SXSW 2013: Twitter, Transparency, and Data Storytelling

Robert Stribley   March 21, 2013

The signal and the noise (photo by stribs)

Last week I attended South by Southwest (SXSW) for the first time. As a “South By” virgin, I was determined to make the most of my experience. I went expecting to have to sift through many talks to find some gems that matched my particular interests. Instead, I found myself confronting a tsunami of interesting panels, presentations, and interviews. I was often faced with choice paralysis.  Fortunately, I managed to attend many excellent presentations, though it took some serious, daily research and planning to do so. And I managed to avoid attending too many stinkers (and there were some). Here’s just a handful of the subjects and themes from presentations that really resonated with me.

Transparency & Versioning

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan and Eric Price, an MIT grad student, hosted a discussion on “Version-Controlling the News.” In the real-time arena of digital news-gathering, it’s easy to see how a story posted moments ago could quickly become outdated and need to be revised as facts stream in. However, most news organizations (and content publishers in general) aren’t particularly effective at communicating the hows and whys behind those sometimes myriad changes. Sullivan and Price argued for more transparency in versioning such content and for granting users access to the previous versions of stories, so they can evaluate them for themselves. 

Additional considerations: What happens when a new story changes so much it’s not the same story? Shouldn’t both be displayed? Sometimes a story starts out with one set of authors, but the assigned authors change. Even the direction, tone and theme of stories can change significantly after they’ve already been published. With that in mind, Price developed NewsDiffs, which tracks and archives changes in articles after publication — currently within The Times,, Politico and Increasingly, then, we need to provide readers with access to previous versions of content, highlighting the rationale at least for the more significant changes. (Spelling errors, missing commas, grammatical errors, etc, are not as vital, though these can still be catalogued as a second, less significant but nonetheless visible category of changes). Apply this concept to content everywhere. As readers better understand versioning, it’s not hard to understand why they’d demanded it, and how content versioning (and usable experiences coupled to it) will become key in maintaining brand transparency.

Crafting Stories from Data

“Big data” was a big theme at SXSW this year, and one very engaging panel, “Journalism by #s,” examined the role of data in journalism. Participants described how journalists can discover new stories without leaving their desks. The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker, for example, explained how his brother broke a groundbreaking Nature story about the core temperature of plants, simply by examing existing data, available to anyone on the Internet. James Grimaldi (also of the WSJ) drummed home the importance of knowing the tools at your disposal: Every journalist should be familiar with data-oriented applications like Excel and Access. (You can certainly count me among those writers who have come to appreciate the redeeming organizational features of an ostensibly boring application like Excel.) 

On the other hand, Grimaldi said, we also bear a responsibility for the context within which we present data and the accompanying details. When NY paper The Journal News decided to publish a list of gun owners with their addresses, it did no one any favors. Grimald called the effort a “disaster” and “a data dump with little analysis.” Data when exposed like this no longer lives within a moral vacuum.

Sure, this session was conducted by journalists, but as content strategists it’s not difficult to imagine how any company we’re working with could have a wealth of data (about the company, about consumers, about users) which is rich with stories, just waiting to be discovered. It’s up to us to dig for them — or, at least, to train our clients how to dig for them.

Saving Languages With Content Strategy

Participants on the “Indigenous Tweets, Visible Voices & Technology” panel were all, in one way or another, engaged in enterprises which give an online voice to endangered languages. They discussed strategies for saving or at least preserving languages via content and social platforms, via blogs, podcasts, video, etc. — basically, whatever creative online means made sense for a particular community. Kevin Scannell, founder of the site Indigenous, tracks the use of endangered languages on Twitter, including languages limited to as few as a single voice. He also explained how neither Google nor Facebook are allowing new languages and translations of their platforms to be added, so he’s leading crowd-sourced, unofficial translations of these endangered languages, which can be implemented via Greasemonkey scripts. Similarly, Kara Andrade has worked to develop localized content management systems, which allow Guatemalans to create and disseminate content in their own language. This panel served as a salient reminder for the real-world good we can do as content strategists, when we apply our skills creatively to such issues around us.

Treating Twitter as a Source

Members of the “Global News After the Twitter Revolutions” panel shared how that social platform can serve as a source of valuable information, stressing, of course, the need to ensure individual sources are reliable. NPR’s Andy Carvin explained how he actually searches on expletives in order to find sources close to a breaking events: As in “What the fuck was that?” getting tweeted after an earthquake. He also described his method of building Twitter lists in advance of trackable events like hurricanes, so he’ll have a stream of reliable information from first responders, based on geolocation where possible, as the event unfolds. And he warned of people parroting news terms they don’t fully understand like “breaking news,” “confirmed” or “reports,” which might lead to the spread of misinformation and even hoaxes.

CNN’s Meredith Artley discussed strategies for tweeting at high-traffic times of day. For example, CNNbrk developed the Lunch break tweet, a tweet about something, an interesting story, that isn’t their typical breaking news, but they know Twitter users can enjoy on their lunchtime break, giving a little boost of traffic to CNN. 

There’s a lot more I could share. Data genius Stephen Wolfram proved fascinating in his explanation of how, “Computation is going to become central to every field.” The founder of Architecture for Humanity Cameron Sinclair showed how “resiliency [in damaged communities] is not by chance,” but by design. Certainly a principle we can apply to our own work. And I saw an excellent panel on “Copyright & Disruptive Technologies,” wherein Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh proclaimed, “Don’t sue me for what other people do on my service,” and litigator Andrew Bridges demonstrated the incredible disparity between punishment for copyright violations and other crimes.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are my notes from each of these sessions:


Everything Is Not Important

Robert Stribley   March 15, 2013

The Breakdown: A couple months ago we spoke with our own Robert Stribley about his plans for his SXSW talk. Now he’s back from his Austin adventure and we’re sharing his slides with you. Next week we’ll have more from Robert on his first experience at Southby.

Speaking at SXSW last week gave me the opportunity to share some thoughts on prioritizing content, which I’ve been mulling over for the past few years. These seven principles aren’t all unique to me by any means (and I’m sure the content strategy community can divine many more), but I really enjoyed corralling my thoughts on how to focus on what truly is important within an experience and how, if necessary, to “murder your darlings.”


SXSW 2013 Q&A: Scot Richardson

Jake Keyes   March 8, 2013


The Breakout: SXSW has begun! We hope you’re all enjoying Austin. (For those of you who didn’t make it out this year, check out the rest of our series of Q&As, for insight and commentary from some of the most interesting panelists of 2013.) In this last Q&A in our SXSW 2013 series, we talk to TicketMob Founder/CEO Scot Richardson. In his panel, “Louis C.K. Aftermath: Distribution & Ticketing 2.0“, Scot is joined by comedian Jim Gaffigan to discuss the future of direct-to-fan marketing and sales, for comedy, music, and beyond.

Scatter/Gather: I’m interested in how direct-to-fan distribution might affect the nature of the product being sold. It seems like once an artist or entertainer is able to sell directly to fans, he or she gains a lot of creative control. Is there a trade-off, here, since fewer trained eyeballs see the unfinished work before it is released? In this new model, through which channels will artists find the input and editorial guidance they have always relied upon? 

Scot: I think if you asked most artists, they would deny relying on editorial guidance and would view it more as a pain in the ass that they can finally avoid. While I think that there is some truth to that, and that we will see more unique and less formulaic content when artists have more control, it now becomes part of a manager’s job to help the artist navigate this self-editorial process. I also see a lot of artists choosing a producing partner whom they trust or have a long-standing relationship with, that they feel understands them and can help make these decisions. Artists feel more comfortable with this than, say, a network censure. But I’m sure that networks and record labels, etc., would argue that they understand what sells, and that they will be missed in this process. I feel like it’s too early to tell. It’s really a question of how far artists will push the boundaries of content and how audiences will grow and be able to digest these new formats and presentations of content. 

S/G: Comedians like Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and Jim Gaffigan have had success with self-distribution — but they are already quite well-known. Why might self-distribution and “ticketing 2.0″ appeal to artists and entertainers who are not yet famous (and what special challenges might they face)? 

Scot: The greatest gift to unknown artists with self-distribution is the ability to get it out into the world to be received and not waiting for mass acceptance or the “man in a suit” to approve of you or your art. A small band, comedian, novel writer, or aspiring celebrity chef can release content via various platforms, or put on their own show at a rented space, and even sell their own content online.

This allows some powerful things to happen. First of all, it allows them to build fans to gain a critical mass. This effort may take years, but wasn’t an option in the past, outside of touring and physical bootlegs or CD distribution, which are far less efficient. We’ve seen successes in comedy like Bo Burnham, and succes in music, like Angela Johnson, who went from being a nobody to theater acts to making a great living in a matter of a few short years by putting out great free content for people to find. So this building of fan bases without permission from the classical institutions does happen.

These channels also allow for experimentation, the finding of an artist’s voice and what people like via a feedback channel. Since social media is a two way communication channel it opens up this feedback loop of both positive and negative feedback and where your fans may be. As opposed to printing 1000 CDs and giving them out and hoping to gain fans, you can now put something up online and get comments, compliments, suggestions for improvement, and collaboration opportunities in real-time.

The biggest fault of any young artist is thinking that self-distribution is a path to financial success before they’ve broken. While this may happen occasionally, it’s a mistake to chase lightening in a bottle. Instead, artists should view self-distribution and ticketing 2.0 as a way to put their hard work toward a more productive path of building a career than was previously available. They should build fans, learn what people like about them, do more shows, put out more songs, collaborate more, and put out tons of content on all different platforms. Self-distribution is a path for young artists to make it, not to earn big bucks on the path to making it. You have to be willing to give it away for many years in most cases and trade content for loyalty and the chance to win new fans, until you are at the point where Louis C.K. and Aziz are, where self distribution can be a way to make good money and keep control.  

S/G: Social networks like Twitter and sites like reddit can provide a huge boost to sales of self-distributed media, and can drive interest in self-promoted events. But they can also be fickle, and sometimes buzz can backfire. Do you have any insight as to what risks one might face in social, and how to keep a positive relationship with your fans on the social web? 

Scot: It is certainly a wild world out there and there are thousands of blogs, individuals, and communities where people without a journalism background or even a reputation to protect can and will talk about you and your content. This is both good and bad and certainly a double edged sword.

People in general are quick to judgement and have a mentality where everyone online is trying to break a story or get attention themselves. It becomes a place where the truth is rarely valued as much as speed and shock value. The best way to take this on is to be authentic. Be true to yourself. If you make a mistake, own it and apologize. If someone gives bad information, correct them politely and show as much proof as you can.

I’d also recommend letting your fans do most of the defending. If you have a loyal following and someone accuses your latest song of sucking, you should have 10 people who will jump in and disagree. Social media has allowed walls, publicists and canned interviews to fade away, with people now interested in reality and authenticity. Participate in that and you’ll gain the most. Lastly, have thick skin. Realize that it’s not a perfect system and that it’s not if, but when people will say horrible things from behind their keyboards that will be a reality. 

S/G: One consequence of direct-to-fan marketing is that an artist’s online properties will need to be repurposed. The professional website, which used to be a source for things like tour dates and press photos, must now also take part in e-commerce. From a branding and messaging perspective, what kinds of innovation might we start to see as sites strike a balance between these two purposes? 

Scot: With the rise of platforms like ours (TicketMob) and others like Shopify, YouTube, and Chill, artists are able to customize ecommerce, ticketing, tour dates, and content distribution pages like never before. It used to be that you paid someone to build, create and maintain a website for you. The new norm is paying someone to customize all of these platforms into one cohesive brand and image. A Twitter, YouTube, ticketing, and ecommerce solution should all look and feel like the artist, including the messaging and text.

Artists also need to start thinking like a company. Instead of someone else in charge of selling your things, you need to think about it holistically. Should you do a fan club, give away free tracks, sell packages, respond to customer service requests, customize things, agree to write a custom joke or song for a fee, let your fans vote on your encore (maybe only if they bought a ticket)? Artists have to realize that before they hire an employee of a company: now they are the company. It’s a better model, but it also takes a lot more thought and work. 

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW this year?

As always, the Music and the BBQ! But I also love the keynotes, the panels, the thought leaders and mind expanding one-on-one talks with smart folks from many industries. It is truly the best event that crosses technology with entertainment and every year I feel excited and fired up after going to SXSW.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Erin Abler

Rachel Lovinger   March 4, 2013


The Breakout: As we close in on SXSW, we chatted with our own Erin Abler (@connotes), an Information Architect and Content Strategist out of our Philadelphia office, Razorfish Healthware (and is also a contributor to Scatter/Gather). In Erin’s Future15 talk, “Interaction Literacy & Participatory Design,” she’ll be discussing a broader view of literacy that will help us think about – and design for – a much wider range of human experiences.

Scatter/Gather: What is “interaction literacy”?

Erin: “Interaction literacy” is a term I’m using to refer to the ability to recognize and respond to the sensory, experiential, integrative, and interactive elements that comprise a human experience. It’s the day-to-day business of being aware in the world, of interacting with your surroundings and stimuli, making sense of them, and acting in a way that allows you to complete discrete tasks and develop specialized skill sets. As a capability, it means successfully negotiating an interaction – basically, to what degree we’re aided or hampered by the things we’re experiencing. The concept has an inherent focus on how the different parts of an experience help support the skills that build other types of literacy, including textual literacy. From a user research or design perspective, it’s a way to look at what kinds of experiences support or comprise various skill sets, and how best to engage someone based on that knowledge.

I started thinking about this years ago, but with a focus on the different skills involved in storytelling. Most definitions of literacy tend to focus on successful manipulation of specific media – an approach that limits the use of literacy as a concept extending across platforms or types of interactions. (There is something called “transliteracy,” but I find it to be more of a catch-all than a coherent concept, and I couldn’t really get behind it.) Because narrative and participation both involve qualities so fundamental to human experience, and because they are able to cross so many different platforms, I wanted to set down the elements common to any interaction – the better to compare them across various media. Only after months of reading did I start getting a handle on how various literacies really all point back to formative elements of experience. Interaction literacy offers us a way to understand what underlies any form of literacy, regardless of the mode of expression.

S/G: Presumably, like reading literacy, this is a learned skill. How do people become interaction literate?

Erin: Interaction literacy is definitely learned, though I think much less formally than other kinds of literacy. When people tell stories – and when they engage their audience in multiple ways in the process – they are distilling their experiences through narrative. Anytime we choose to tell a story instead of listing facts, we are communicating in a way that is meant to be evocative of experience, and not merely documentary. Storytelling means sharing an experience in a way that allows it to continue to exist as an experience, for both the storyteller and for the audience. If we’re truly going to understand the relationship between the YouTubes of the world and our long history of interacting with one another, we need to develop a better vocabulary for discussing the experience of participation, and the different roles we choose as participants in a given context. That, to me, is the start of a different understanding of the way we build interaction skills – whether with people or with technology.

S/G: You work with both information architecture and content strategy. How do these two disciplines complement each other to address the unique challenges of designing for greater interaction literacy?

Erin: I don’t think I would’ve traveled this path at all if I hadn’t been deeply invested in both areas of work. I started out with a heavy content strategy focus, thinking about traditional literacy, how text fits with other kinds of content, and what kinds of content ultimately compel people to act. But of course content is so intimately connected to its form and its context that it’s almost impossible to think of it as something that exists on its own terms. (I should point out that I’m using the word “content” very broadly here, to include just about anything that’s created for consumption or communication.) So the broader design picture – of how to explore interaction literacy through elements of experience – necessitates an appreciation for user experience as well as an awareness of what good content is and how it travels.

S/G: Have you seen any examples of great design that address these kinds of issues? If so, what? And if not, why do you think we haven’t seen much of this yet?

Erin: I think we’re headed toward an explosion of content that will underscore the relevance of interaction literacy. At the session I’ll be talking about how powerful creator cultures are in the development of rich interactions. Part of that conversation focuses on participatory design – and not just making your own little tweaks to something here and there, but having component parts that you can recombine infinitely to fit your own needs.

Wikipedia is probably the most recognizable example of a participatory design culture. Roles developed over time based on people’s interests and areas of expertise. Subject area experts adopted oversight of areas they were qualified to review. Over time, a range of capabilities sorted itself out because the setup encouraged iteration. YouTube is another huge platform that people can contribute content to. There you see less emphasis on textual literacy and more on other types of sensory and integrative elements. YouTube has, for the most part, made it easy to launch content that is either original, remixed, or a response to other content.

We’re starting to see more progressive examples now, ones that I think already take aspects of interaction literacy into consideration. Even if not in a very systematic way, these designers are thinking of their users’ skill sets when they devise ways to engage through innovation. One of my favorite examples of this is Twine, which is a device that detects physical inputs like vibration. That’s the total physical product: a little square that you put down wherever you want it to “sense” its environment. Then you go online and set up very basic instructions for it, so that it will communicate in some way when certain events occur. It’s a lovely use of IFTTT: You put Twine on top of your dryer and set up the rule “When vibration stops, text me the message ‘Your laundry is done.'” And there’s a whole online community where you can browse and borrow other people’s rules, or contribute your own, which just raises the bar for more and more innovative uses. What the user is capable of doing is supported on every scale, from the most basic instructions to some pretty complex logic.

Once it hits mainstream, 3D (and thanks to MIT, even 4D) printing is also going to open up some incredible opportunities for people to adapt original inventions for their own specific uses. We just haven’t created a structured way of thinking about those opportunities yet. I don’t think interaction literacy is the whole answer, but it might help frame our thinking about the current proliferation of highly targeted content and customized experiences.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Erin: There’s a diagram I created as part of this project that shows four basic levels of experience. There’s the “sensory,” which corresponds to direct sensory inputs, and the “experiential,” which is more about the cognitive processing of sensory stimuli. An “integrative” experience takes another layer of awareness, incorporating situational, social, linguistic, and interpretive elements. At the “interactive” level, we take all these components and resolves them in some form of action.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent researching and shaping that model. And in the end, it looks very simple – almost self-explanatory. That’s both encouraging to me and a little unnerving – encouraging because I think it should be as simple as possible, and unnerving because I don’t want people to think I’m suggesting something complete or finished. I am not a psychologist or a behaviorist, though I have some education in those areas. I’ll also say for the record that none of these concepts, in and of themselves, is new. It’s the framework that makes them important. So it’s not done, and I’m sure I’m missing some things; but that’s a big part of what’s so exciting about going to SXSW with this. I can absolutely rely on people to take these ideas apart, ask hard questions, and make it better if they think it’s worth their time.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Andrea Davis and Carson Block

Jake Keyes   February 27, 2013


The Breakdown: in our latest SXSW Q&A, we talk with Andrea Davis (@detailmatters), a librarian at the Naval Postgraduate School. In her upcoming SXSW talk, “Libraries, the Ultimate Playground“, Davis will discuss the ever-evolving role of libraries as a fixture of a democratic, and increasingly digital, society. In this Q&A, Andrea is joined by her SXSW co-facilitator, library technology consultant Carson Block (@carsonblock).

Scatter/Gather: How have libraries evolved to serve more digitally-engaged communities? What new things will we see libraries offer (and what challenges will they face)?

Andrea & Carson: In the digital age, the strength of libraries is often hyper-local. A good library reflects the needs of its users in direct and unique ways — and in that manner each one is a little “special.” We take the same view of the online communities we serve — with the geographic distribution (and diversity) that you speak of. Through initiatives such as the Digital Public Library of America, libraries are creating frameworks and platforms that help communities harvest and share precious information — including cultural heritage and more — throughout the world.  

Let’s look at some examples:

The challenge, of course, is funding and clarity of mission. Public dollars work differently than business dollars, and libraries often fall into the common public service trap of trying to be all things to all people, which is impossible.  

Additionally, libraries play a singular role as a public access point, bridging the digital divide for populations without computer access or mobile data plans. According to The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, “The availability of free computers and internet access now rivals book lending and reference expertise as a vital service of libraries.” Be it the free wifi network, the computer workstations, or lately the circulation of e-readers, community members need digital access. Until broadband is considered a basic need and can be government subsidized, libraries will remain the critical — if undervalued — gateway for people who can’t get online otherwise.

S/G: How has the profile of a librarian changed in recent years? What skills do librarians need that they wouldn’t have fifteen or twenty years ago?

Andrea & Carson: We farmed this question out to the librarian social network in the ALA ThinkTank with these responses:

  • “Amazing people skills, a knack for hospitality, flexibility…”
  • “High end customer service, visual merchandising, design sensibility.”
  • “Communication (including listening), social work, technology, teaching/instruction.”
  • “Focus on customer experience. Curiosity and Empathy. Solution-oriented. Design-thinking (i.e identify a problem, hypothesize a solution, launch quickly, assess feedback, and iterate.) High comfort level with ambiguity, a willingness to take risks and try things. A bias for facilitating instead of directing, coaching instead of supervising, partnering instead of gatekeeping.”

Unlike a business, libraries don’t choose their target customers. You have to include everybody, and meet them where they are. This may mean preserving that archive of  VHS tapes because there is a group of seniors who love them, offering e-readers/books because everyone is asking for them, and then being prepared to teach someone who has never held one how to use it for the first time.

25 years ago, a college guidance counselor might have told a “bookish” student to consider a career in library science. A love of books is still a good starting point, but today, that doesn’t do justice to the skills librarian needs to use every day. The job position of “librarian” requires a masters degree education: Master of Information & Library Science (MLIS). Within the library world, there are many hands at work with a wide range of job titles: everything from Information Analysts to UX designers to Metadata Specialists. Emporia State University even created a library school recruiting comic.

S/G: Are there any industries that libraries look to as inspiration for ways to expand into digital?

Andrea & Carson: User experience is huge. Libraries are at their hearts customer service organizations and are constantly looking for ways to improve. From roving public service models that bring patrons and librarians together side-by-side, to “embedded” librarians who join key community teams as the link to the best information, the profession is constantly (r)evolving. 

In a technical sense, libraries are influenced by the digital publishing industry and experimenting with filling the role of “publisher” — buying (not leasing) digital e-content and loaning it to patrons. Very leading edge. 

Sometimes it’s the simple things: coffee shops (the ones that breed community), excellent bookstores, coworking spaces, public spaces, design-thinking companies and more have all influenced libraries in recent years. 

There is also a rise of DIY “makerspaces” in libraries — where you can play with a 3D printer, fix your bike, learn to code, or get a knitting lesson. There are excellent examples at the Fayetteville Public Library in NY, the partnership between the commercial Sector 67 makerspace and the Madison WI Public Library, and Detroit Library Teen HYPE makerspace. This will only grow, with projects like MAKE magazine’s MakerCamp program in libraries. Look for more info about our upcoming MAYker events later this year.

S/G: What is an example of a library that’s pushing boundaries, today? And who is making these kinds of projects possible?

Andrea & Carson: Douglas County Libraries, Marmot Libraries and Califa are pushing the boundaries of ePublishing. Fayetteville Public Library in NY was the first to introduce 3D printing as a library service. There are also exciting low-fi programs — the East Palo Alto Public Library has guitar and seed lending programs, and in San Francisco, you can check out an energy usage meter from the library.  

There are also the for-the-love-of-libraries projects that bubble up anywhere people gather. From the Occupy tents of 2011 to the Super Storm Sandy response this year, there is a growing trend of Little Free Libraries — keep your eyes open at SXSW for some surprise libraries…  

It seems to be a need of our society to gather information together and share it. For example, whenever Andrea flies, she brings along a suitcase of library ephemera (microfiche, due date cards, stamps) and useful travel maps setting up @MileHighRefDesk in my cramped cabin seat. It’s a way to show you can build a library anywhere and serve a local community’s needs. Ultimately it’s not just dollars that make these projects possible. In the cases above, it’s clear vision, passion and excellent leadership.  

The librarian in us can’t help pointing to the “more resources” list to share projects like BoingBoing LibraryLab and This Week in Libraries video podcast. There are so many innovators in this field!

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW this year?

Andrea & Carson: Getting back to bandcamp and taking in the wide, overwhelming mess of it all —Andrea loves it! The serendipity of a good bathroom line conversation, a new “ah-ha!” epiphany from a colleague or an obsession that she’s never heard of!  

Just the same way we go to a physical library, there’s a reason we all gather in Austin and don’t convene just online. People are what brings it together — passion and power combined. Also, I can’t get drinks with the internetz.

[Editor’s note: for a look at more library events at SXSW, check out this Sched.]

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Bailey Smith and Anne Wootton

Hawk Thompson   February 20, 2013


The Breakdown: In our latest SXSW Q&A we chat with Bailey Smith (@baileyspace) and Anne Wootton (@annewootton) of Pop Up ArchiveThey are participating in a workshop called “Pop Up Archive: Build an Archive and Make It Count” along with Dave Rice (@dericed), of the CUNY Graduate Center, and Andrew Kuklewicz (@kookster), the Tech Director at PRX. In their workshop, the presenters will discuss effective ways to build digital content archives.

Scatter/Gather: As content strategists, we’re deeply interested in the process of archive creation. Would you describe the way you approach archive creation as a rigidly defined process or more of an organic one? In what ways?

Bailey: Pop Up Archive allows the everyday producer to build his or her own archive. But we realize that a producer’s raison d’être is to create content, not to organize it. So how do you strike a balance between creating a good archive and not overtaxing producers that are already stretched too thin? Our solution is an online system for simple media management. The platform provides autoextraction of metadata, a simple web-based form for customizing that data, and public and private storage options.  

S/G: When you’re building a new archive, how does metadata factor into the equation?  

Bailey: Metadata is key to making meaning of audio, which is otherwise an opaque file searchable only by filename. Our goal is to preserve and create access to valuable pieces of cultural history, and for that we need metadata. But it’s a time-consuming process for humans to do that work, which is why we’re using technology to automate transcription and keyword extraction. For archival collections that are lucky enough to already have metadata, we’re making it easy to integrate with Pop Up through metadata standards like PBCore, or even a simple spreadsheet. We took a page from the archive world and used a simplified set of PBCore fields for our own schema. Most producers using the system will probably never be aware of it, but this standardization will make audio content easier to navigate and search and will make it easier to exchange data.

S/G: From a content standpoint, what are some of the benefits and drawbacks of using Javascript plugins like Popcorn.js?

Bailey: One of the reasons we’re excited about Pop Up is that we want to see hidden content reinvigorated. That may be through tools like Popcorn.js or Zeega, or in the remixing of audio for new broadcast or web-distributed pieces. We’re also building an API for the archive, so that developers can retrieve public data from the archive and use it to integrate with other services and build visualizations, expositions, mixes and mashups, and who knows what else. 

S/G: What are your thoughts about digital archives versus physical archives? How do you treat digital content as opposed to physical artifacts?

Bailey: Pop Up Archive focuses on storing digital artifacts. However, many producers and small collections have a hard time securing digitization funding because they have no plan to ensure that their digitized material will be accessible and properly preserved. Pop Up Archive can be that plan. Our system provides a trusted digital repository in the form of the Internet Archive, and a standards-based metadata schema to ensure future accessibility to any given collection.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Bailey: We’ve been palling around with the sxswLAM (Libraries, Archives, Museums) community. So we’re planning to hit some of their presentations and brainstorm about the convergence of LAM and technology. We’re also really looking forward to the Austin Music Map Bike Tour with the Association of Independents in Radio.

And, obviously, we’re excited for our workshop, Pop Up Archive: Build an Archive and Make It Count. We won’t just be talking about Pop Up Archive; we’ll also be going through archival best practices, presenting other archive solutions, and even helping people get their archives started. The workshop starts Monday, March 11th, at 9:30, but we’re encouraging people to sign up and come whenever they can, for as long or short a time as they can muster. 

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Kevin Nguyen

Hawk Thompson   February 13, 2013


The Breakdown: In our latest SXSW Q&A we chat with Kevin Nguyen (@knguyen). Kevin is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and a book reviewer at Grantland. He is participating in a panel called “Too Long Didn’t Read: The Future of Indie Longform”, along with Andrew Womack (@womack) of The Morning News and C. Max McGee of The Millions. In their talk, Kevin and his co-panelists will discuss the rebirth of the essay format. 

Scatter/Gather: A lot of people equate longform with indie culture. Why do you think this is?

Kevin: Probably because it’s a labor of love to run longform. You don’t publish 2,000 words of polished prose because you think it’ll go viral (though sometimes it does). The parallel to indie rock is a good one. Indie longform exists as a separate expression from the big stuff major media outlets are publishing. Though our sites are different, my co-panelists and I all started our sites because there weren’t outlets publishing the types of essays and ideas we wanted to write.

S/G: By and large, critics of longform seem to think it equates length with substance. Beyond word count, what differentiates longform as a writing style?

Kevin: To me, longform is a piece of writing that has spent a thoughtful amount of time being researched, written, and edited. I think you’re right, that length doesn’t denote quality. But I think when people refer to something as longform now (or tag it as a #longread), they are also saying that what you’re about to click through to is high-quality writing.

S/G: How do you and your fellow panelists differ in the ways you approach longform content? In what ways do you see eye-to-eye?

Kevin: Andrew, Max, and I see more eye-to-eye than not. I think our common bond is that our publications began as passion projects, with no regard for revenue or even audience. We published the kind of articles we thought were under-represented in major media and other websites, and we don’t believe in sacrificing a strong editorial process to be timely or for page views. I think each site has a very different voice though.

S/G: The Bygone Bureau, The Millions, and The Morning News are all proudly indie publications that have have used longform content to cultivate loyal readerships. What do you think is the mainstream potential for longform?

Kevin: Obviously there is mainstream potential for long form, or The New Yorker and The Atlantic wouldn’t be what they are. But as far as mainstream longform from web-only publications? I think Grantland is probably a good case that there is a voracious audience for it. In a way, there seems to have been a resurgence, or at least renewed interest, in longform in the past few years. I think people realized that internet readers appreciate quality writing, regardless of length. It at least combats the notion that people today have shorter attention spans.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Kevin: This will be my fourth SXSW, and each successive year, I find myself spending less time at the conference itself and more time enjoying Austin. What a wonderful city! It reminds me of Portland but with better barbecue.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Margot Bloomstein

Hawk Thompson   February 6, 2013


The Breakdown: In our latest SXSW Q&A we talk with Margot Bloomstein (@mbloomstein). Margot is the founder of content strategy consultancy Appropriate, Inc., author of Content Strategy at Work, and a longtime friend of Scatter/Gather. She is giving a solo presentation called “Whoa Nellie! Content Strategy for Slow Experiences.” (You’ll also be able to find her later the same day at her book signing.) In her talk, Margot will discuss why sometimes fast content and efficient interactions can hurt your user experience.

Scatter/Gather: Over the past year or so, which slow experiences have impressed you as a content strategist? 

Margot: The experiences that impress me most are those in which the decisions of form, pacing, and visual and verbal design all reflect the same communication goals. We don’t see that enough, either as users or makers, because functional and technical goals croon their own siren songs.

But if you’re someone that helps to “make the web,” you know that ours is an industry of brinksmanship. Can we add more info? Can we make the call to action shorter? Can we streamline the checkout process more — can we cut out a step? Those are challenging goals. But sometimes, those goals distract us from the right goals, like the brand’s and users’ communication goals.

We exploit and push constraints of page size, load times, and clicks without first determining what attributes combine to form the best user experience. Often, a good user experience doesn’t flaunt the bells and whistles; it just meets needs in a pleasant way. It gives you the digital equivalent of a smile and a handshake, rather than just hustling you out the door. Often, a good user experience gives you reason to linger — and I love that.

You’ll find that kind of experience shopping the Patagonia website. Patagonia’s business goals guide corporate social responsibility efforts, raw material selection, content creation partnerships, and more. They launched their Common Threads Initiative to drive more thoughtful, deliberate consumption — and that’s a thread that weaves through their entire web presence. The Common Threads Initiative encourages consumers to “reduce,” or buy less stuff. “We ask you not to buy from us what you don’t need,” reads the site. However, if you do choose to buy that down jacket, “we design and sell products that are made to last.” They publish a care guide for “preserving your gear” that backs up the promise and teaches consumers how to maintain garments in a way that uses minimal energy and water. The content types align with their communication goals and corporate mission.

Thoughtful, deliberate purchases are just what Patagonia wants to encourage. The website supports that kind of process with a slow user experience. Longform copy demands attention. Product descriptions layer colorful usage details over features (“When missing the sunset curfew means climbing through spindrift rivers into the night, the Nano Puff® Hoody shines”). Rather than sending users off to explanatory pop-ups, technology and material descriptions take up physical space on product pages. Later on, merchandising in the shopping cart encourages consumers to continue considering their purchase and weigh the options; Patagonia wants to ensure a careful purchase, not just a sale.

S/G: For content creators, what are some of the benefits of slow experiences? What are some of the drawbacks?

Margot: Patagonia wants to encourage customers to act — and spend — deliberately. For many brands, this doesn’t make sense, and slow experiences certainly don’t support impulse purchases that can drive up sales. Slow, speedbumped checkout processes can cause a consumer to reconsider products in the shopping cart. But for content creators who need to tell a longer story or guide a prospect through rich details, a slow experience is ideal. Consider big ticket purchases or online investment management: before you complete a transaction, sites like E*TRADE push users through a gauntlet of approvals to review and confirm their activity. Like Patagonia, they only want intentional action from their users.

S/G: To an enterprise, efficiency and slowness would seem to be at odds with each other. Do you think large companies can benefit from slow content, or are slow experiences better suited for small businesses?

Margot: Efficient isn’t always effective; consider the consumer who clicks to buy too soon, and then wastes time and satisfaction in a complicated return process. User frustration can be an issue for companies of all sizes and specialties. So regardless of size, focus on how the company is trying to deliver results, satisfaction, and delight for its target audience. Is the nature of the transaction so small and insignificant that it shouldn’t require a second thought from the consumer? Don’t get in the way. Make that experience as fast as can be. Will the consumer arrive at the final transaction after going through plenty of preliminary research? Again, don’t make the customer rethink it.

But if you’re a large company trying to demonstrate a high-touch, personalized level of service, then slow down your user — as long as you can add value. This might mean, for instance, popping up assistance through live chat, or offering rollover-style tooltips throughout longform copy.

S/G: Now more than ever, people use the internet at their own pace — whenever and wherever they want. What are some of the ways content strategists can control the pace at which users experience interactive content?

Margot: We’ve talked about some of these practices, but in general I summarize pacing tactics into three categories: design, content typing, and editorial style.

Pacing by design is something we see extensively in the physical world: museum exhibits use small type and paragraph-style item descriptions to draw in a viewer, or neighborhoods replan roads with “traffic calming” curves to slow down cars. Web experiences apply similar ideas by drawing users through unexpected layouts and short paragraphs that demand attention.

Those tactics relate closely to how content strategists choose content types to share information. Do you convey the relationships between data with a simple pie chart, an explanatory paragraph, or a block quote from the research? Those content types may all make the same point, but they permit the reader different levels of engagement, which can affect retention. It’s tough to create “aha moments,” those seeds of memory, if you only offer scannable content and minimal engagement.

Editorial style and structure round out the tactics content strategists apply to control the pace of an experience. Short sentences in the active voice, with simple subject-predicate, subject-predicate structure, will hurry readers on their way. Longer sentences, with subordinate clauses or uncommon structures, demand more of the reader — and that’s okay for some contexts. Some topics and transactions demand deep thinking, and we can foster that through content strategy.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Margot: Margaritas and the chile relleno at Manuels on Congress? And, of course, whoever’s sitting across the table! Whether you’re in big marketing or focused content strategy, SXSW always offers terrific opportunities to come together with our community. I’m really excited to reconnect with colleagues in some of this year’s compelling sessions around the evolution and democratization of publishing. You’ll see me in the audience at talks by Jane Pratt, David Carr, and Jonah Peretti … hope to see you there, too!

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Margaret Wheeler Johnson

Allison Eve Zell   January 31, 2013


The Breakdown: In this week’s SXSW Q&A, we talk with Margaret Wheeler Johnson (@mwjohnso), Editor of HuffPost Women, about her panel “Is Women’s Media Too Girly?” Along with a stellar group of panelists, she will explore the rise and implications of “girly” media.

Scatter/Gather: How do you define “girly” media? 

Margaret Wheeler Johnson: When we ask whether women’s media has become “too girly,” we’re referring to content we’ve seen more and more over the past few years on sites targeting adult female audiences. I’m thinking of stories about nail art and frozen yogurt (HuffPost Women has published at least one), odes to Ryan Gosling (we’ve run several), puppy cams, essays about breakups and fighting with your BFF — content that would also be at home on a teen site.

I don’t think it’s bad for women’s sites to publish these stories — obviously, since we’ve done it as well — but I do think it’s interesting.  Our panel will discuss whether this phenomenon undermines women by making them seem superficial, or gives voice to tastes and aspects of being female that we were once afraid to acknowledge because women are still fighting to be taken seriously.

S/G: You have gathered an impressive group of panelists. Tell us a little background about them and what we can expect from the panel.

Margaret: Our panelists are impressive, indeed, and we are lucky to have them.  Anna Holmes (@AnnaHolmes) is a journalist and author and the founder of, arguably the most influential women’s media project in the last 10 years.  Deb Schoeneman (@debschoeneman) literally wrote the book on our panel topic. Her Kindle single “Woman Child” explores the idea that women are embracing more childish interests and personas to find common ground with each other. Rebecca Fernandez (@ParksFernandez) is the editor-at-large for HelloGiggles, a unabashedly girly women’s site founded by “New Girl” actress Zooey Deschanel, Sophia Rossi and Molly McLeer.

When I asked the panelists for their perspectives on our topic, Anna told me that while she’s very aware of the ways young women’s issues have been unfairly dismissed for ages, “there is a cult of perpetual girlhood among some adult women that I find very exhausting, perplexing and sort of ridiculous.” Deb, on the other hand, said she thinks “it’s empowering and progressive that women’s media can be girly.” And according to Rebecca, “the real problem isn’t media being too girly, it’s being judged for being true to yourself, no matter if you like to wear high heels or play baseball or listen to Taylor Swift or study biology. We’re all girls and we should all be celebrated no matter how we look on the outside, how we ‘decorate’ ourselves, or what our hobbies include.” I want to dig into what it means that so many women’s sites have embraced girlishness, and what statement the women who create and enjoy “girly” media might be making about their lives and the culture at large. So that’s what you can expect from our panel.

S/G: Are there topics you think women want to read about online, but are not readily available? 

Margaret: I think most women can probably find online content on the topics that interest them. It’s the Internet – there’s something for almost everyone. That said, the way online media outlets cover women varies widely. Like print magazines and TV programs targeting women, many women’s sites still start from the assumption that any woman’s major goals in life are to get married, get pregnant, lose the baby weight, make fast, perfect, nutritious dinners and have multiple orgasms all night long.

I think women want what men want online: information and entertainment. But in my experience women in particular want community as well. A huge part of community is being spoken to, and spoken about, in a way that makes you feel like you belong, like you are interesting and complex and deserve to be heard, not belittled or sequestered. It’s possible to write about both entrepreneurship and nail polish in a way that makes women feel respected and understood — or not. It’s up to media companies to decide which approach they’re going to take.

S/G: Name three female media or content creators who have inspired you and why. 

Margaret: One is definitely Anna. With Jezebel, she exploded the myths about women that so many media outlets perpetuate. From the beginning, Jezebel’s bloggers welcomed controversy, didn’t even entertain this idea that feminism is a bad word or a dusty 70s relic, and their humor, intelligence and willingness to call bullsh*t was addictive. Anna paved the way for our site and every other popular women’s site that has a distinct mission and voice.

The second is Lena Dunham. I can never get over the fact that in an era when I’ve so often felt that it’s all been done before, Dunham assumed that her vision could be realized and that her voice was worth hearing. She assumed that other people would want and need to hear what she had to say — about body image, privilege and how scary and unglamorous being a woman in your early 20s can be. I think Dunham lives a message so many young women need to hear: that they don’t have to wait for permission to create something meaningful, that their stories and experiences are valuable and should be shared.

The third is, collectively, the mom (and dad) blogosphere. I had the privilege of working with many parenting bloggers when I was an editor at Babble, and they never ceased to amaze me. By writing openly about the very personal and challenging experience of raising a child, they formed a powerful, enduring and lucrative online content network – also without asking anyone’s permission.

S/G: What are you most looking forward to at SXSW 2013?

Margaret: HuffPost is developing exciting new products internally all the time, but at South By you get a sense of how many ideas and tools are being hatched beyond your immediate horizons. I’m looking forward to my second dose of that this year. I also think that at big conferences, you’re lucky if you get to really connect with one or two people whose vision impresses you. Last year for me that was Intel social innovator Ekaterina Walter (@eKaterina), whose passion for what she does left me energized for days after.

South By is also great because it gives us an opportunity to share what we do at HuffPost Lifestyle. I’m excited for executive lifestyle editor Lori Leibovich‘s panel on Toddlers and Technology, and a panel on Keeping Working Parents In & Innovating from our senior columnist for life, work, and family, Lisa Belkin. Both will talk about a goal at the center of our editorial mission: to find a better balance between the roles of family and technology in our lives. And I’m obviously excited about HuffPost Women’s panel, which is very much in line with the kinds of conversations we have on our site. With HPW, we’ve created a place for women online that’s inclusive, informed, fun, honest and smart. Most importantly, it reflects our commitment to the idea that there is no one right way to be female and that everyone’s story matters. I’m very proud of that.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Molly Steenson

Rachel Lovinger   January 29, 2013


The Breakdown: Next up, we spoke with Molly Steenson (@maximolly), an assistant professor of journalism at University of Wisconson-Madison. In their dual presentation, “The New Nature vs. Nurture: Big Data & Identity,” Molly and Jen Lowe (@datatelling) propose that “[a] baby born in the US today will live an algorithmed life.” They’ll explore the impact of growing up in a world where everything that child does can be tracked and collected.

Scatter/Gather: What can people expect from your panel?

Molly: Jen Lowe, my fellow panelist, is an associate researcher at the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University. She and I put together this panel after conversations we had at the Eyeo Festival in Minneapolis last June, where she gave a great Ignite talk called “The Entropy of Memory” on memory, data and information. “When we remove memory from data, we experience a kind of memorylessness,” she says in the talk. You can’t tell the whole story with data alone.

I’ve long been interested in genealogy and have contributed to my family tree. I also have had my DNA analyzed by 23andMe. I have pictures of my great-grandmother as a girl, she has the same mouth as me, as my mother, as my niece. This is something that I understand through heredity, through story, through memory, through information: it is a part of my identity, of who I am and where I came from. But also, someone on 23andMe wrote to me and said that she and I share a run of 1800 “snps” (chromosomal letter pairs) on Chromosome 2. That, too, is heredity, information, memory. But we don’t usually think of a mouth, or a hometown in the same way we think of gene runs on a chromosome. Yet both produce my identity.

In our panel, Jen and I will be taking a critical and interpretive look at the implications of big data on privacy. What is the new nature and the new nurture that it brings to bear? How are we defined by things we don’t see or have access to, and what choices does that give us? And how are the implications of those choices both beautiful and frightening?

S/G: My first few attempts to write the questions for this Q&A went very deep, very fast – the loss of anonymity, an inability to reinvent ourselves, self-awareness vs. neuroses, insidious mind control, etc. This struck me as strange, because I fundamentally believe that more information is better, and Big Data creates a lot of opportunities for improvements in human knowledge. Why do you suppose we tend to be drawn to the dark places when the topic of Big Data intersects with personal identity? And is there reason to be optimistic?

Molly: One thing that occurs to me is that we say the phrase “Big Data” a lot and it’s already crossing into cliché territory. We could start with the fact that “Big Data” sounds monolithic. It sounds like something that you generate but that somebody else controls—somebody else you can’t see or know because it’s some entity bigger than you, whose goals for using that data may not be to your advantage. It’s dark because everyday people tend not to have tools at their disposal to make sense of complex flows of data—or even their
own digital footprints.

We have the version of ourselves that we believe we are portraying. Then there’s how our data portrays us. Those two visions do not necessarily—or probably very rarely—align.

So is more information better? Yes, but.

I want information. But overwhelming amounts of information can be used to obfuscate a corporate or governmental agenda. We all know the concept of “information overload” that Alvin Toffler coined in 1970: we shut down in the face of too much. We need to be empowered with interpretation, too.

S/G: What sort of things should we (as both digital professionals and digital consumers) be thinking about to better protect people’s ability to control the stories told by their own data?

Molly: As a starting point, it should be clear what data is being collected, by whom, and for what reason, and there should be ways to opt out—that should go without saying. More than that, though, people should be able to see what those stories are. And they should be given the opportunity to tell their own stories with their data, in the way that they have choices about what and how they portray themselves in the world.

S/G: One of your areas of expertise is pneumatic tubes. They’re pretty awe-inspiring. When the algorithmed child of the future looks back on the early 21st century, what technology is going to make her say, “Can you believe that’s how they used to do that?”

Molly: Pneumatic tubes are amazing, it’s true. It was easier in the late 19th century to run a network of cast iron tubes underneath the city that could ferry messages than to solve the traffic jams on the surface, the ones that made it so difficult to get a telegram to its recipient.

Many of my students—first year college students—were born in 1994. That’s the year that the Netscape browser came out. That’s the year I started working with the web. They can’t remember the first time they logged onto the Internet (though some of them have vague recollections of the sound a modem made). They won’t go on an exchange program and write letters on airmail paper, they won’t send handwritten notes to their parents, they won’t ponder the answer to a question without reaching for their laptop or smartphone. And I’m talking about college students. So really, the algorithmed children of the future are already here.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Molly: This is my 16th consecutive SXSW Interactive and my 15th year on the Advisory Board. Crazy. I’m looking forward to finding old friends in the crowd, having random conversations with new friends, not sleeping enough, enjoying amazing conversations on the Hotel San Jose patio. It’s 30 or 40 times bigger than when I first started coming, and yet I get so excited each year. It generates such good ideas.


Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki


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Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

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