SXSW and Between

SXSW and Between

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By Thomas Vander Wal

Published on February 5, 2002

I had not been to a Web conference session for years. Instead of listening to some VP of Marketing pitching product, I’d just go hit the exhibit hall. Early in my Web development career I had little money to spend on expensive tools. What I did need were real answers and solutions to Web development problems as well as information application development for Web browser-base applications. I learned most of my skills and gained most of my knowledge from people who shared their experiences freely, such as A List Apart, WebMonkey, and Vivid Studios. These resources, along with books and magazines, were how I learned. But last year’s SXSW restored my faith in some Conferences and the sharing of the early Web.

Last Year

Last year I learned about the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin on various personal Web sites I heard Nathan Shedroff (one of the founders of Vivid Studios) was going to be speaking and other folks that I had been using as resources mentioned on their sites they would be attending or speaking at SXSW. I was intrigued as none of these folks were paid hucksters–they were peers, right in the trenches, and working hard to share their knowledge and experiences. The conference was relatively inexpensive, in comparison to the $1,000 plus conferences.

As everyone knows, by 2001 the boom was faltering. Many people who became involved with the Web just for the big bucks were on their way out. For me, the Web and Internet have always been about passion, sharing what you know, and providing an inexpensive outlet to express yourself. SXSW rekindled the passion, despite a faltering economy.

At the conference, there were hundreds and thousands of people with the same passion and same desire: To build a better Web site or application. There were no venture capitalists lurking around to feed on ideas. The participants were people with real experience in designing, developing, and building fantastic sites and they wanted to share their experiences.

Last year’s event revolved around panel discussions that provided a lot of question time; keynote speakers that were visionary and ahead of the curve; and free time in a great city. The conference decidedly revolved around sharing and fun. Part of the extra entertainment last year included the first Fray Café, a story-telling event that is an extension of Derek Powazek’s Fray Day and his site. Fray Café is a wonderful embodiment of the spirit of SXSW and is now central to the experience.

Upon returning home last year I was bouncing with what I had learned, the discussions with people I had met, and having a lot of my own work and views on Web development validated.


By last year’s SXSW, awareness about Web standards was becoming a critical concern. We were discussing how and when we would move all of our sites to XHTML and CSS layouts to get the information out of tables. P2P services became one of the hottest issues of the day. Flash was the promising, “everybody will be using it” application to provide animated interfaces for information. Working the process and focusing on Usability were the trends. Blogger seemed to be the tool of choice for many and we were wondering how it would, if it could, survive.

In the year between the last year’s SXSW conference and this year’s upcoming event, we have seen profound changes. Some our focus has moved to new areas. P2P has been embraced by the enterprise developers. Napster and other file-sharing applications are being neutered through legal maneuvers. The ability to share information and electronic media is being limited through legal moves by corporate entities. Flash continues to grow, and we are using more compliant methodologies as many of the new iterations of Web browsers implement W3C recommendations.

Usability and process are becoming more of the norm and our clients are becoming more educated. Many designers and developers have learned to incorporate accessibility into not only our development vocabulary, but also our work. Accessibility has also reigned in some of design approaches and some of our use of Flash, DHTML, and other information applications. We know we will be freed up to use these tools again as the applications improve their ability to meet accessibility standards are developed and shared. Blogger still lives, but there are other alternatives for us and many of us have developed and implemented our own applications to serve as lightweight content management tools. Many of us, if not moving our sites fully to CSS and XHTML, have embraced recommendations much more than we have in the past.

This past year we saw many of the primarily Internet-focused consulting firms go through major layoffs or close completely. Many of the companies have gone through the same cutbacks and some of gone into “hibernation” until the economy improves or promised work actually starts. Some of this was exacerbated with the events in September. We not only turned to the Internet to keep up with news, but so did our parents, grandparents, and seemingly Luddite friends. This year Web shopping became more of a common occurrence, too. While physical stores only reported 1 percent growth in their sales, many online stores reported double and even triple digit growth, turning some of the surviving online companies profitable.

It seemed like more of the Web became less free as many open sites began restricting access and walling off some or all content only to users willing to pay for the content. As advertising became less of a resource for monetary support sites also laid off their content providers and trimmed their staffs. As Time-Warner and AOL became more of a single entity and our resources for diverse points of view seemed to be thinning, another group of folks formed Independents Day. Independents Day is a celebration of independent content producers. Independent content is not constrained by corporate advertising dollars. Independent sources of news and stories added an incredible lifeline to the events of September and remind each of us it is about the people and the individual at the core of each day’s events and actions. Everybody has a view and their own set of interests and the Web provides a valid platform for sharing this voice.

Our digital world is maturing. It is becoming more and more of a regular part of everybody’s lives. At the most recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) many of the major software and technology companies proclaimed the extension of the Internet into the family room of the home. Microsoft and others previewed a central media resource that combines traditional media, digital technology, and the Internet to offer a fully integrated interactive offering. All the doomsayers were wrong. The Web has proven it will survive and thrive.

This Year at SXSW

In order to keep the SXSW vision of optimism, sharing, and fun, SXSW is offering a variety of events.

Peer Meetings are sessions that focus on conceiving and funding a public service project, non-traditional Web design, and so forth. These meetings are at the core of the SXSW vision.

If you get to SXSW early enough on Saturday, don’t miss Lawrence Lessig’s presentation. Lessig, a Stanford University Law professor, engaging speaker, and the author of The Future of Ideas and Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace has been at the center of key debates regarding intellectual property concerns online. Also on Saturday, there’s an accessibility session, Could Stevie Wonder Use Your Web Site, which is tied to the Austin Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) and competition.

Panel sessions are broken into three tracks: Trends, Design, and Beyond. The panels within these categories are diverse, helpful, and forward-looking. This past year has seen a greater convergence of the Internet and television, the emergence of Independence Day, among other strong trends and SXSW has integrated these ideas into their offerings. This past year has also pushed many of us to be more self-reliant and to struggle to keep our small businesses or freelance activities alive. Our skill sets have also expanded to include elements of P2P development. These movements too are included as offerings at SXSW, as they merit the attention. The Iron Webmaster Showdown, Peer Meetings, and the Sexiest Geek Alive Pageant are other new extra events that will add to the learning, sharing, and fun of SXSW.

Very soon many of us will be in Austin rekindling friendships and meeting new people with much to offer. Getting into the spirit of SXSW is as easy as dipping a chip into a bowl of queso, of which there will be plenty. Everybody looks forward to the learning, sharing, and fun at SXSW.

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Thomas Vander Wal has been involved in IT, wearing the geek by job description or title since before 1988. Thomas’ passion is effective communication using information applications, which include Websites and content management systems. He has been a government contractor for the past few years as a developer, manager, and Director of Application Development. He loves learning everything he can about digital communication and human interaction and finding ways to build better sites and applications and shares this information on his personal site,