Joel: Get a co-founder. Ideas are easy. It’s the execution that’s hard. Get a co-founder…if you can’t find at least one other person who is will to devote themselves to the idea, it’s probably not that good.

Sasser: Keep whittling down that idea, to it’s simplest form. Make sure you can explain it.

Question: What’s the mistake you made that almost sent the whole company down the tubes?

Schachter: For me, it was almost not-doing-it. I was on the fence for about two years. I was lucky…it seemed I made a lot of good choices.

Joel: One thing we did was an affiliate program, and all sorts of promotional efforts. None of those things ever worked. The thing that worked? Creating improved versions of our products. When we come out with a new version, our sales double.

Question from the audience: Did anyone on the panel have a business plan?
Panel: ::crickets::

Sasser: Make things that you want to use. Your heart will be in it, your passion will be in it.

SXSW: Public Square or Private Club — Does Exclusivity Strengthen or Dilute? (liveblogging)

(very different kind of liveblog vs. the previous session…the wisdom of crowds session was a monologue, this session was a group of about 70 people, and the conversation was truly that, and bounced around the room…trying to capture the salient points of a fast-moving discussion…)

PICT0686.JPGTiffany Brown
Melinda Casino
Barb Dybwad
Lisa Stone

Why do groups form online?

Barb, Melinda: What’s the difference between some types of online groups — cycling clubs, shared interest groups, bridge, political affiliations….there’s always been a desire to connect with similar individuals. Barb: why is that different when groups form around women, race, etc….it seems different somehow.

Brown: “The ‘why’ comes in…race, gender, sexual orientation…are not things you choose, they are things you are born with. If someone doesn’t have that identity, it’s difficult for others to understand why one would want to coalesce around such things.”

Does setting up a “private club” hinder a group?

Brown: When you have women-centered space, black-centered spaces, queer-centered space, you don’t get the outside chatter. You can focus on what you need to do as a group. At Blogher, the whole energy was different…there wasn’t the competitive ‘I’m smarter than you’ that is so typical at tech conferences.

Marshall Poe: Imagine I work for a national magazine. Imagine that 95% of the readers where white, upper-middle class. We wanted to brand the site for “wealthy people” … what would be the response?

Liza Sabater: It’s on the web. People are going to come from everywhere. You can’t control who will show up. Look at Orkut as an example.

Barb Dybwad: The elephant in the room is “power.” The demographic that you’re (Marshall) talking about already has power. For example…Congress.

Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa, USArmy: There are soldiers in the field blogging. Do you close that off, and just allow soldiers to talk amongst themselves, and what do you take away from that conversation by closing that segment off? What are you doing to that population by doing that?

Tiffany: You close it off, you get an echo chamber. When you close it off, when you only read one type of blog, you only see one perspective. I see that as the danger of the private space. You do need to step outside of your own identity, your own community to get other perspectives…

Stone: There are times, in certain parts of one’s life, you need to incubate, and only talk to others who are in the same place. But then, sometimes you become evangelical and want to get the word out about those issues.

Yoswa: We have a simple blogging policy. “Don’t talk about things you are doing in the field, with any level of detail.” That’s our only blogging policy.

Grace Davis: One of the important thing is to have “rules of engagement,” to create a “safe space” and not offend people. Community moderation is one method of doing this. We also created “Woolf Camp.”

JW Richard: I set up DigitalDrums.Net, for African-American podcasters. I wanted to make it more African-influenced…I never said “all black”…I wanted to get people to discuss their experiences…

Brown: One way to make it for people outside the core group to feel comfortable, and find a common ground. In our sites, we’ve talked “blackness” as a way to talk about being “The Other”…which is something that everyone can relate with, as they’ve been an outsider at some part of their life…

Al Chang: Does anyone have a private blog/mailing list that also covers the exact same topic as their public space, but in a controlled space?

Brown: In a private space, you have more civil discussions (usually) and more civil discourse. In a private space, it’s more possible for flame wars to erupt.

Stone: Is anger bad?

Brown: When anger comes from a black person, or a woman, it can be viewed as hysteria. When I read somebody who is really angry and becomes a rant, you question the wisdom of showing that face…there are repercussions…

Stone: It becomes a matter of credibility.

Ron Crose: I work with professional athletes. We had an angry user in the community…what are your suggestions when someone in the community becomes irate, and tries to influence others against your website?

Stone: What would you do if someone accused a site or blog of bias?

Brown: Don’t get angry. Talk to the person as a person. But realize, on the other end of that communication is a ::person::, and treat them as such. I’ve learned that responding politely results in a likewise polite response.

Casino: How do you handle disagreement? There is good disagreement: constructively challenging….you can engage in a dialogue. Bad disagreement results in anger. Now…anger can be a motivator. Anger results in action.

Audience question for panel: “Do feel there need to be policies or guidelines to those outside the community who attack or criticize?”

Barb: We have 90 different blogs, 180 different bloggers, and we don’t have a blanket policy.

Paige Maguire: One of my friends is a moderator for a LiveJournal community, and the moderators put a LOT of controls on the community. One of the things we constantly butt heads on is that the community moderators do things like ask contributors to alter content.

Liz Henry: Back to anger, I agree it can be productive, and there are situations where politeness and civility are NOT the right response. Sometimes anger is necessary to break the frame. We should not be afraid of an angry conversation that can be worked through and apologized for.

Nancy White: If we invested in a community, we are invested in maintaining a relationship, anger can be worked through. We can negotiate with each other to work through things. Context matters.

Belinda: I think there’s a whole “tone” thing. I’m a writer, and I get a lot of hate mail. I respond in a civil manner, and people usually apologize. When I lose control, and respond back in a sarcastic manner, sometimes people miss the tone and miss the sarcasm. The larger issue : we need to teach ourselves to be discerning, and to educate ourselves.

[UPDATE] I highly recommend following Liz Henry’s trackback down below this post…the last two ‘graphs, in particular, are spot on.

SXSW: Wisdom Of Crowds (Liveblogging)

PICT0683.JPGJames Surowiecki wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, is talking about the concepts in his book.

Three examples of the phenomenon:

  • Race tracks
  • Jellybean counting
  • Guessing the weight of a cow

In “wise crowds,” there are typically a few experts, a few people in the middle, and lot of people who individually have a high rate of error.

Yet…if you take the average of all the “guesses,” the average is usually a very good approximation…in some cases, within a few percent (3%-5%) of the actual value. Surowiecki: “Results of the market map almost perfectly onto the outcomes of events.”

There are a number of examples where the “collective guess” has provided good results:

  • Siemens (what will be the market lifespan of a product?)
  • Google (how many users with GMail have after three quarters?)
  • Eli Lilly (which drugs will make it through clinical trials?)

Why does this work?

Everyone participating in these markets has “some” idea of what the answers will be, but they also have biases.

However, this doesn’t always work. For this to work, it requires three things:

  • Some form of aggregating peoples’ judgements
  • Diversity
  • Independence

Why is diversity important? Wise crowds need cognitive diversity … difference in frames of reference, tools used to solve problems, etc. It simply expands the range of information that is available, and avoids the hurdles and obstacles that a single individual may run in to. Diversity helps to even out the blind spots and biases in a crowd…and the biases and blind spots of “experts” as well.

The phrase “collective intelligence” is being used extensively to capture this concept.

Diversity also helps in get around peer pressure. Story is told of peer pressure in psychological experients, as well as examples of “groupthink.”

Independence – make decisions on own intuitions, not piggybacking on the statements of others. Instead of aggregating the judgements of independent people, instead we come to watered-down decisions in groups, trying to find the lowest common denominator that makes everyone “happy enough.” The more “independent” the participants in the group are, the more applicable the wisdom of crowds idea is.

Humans are naturally imitative. Example: Put a person on a street corner and have him gaze up at the sky (at nothing). If one person is doing this, some passersby look up. If five people are put on a streetcorner to look up, half the passersby look up. If eight people are placed on a streetcorner and look up, eighty five percent of the people passing by also look up.

One reason independence is hard to come by is that “going with the group” is a way to protect self-reputation. Keynes: “It is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” If you go with the group and are wrong, you can easily say “that’s what everyone was doing” and protect reputation.

Fundamental lessons

The knowledge that we want is often NOT in places that we think to look. We also typically overestimate who “experts” are.

IMPORTANT: There is a difference between “experts” and “expert information.” We overestimate what an “expert” says, but a diverse, independent crowd can derive the “expert information.”

Great point on the “echo chamber” effect — people get locked into small worlds, even on the internet. (Think of the case where one only gets information from a limitied set of sources.)

Final story: What collective intelligence can look like

USS Scorpion, SSN-589, a nuclear submarine, was lost on tour of duty in 1968
. The Navy searched fruitlessly, then tried a crazy idea led by John Craven: Craven assembled a diverse crowd of experts, and came up with scenarios (Russian sub had hit it, torpedo went off in tube, etc.). He asked experts to bet on the scenarios (which one do you think is most likely?). He also asked them to bet on direction, velocity, etc. Independent judgements were pulled together, and pointed to a particular place on the ocean floor. No one person knew the facts, for example, how steeply the Scorpion had fallen to the ocean floor, how fast it was going, etc. More importantly, no one individual in the group came up with the location that was predicted by the group.

A few months later, the sub was found 220 yards from the location predicted by the group.

Q&A: “How many people does it take to make a crowd?”

Over 50, it’s pretty certainly a “crowd.” However, even in small groups (6-8 people), even the group’s collective judgement may surpass the results of the group’s smartest member. The challenge with small groups is that it takes a lot of work to ensure diversity and independence.

Q&A: What are some other areas where the wisdom of crowds could work?
Crime solving is one. Juries could be another…although the drive for unanimity is challenging.

This One Goes To 11…

Getting set up for the “Wisdom of Crowds” session, and Counting Crows and/or Dashboard Confessional are doing a sound check in the next room, right on the other side of the wall. Adam Duritz sounds pretty good. Let’s see if Surowiecki can compete…