South by Who Cares?

Ten nights ago, when I was listening to cool jazz by Mitch Watkins and friends at The Elephant Room in Austin, someone not wearing a South by Southwest Interactive nametag and lanyard made a comment to a friend about “South by Who Cares?”  This was a shock for someone who’d come to Austin full of geek fervor and desire to social network in the flesh with friends from all over.  Up to that point, I’d happily lived in a bubble of camaraderie with my tribe members.  I’m not normally a person who strikes up conversations with strangers, but at South By I got into the habit of asking anyone next to me why they were there.  The answers were always fascinating and inspiring.  Before my memories of the conference fade beyond recall, I want to get down at least a partial list of people who helped make my second SXSW wicked good.

In my very first minutes at the Austin Convention Center, after getting my badge, I sat down with a coffee at a round table near the escalator.  To my right was Brad Flora, who has created a Digg-like startup in Chicago.  It’s wonderfully named Windy Citizen, and it’s actually making money.  Brad hopes to expand his business to another major city.  I recommended Denver. He’s a smart, young guy (compared with me at 59, anyway), and if you’re in Chicago I hope you’ll check out his business. You can follow him on Twitter here.

To my left at the table was Scott Allison, a Scot living in London who is about to launch a startup offering a new web-based productivity tool of some kind. I don’t see evidence in his tweets that it’s public yet, but it sounds promising.  He also offered spirited encouragement for my Kindles for Kandahar project, which has now been renamed EBooks For Troops and is benefiting from the involvement of a talented new partner, Ken Clark. Click here for Scott’s great wrapup of his own South By experience.

From those first two new acquaintances, the SXSW pattern was set for me.  Everyone else I met was creating something new, expanding something that was working, or dreaming of something big.  SXSW is a gathering of people in the midst of relentless forward motion.  Here is a list of other people I want to remember that I connected with – their name links will take you to their Twitter feeds:

Adele McAlear – I gave her a lift to the convention center after we sat together at  Bryan Person‘s Social Media Breakfast. Adele told me about her Death and Digital Legacy project, which is not as grim as it sounds.

Sara Vela – At a reception, Sara told me about her new startup, HelpAttack, which is a way for people to easily convert their online activity into donations for nonprofits. We were together later for the taping of Push My Follow, my favorite social-media-focused podcast, so I was happy to be invited as a guest on the show with Michael Gaines (who blogs here) and Annie Boccio, who does a compelling audio podcast with her husband, Basement Vinyl.

AnnOhio – At the same reception, I finally met one of my very first Twitter friends, whose tweeting advice three years ago NOT to take my laptop to St. John, USVI, led to a memorable vacation which I chronicled in a piece titled “Cold Turkey in Paradise: Twelve Days Off the Internet at Maho Bay.” (Click here for the one-dollar Kindle edition.) Ann was just as genuine and cuddly in person as she is in her tweets, and I was delighted to be in her presence.

Sabine Kirstein – A listener of my Kindle Chronicles podcast, Sabine reached out to me at SXSW so we could meet at a panel on digital publishing, where we had a great talk before and after.  She lives and works in Connecticut and blogs here.

Dave Beaudouin – Last year at SXSW I interviewed Dave, a savvy communications 2.0 practitioner and Kindle lover from Baltimore, and we tried to get together for lunch this year but failed to connect except for a brief chat in the lobby of the Austin Hilton on the last day.  Next year, Dave!

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga – The founder and publisher of The Daily Kos blew me away with his performance on an edgy panel titled “Media Armageddon: What Happens When The New York Times Dies?” The Times guy on the panel, media columnist David Carr, was defensive to the point of holding up a shooting-range target with a real bullet hole in it, saying that’s how it felt to be representing the Gray Lady at SXSW.  If that was a play for sympathy, Markos was having none of it.  He accused The Times of being little more than “a stenographer to power.”   What struck me about Markos was how calm and nearly empathetic his anger and indignation were, qualities displayed by Jesus in The Bible, as explicated in a commentary I’ve been reading by the Scottish preacher Alexander MacLaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture -St. Luke (Click here for free Kindle edition.)  This quality made Markos’s challenges to Old Media particularly effective, IMHO.  Since hearing him, I’ve been following his tart tweets, a rich mix of fierce opinion and links to  smart sources on the health care bill, now law.

South by Who Cares?  Well, I get how the locals may not be thrilled by the invasion of South By-ers each year.  But even as the memories fade, I find that I still DO care about what I learned and whom I met in Austin this year. I’m still uploading eBook-related interviews I did for The Reading Edge, and I learned important new tips on how to improve my podcasts at a panel titled “Conducting Great Interviews” by Nancy Baym. My iPad lust was cranked up to 11 by a panel so popular they were nearly fighting in the hallway to get in after the doors were locked.

My own forward momentum was considerably goosed at South By, and I’m already looking forward to next year.  Not the least of the pleasures of my Austin pilgrimages is the chance to reconnect with my first friend from childhood, my cousin Peter who lives in metro Austin. He provided me with a room as well as some fine home cooking.  The steak and collard greens was particularly unforgettable!

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