The "Back Channel" Rules (O/T)

Venturing a bit off topic here.

So the most interesting thing for me about SXSWi today was a meeting about “new thinking in the book publishing business”. I went because Clay Shirky was there. Despite the fact that I had never heard of him a week ago, he is now in my pantheon of heroes. And indeed, when he spoke he was great. But most of the panel presentation was irrelevant (and rather pointless) exposition on the part of the panelists of pretty much old fashioned editorial work.

This is hardly the first time such a thing has occurred, but the outcome was unexpected and enormously interesting. Why? Because almost everybody in the audience was on a pre-announced twitter channel #sxswbp. And by the time anybody in the crowd got to ask anything, most of the crowd was in a very collective and connected foul mood.

The twitter channel also caught some great bons mots, mostly from Shirky:

“Filtering is the single most important thing on the Internet today”

“Internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history.”

“Teenagers are rushing home to read and write!”

“Once you know who’s going to hate something, you don’t have to write with them in mind.”

“If you don’t like paranormal romance you shouldn’t try to fake it”

“Book writing is like driving an ammo truck; you can’t pull over.”

“Finding stuff you didn’t know you were looking for is still a hard problem.”

” Long-form writing must be relevant beyond NOW, by nature.”

No doubt these are all smart and articulate people. But what about, you know, the future of the book publishing industry? You know, the topic we came to learn about?

Here’s the upshot. Apparently, the publishers’ point is this: if we didn’t have publishers, who would discover brilliant new authors of literature?

I have an unpleasant little secret I want to share with you. I don’t care about “literature” very much and in fact very few people do. (I care about SF and graphic novels a little, tech books and software management books a good deal more, and science and math and pop science and math most of all. Other people have other priorities.)

I wrote a book once that while never fated for literary greatness could have been much better were it not for damage by the editor and the publisher. Is this because they were all focused on finding the next literature Nobelist?

Fine, your call. Next time I’ll take my business elsewhere. So this event confirmed my interest in self-publishing to, errm, “monetize” (eww…) my blogging. I’m not the issue here, but I got the sense that the members of the blogger-heavy audience (it was asked at one point and consistent bloggers formed a majority of the audience) were all making similar calculations.

The event was ironic because it was ultimately not about long form writing at all but about the very short form, i.e., the 140 or fewer characters in a Twitter message. For all I know it was a watershed event in the history of instant messaging. It certainly was a revelation for me, and that’s why I’m glad I was there.

Twitter is nowhere near as silly an idea as it appears at first glance. If you still think it is, go look at the #sxswbp (yes, same as above) link. It was an amazing event, though not in the intended way.

(Picture: The Lego alcove at SXSW from above)

Sustainable Awesomeness


(Picture: guy in a pink gorilla suit selling some silly thing or other at SXSW;
guy on cellphone at left probably has a more consequential job)

Why am I at SXSWi?

“SXSWi?” regular readers will surely ask. If I tell them it’s locally pronounced “Sowfba enneractive” the confusion may well mount.

“South by Southwest” or “SXSW” (locally pronounced “Sowfba” if you have a sufficently mumbly Texas accent, else “Southbye”) is an annual conference of “indie media” that has turned into one of the main events on the Austin calendar and definitely the biggest thing at the convention center. Next weekend is the culmination, when the musical portion of the event occurs. It’s essentially a meeting of people calling themselves “creatives”. And the “interactive” part is about web professionals, most of them, from the looks of it, about 25, and the seasoned veterans pushing 35 by now.

Why, you ask, would I spend $495 on such an event? The answer is twofold. One is that my usual annual dose of optimism, PyCon, is off the table for this year. (Dang. Last I heard they were using my idea for the T-shirt too!)


Creative professionals, like Python programmers, are an intensely optimistic breed. All my time with doomsters and Fortran programmers tends to make me sour. That, and, the end of the world and stuff. These people come up with lines like “care and feeding of your epic shit” and “sustainable awesomeness”.

This kind of epic shit tends to cheer me up. The amount of creative and fundamentally decent energy in the world is vast. Our only hope is to channel it, but it’s good to remember that it’s there. Admittedly, in this crowd there is a lot of posing to slice through. Fortunately, it’s pretty shallow posing.

The main reason I ponied up for the ticket (aside from it being a local show I could sneak off to without a plane ride, and remember:

) is that I am trying to think about how to become a freelance writer/web content provider/client side web programmer. The logic is inescapable: newspapers are folding, the need for information is expanding, there has to be some way to monetize the demand.

I’m very tired of the science world where the way you prosper is by an endlessly tedious (and increasingly maladaptive) process of going for a sort of collective approval. Yes it’s true, it is still a mostly functioning meritocracy, but my merits don’t map onto it all that well.

I feel that I have something to offer not just as a blogger, but as someone who helps find and implement the business model for the new world, where there is less sharp of a distinction between producer and consumer of intellectual property. We should all be spending more and earning more online. Hey, we could even have “growth” if we did that.

Also, I just need to go to a webby meeting every couple of years lest I lose my edge as someone who understands what is actually going on. But I’m serious. I realize both how big an accomplishment my audience here is and how tiny it is compared to what I would need to make a living freelancing. (Consider: if I could get 100 people to pay a dollar a week to listen to me rant, what a great achievement, and what a feeble income stream!)

So once I had managed to wend my way through the hour-long registration process (almost as miserable an experience as an airport) and started flipping through the over-designed and almost illegible program, I was pleased to see that a session on the future of journalism had just started. I rushed to the session, only to find that the huge (300 people?) room was full and latecomers turned away. Yet this was the event I had come to see.

The speaker of the event was a fellow named Steven B Johnson and I noted he was signing books immediately after, so I decided to say hello and complain about my fate. He is the author of “The Invention of Air”, a book about the discoverer of oxygen, a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism who had a great influence on America’s founders. His talk apparently included “MacWorld mag circa ’87, old-growth forests, 92 election, Obama’s race speech, hyperlocal, and more!” He founded a website called “outside.in” which scrapes the blogs for references to places and aggregates them by locale. All of these imaginative and intelligent achievements are things I can imagine doing. The thing he has done that I can’t conceive of is getting 173,000 followers on Twitter. And yet, that is the scale needed to make writing worth doing as a business rather than as a hobby.

Anyway, Johnson (can I call him Steven on the basis of 37 seconds’ conversation? hell, yes, that’s the way to do it) , Steven I should say, told me he was releasing the talk on the web and I should follow his stream to find out exactly where. Sort of ironic that I paid admission to get that information. And here I am passing it onto you for free.

Update: Here is Steven Johnson’s talk.