Live From SXSW: More Zuckerberg, Less Lacy

After a tumultuous weekend filled with mobile social network culture clashing with panel discussions and keynotes, the discourse at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference and Festival (SXSW) returned to civility as attendees’ attention returned to the variety of platforms available for content creation, distribution and monetization.

Within hours of journalist Sarah Lacy’s controversial interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, SXSW organizers along with Facebook announced that the 23-year old founder would hold an impromptu question-and-answer session with participants on Tuesday afternoon. Zuckerberg, addressing roughly 150 people, answered a variety of questions during the session.

Facebook Redux

Facebook is committed to becoming a platform for development, with the bulk of applications built by the community instead of the company; however, Zuckerberg wouldn’t commit to an entirely open API structure, saying the company wanted to control the data acquisition and the graphical interface for the site.

Now that Facebook has opened a French site, the company is discussing what to do with countries that could at some point require Facebook to turn over user data. The company is evaluating a structure that would reward applications that the community found useful, while penalizing poorly built applications. The reason: Stopping spam from developers trying to build a big user base at the expense of quality.

The company generates 1 billion page views per month, but it is still experimenting with how to monetize that in a way that doesn’t alienate its user base.

Post Secret

The conference keynote address took on a decidedly calmer feel on Monday afternoon as Post Secret creator Frank Warren took the stage to discuss his ongoing project and its larger effect on the social media community.

Warren, who isn’t an artist, said project began as a simple project he conceived. He rented a tiny gallery space for US$60, then passed out 3,000 postcards to people in the Washington, D.C. area with instructions that asked them to write a secret and mail it to him. As the postcards returned, he would place them in his workspace. He thought the project would end; instead, he found himself inundated with 200,000 postcards.

“I thought I was finished with the project, but the project wasn’t finished with me,” he said.

The project has spawned a popular blog, which is updated every Sunday, and four books, along with numerous gallery showings and speaking engagements. And the Post Secret community has raised $100,000 for a national suicide hotline.

“All of us have a secret that would break your heart if you knew what it was,” Warren said. “If we could remember that, there would be more understanding, compassion and peace in the world.”

Alternate Reality Gaming

Jane McGonigal designs alternative reality games (ARGs), which bleed virtual communities with the real world to create interactive stories. Her keynote, the last of this year’s SXSW Interactive conference, focused on her current research on happiness and how it relates to games.

Her point, one that was previewed by Henry Jenkins during his opening remarks, laid out the argument that skills — particularly those for leading a productive, happy life — are developed in virtual worlds. ARGs, which combine virtual interactions with real world experiences, blend those skills in a new way.

McGonigal, now a research affiliate with the Institute for the Future, said happiness research suggests 10 skills are necessary for this, including the ability to interact with large groups, understand big-picture thinking, sift through noise to find relevant data and recognize patterns in large, fast-moving data streams.

“These (skills) amplify our natural tendency towards the optimum human experience,” said McGonigal. “All of these skills really speak to that.”

Ultimately, she said, ARGs have the potential to move entirely away from the computer screen with GPS location and mobile devices, allowing people to use games to relieve boredom, socialize with a large section of people and break down social barriers that oftentimes keep people from connecting.

“(There are) amazing parallels between what makes us happy and the core elements of game design,” she said.

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