AUSTIN, TEXAS — Visitors to Austin's South by Southwest conference arrived Friday to a sky like a wet blanket. A cold, wet blanket. We traipsed our way from panel to panel, grumbling from beneath convenience-store umbrellas, wondering about the possibilities for eating barbecue in a rainstorm.
In the same kind of way, discussion at the new media portion of this year's conference was shot through with a chilly strain of winter. At least five panel titles mused grimly about which parts of the old culture are headed for the graveyard. "Is Privacy Dead?" one asked. "Are PR agencies a dying breed?" worried another, and while we're at it, "Is Web 2.0 Killing the Sports Business?" Others didn't even bother with question marks, declaring the death of friendship, personal blogging and print media.
It's true that giving your proposed panel an extreme name is a surefire way to grab attention and thereby boost your chances of winning a spot on the crowded schedule. Except I took a look back at last year's listings, and there wasn't a deathwatch in sight.
No, this year a woeful economic climate has compounded the problems of a slow-footed industry that's watching the Internet turn its revenue streams into quicksand. With the fear and paranoia that comes with that, it's no wonder people are seeing ghosts.
Privacy has been one of the Web's biggest hysteria magnets for years, and the analysts on Saturday's panel tapped that fear and turned it into a packed auditorium.
Judith Donath, a professor at MIT's Media Lab, was on that panel, and afterward explained what's dying and what's coming alive. "The biggest piece that's in danger is the ephemerality of everyday life," Donath said. "It wasn't that long ago that almost nothing was recorded. A few people might've written about something, and a few things got painted, but most of the rest was gone."
But now we're capturing that past with startling fidelity -- at the same time as we're volunteering more information about our lives to Flickr, YouTube and Facebook, commercial interests are hoarding mountains of consumer information that's completely invisible to us, even though it's ours.
Insert boogeyman here. The less control we have of our own information, the more likely it can be used against us by an unfriendly government or a good divorce lawyer.
That's why Donath is an advocate of developing what she calls a "digital portrait," a way to catch and visualize all the info we're emitting. "Being able to see what kind of data and records and persona you're making through all the data that's persistent about you is not necessarily a bad thing. People like to see themselves in the mirror."
After Donath, privacy didn't look so dead after all. Austin was warming up too. By Monday, the gray was gone, and in the 80-degree heat, you could smell the meat cooking from across town. And for all the talk of dying industries among the conference's 10,000 attendees, the discussions seemed to move toward what remained alive -- or, better yet, what was more alive than ever.
In his talk about the state of the news media, author and new media analyst Steven Johnson focused on the possibilities of the present, rather than its troubles -- his operative metaphor was one of resilience and vitality.
"Today's media is in fact much closer to a real-world ecosystem in the way it circulates information than it is like the old industrial, top-down models of mass media," Johnson said.
Simply consider how the 2008 election was a world away from the pre-Web 1992 election -- when news choices for consumers were shockingly limited from today's perspective: You had your daily newspaper, a few TV news shows and whatever magazines you bought. It was a news desert rather than a rain forest.
Now, Johnson said, "there are more perspectives; there is more depth and more surface now. And that's the new growth. It's only started maturing."
Likewise, in the discussion that asked if PR agencies were dying, the panelists couldn't stop talking about how the world of public relations had been born again.
"Your job is 100% no longer to do your own PR," said Peter Shankman, chief executive of the New York-based PR firm Geek Factory Inc. "Your job is to get other people to do it for you."
Public relations and marketing, the panelists said, are benefiting tremendously from the networked world where people can see and hear the thoughts of millions -- it's one giant focus and all you have to do is listen.
"Get a little empathy going on," said Brian Solis, chief executive of FutureWorks PR in Silicon Valley. Putting an ear to the virtual ground will "tell you everything you need to know -- it's going to affect and influence what you write, how you talk. It's going to make you a little more passionate, a little more believable."
The PR panelists put that advice into action, live: While they were speaking to attendees over the microphones, they were also monitoring their laptops, reading and responding to the stream of messages coming to them from Twitter and often interrupting the verbal conversation to answer a tweet.
And it wasn't only this panel: The micro-messaging technology achieved near-ubiquity at South by Southwest. No panel I saw left it unmentioned (some couldn't stop mentioning it), and just about every other audience member seemed to be switching between tweeting and listening, listening and tweeting.
Sort of like the beginning of spring.