Technology

SXSW: Not Much to Twitter About


Plenty has been said about my interview with Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe that's because there wasn't much else at the conference to talk about

I'm just back from four days in sunny Austin, Tex., where I attended the South by Southwest Interactive Conference and conducted an on-stage keynote interview with Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. You might have read a thing or two about it.

Needless to say, I think the negative response to the interview was, well, overdone. But I don't intend to rehash the episode here. I've done that elsewhere.

With my experience as a backdrop, however, I did come away with a handful of observations about the state of the emerging, consumer-focused Internet we refer to as Web 2.0.

1. There's a dearth of innovation online right now. The Valley typically works in peaks and troughs of creativity. In the early 2000s, the Web 2.0 movement was in a stunning state of breakthrough innovation. This is the period that gave rise to some of today's most successful sites and companies such as Facebook, Digg, YouTube, and Flickr.

These days, many of Silicon Valley's best and brightest are working hard to turn their visions into sustainable businesses, or they're toiling away within the larger companies like Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) that bought them out early on. Before long, many of the folks who built Bebo into the third-largest social network after News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace and Facebook will be striving to help Time Warner's (TWX) AOL make good on its $850 million purchase (BusinessWeek.com, 3/13/08), announced Mar. 13.

But there was no breakout company at this year's SXSW. If there had been, and if there were more innovation on the Web in general, there would have been a lot more for reporters and bloggers to write about than the style of questioning in the Zuckerberg interview.

2. Twitter is as socially transformative as blogging. My experience aside (many Twitter users were not kind), this is breakthrough technology. Ever since I've started using the microblogging site, I've loved it. I've found it a mind-bogglingly efficient way to keep in touch with a large number of people. If you follow a friend on Twitter, you never start a conversation with "What's up?" because you know what's up. Instead you ask something like, "How was the dentist this morning?" It fosters an intimacy rarely seen outside a college or collaborative work setting. What's more, a microblog is easier to write and digest, making the barriers to Twitter low.

Sure, Twitter has a downside: a unique ability to beam users' every unfiltered, nasty thought instantly over the Web, where it will live forever and prompt the mob to pile on. It's as close as you can get to reading someone's mind—and it isn't always pretty.

But don't blame Twitter. Social technologies are neither good nor evil, though they do make it easier for people to act on their base instincts. Sometimes short blogs, texts, and e-mails are negative and mean-spirited, and often they're kind, supportive, and compassionate. (I got far more of the latter than the former in Austin.) Think about how Twitter is used to spread breaking news, rally users around a worthwhile cause, or help you find the best party at a conference. Twitter was the breakout site of last year's SXSW. This year it proved why.

3. Bridging the gap between the Web and business communities isn't easy. The Valley is rife with stories of geeky kids who hit on a great idea, then turned it into a business. Likewise the conferences that showcase what these casual groups of passionate visionaries produce often morph into more businesslike, dealmaking affairs. Many people thought SXSW may be heading in that same direction when it booked Zuckerberg and invited a business reporter to interview him.

SXSW is still largely focused on the tech side. Attendees wanted Zuckerberg to talk code, not business strategy—API, not IPO. Like it or not, Web dreamers need business savvy, too. Hell, some of them need to become businessmen and entrepreneurs themselves, following in the footsteps of a long line of successful visionaries, from Marc Andreessen to Mark Zuckerberg.

But for now, it's a good idea for SXSW programmers to stick to their roots. There are enough business conferences elsewhere. SXSW is beloved as a "spring break" where geeks can talk code and snark all they want about how much everyone else's Web site sucks. And organizers who invite speakers do well to make that clear.

4. Web 2.0 is a man's world, but it's not necessarily hostile to women. Midweek, I was sitting in the coffee bar of the Austin Hilton replying to e-mails. A young woman came up, apologizing for interrupting what she thought must have been a rare "peaceful moment" for me. I invited her to sit down, and she told me she was a business reporter in Austin. She was in her 20s, confident and sharp. She said that she'd been struck by how hard it was to be taken seriously. She said she had been in the front row during the keynote, and that she had been enjoying it when the chaos erupted. As she watched it unfold she thought two things: She was glad it wasn't her up there and she wondered if she should change careers. As a woman, it crushed me to hear this. But it also reminded me that I love what I do and that I won't be bullied easily, however sexist the public criticisms leveled against me.

There's no question that tech is dominated by men. The percentage of computing and mathematical jobs held by women actually declined to 26% in 2006 from 30% in 2000, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. I don't have comparable statistics for tech journalism, but I'd hazard a guess that women are underrepresented there, too.

Still, the tech industry in general and Silicon Valley in particular are not hostile to women as a rule. On a personal note, despite the gender-specific attacks leveled at me from anonymous fan boys and developers, no entrepreneur, venture capitalist, or company exec, to my knowledge, has ever denied me access because I am a woman. And more generally, I am encouraged by findings like this one, from a report released earlier by research firm Catalyst: While significant gaps remain, "technology companies have made progress for women in recent years," the report said. It goes on to note that "analyses of employee survey data revealed that both women and men were generally satisfied—with few differences—with their jobs and work environments."

I wasn't part of the study, but if I had been, I would have agreed. Many of the most successful Web executives I know aren't sexist, reinforcing my long-held belief that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. The goal is breakthrough ideas and innovation whatever your race, creed, or gender.

Of the lessons I brought back from Austin, these are the most valuable.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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