Kevin Cheng  

SxSW: The OK/Cancel Experience

March 31st, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

If you’re expecting some serious thoughts about the panels and experience at SxSW 2004, this account is probably not what you should be reading. Both Tom and myself have posted our slightly more poignant and memorable thoughts already and a number of bloggers have posted detailed accounts of the panels and keynotes for your review. What you’re getting instead is the completely unapologetic, blow by blow account of the best of the rest from our perspective. Enjoy.

Thursday and Friday

Tom doesn’t arrive until Saturday and the conference doesn’t officially start until then either. I spend my time enjoying Austin for its sun, spending an afternoon at the lakeside coffee shop Mozart’s and surfing on their free wireless. The experience isn’t completely sublime as it is tainted by not one, but two incidents of grackle attacks. I get hit on the shoulder and the head. I thank somebody that my laptop was spared and then reassess my priorities.

Mozart's Coffeehouse

Friday night, I attend Spector and Garriot’s free talk at the convention center. The rest of the evening is rather uneventful but spent around downtown Austin.

Richard Garriot and Warren SpectorAustin's 6th Street

Saturday

After picking up Tom from the airport, we camp out at the parking lot of the Austin Hilton and like a couple of kids on their lunch break, pouring over our newly printed trading cards. Our rules for distribution were simple: everyone gets two copies of the same card. For each person we are introduced to whom we have not met, we give out an additional card of their choosing. Thus, people are encouraged to not only network with us, but with each other as well.

We proceed to our first round of panels. The morning slot didn’t offer a lot of options so we both attended Let’s Play a Game. So far, a slow start for us. I meet Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, who I was told would be moving to London shortly. He’s one of the first recipients of our trading cards but promptly tells me he’ll be losing the card in the move. I’m to contact him later so I can show him around London. I decide he can contact me if he wants to.

Brenda Laurel was the day’s keynote. As always, she was blunt, occasionally self-deprecating yet simultaneously shameless. All in all, very entertaining. Justin Hall discovers our trading cards and talks us into an impromptu photo for his article.

Craig NewmarkBrenda Laurel

The panels for the rest of the day looked more promising so we decided to split up; Tom to the Craigslist panel and I to the Accessibility one. Veen is speaking at my one and I give him an Adaptive Path Voltron trading card and get another one signed. My goal is to have a full set of signed cards but I have no idea when I’ll meet Holtzblaster. He tells me that we are the biggest geeks and we make a comic that only 9 people in the world would get. I start to wonder if Linux open source hackers should feel offended until I run into Tom.

Tom had his own run in with panelist Craig Newmark and is ready to flip some tables and kick people already. He’s talking non-stop about how he made Craig mad and Craig’s inability to see the futility of creating yet another partisan political site. Even if I didn’t agree with him, which I did, I’d have chosen to nod and smile.

Between the panels, I meet Lane Becker, who introduces me to Mike Kuniavsky (and hence, gets an additional trading card). Lane tells us we get the award for “best use of the Adaptive Path team picture”. I’m guessing the photographers never thought the photo would be turned into a Voltron. Mike says we make a comic that only FIVE people in the world would get. Now I’m starting to wonder: nine people, I could see but five? Even assuming Tom and I don’t get our own jokes, that would imply two people in Adaptive Path don’t either! Mike was very cool though and he introduced us to his better half and panelist Molly Steenson.

Last panel of the day, Tom revisits the subject of geeks and attends the Business from Free Code panel. A short bit into the panel, the moderator issues the dubious statement: “Let’s assume that Open Source is here to stay and that there are viable economic models for it” which essentially left little to debate. Now Tom’s really ready to flip some panelist sized tables.

Luckily, we were done for the day. So we grab some eats and head on over to Frog’s opening party. For the 11th Interactive Festival, they chose an Ocean 11’s theme. Frog money was handed out to everyone coming in and you could take the money and buy raffle tickets or try to win (or lose) the money at a blackjack or craps table. Tom is quick to establish his position with a stack of trading cards.

Tom Plays Frog Blackjack

The cards were a big hit at the party. We stuck around to lose our Frog money. More accurately, I won some Frog money and Tom helped me lose it. I figure he owes me an iPod for losing that winning raffle ticket.

Sunday

We miss the early panels but manage to hit the next set of morning panels. All of them were better than the previous day’s and Tom seems to calmed down with regards to kicking panelists for now. The keynote for the day was given by the guys from MoveOn.org. Their talk was modest and insightful. We were relegated to sitting on the floor because so many people had come to listen to this keynote — it’s always amused me that the center and capital of Texas is so politically liberal. Voter Virgin, a nominee in our web award category, was chosen as “Keynote Speaker for a Minute”. While we support their cause and concept, I had difficulty seeing how they fit under “Humour/Satire”. Although none of that stopped us from thinking we were completely screwed as far as winning the award went.

Tom and KC watch the MoveOn keynoteEli Parser and Zack Exley from MoveOn.org

Tom attended “Monetizing the Blogosphere” where Calconis presented a stuffed animal to represent his absent rival, Nick Denton. There’s a comic in there somewhere but we’re not sure where. Both of us attend the Emergent Democracy panel. More interesting than the panel itself was the projection of Joi Ito’s IRC on the main screen. Of course, I took the opportunity to log into the chat but couldn’t really engage in anymore meaningful conversation than repeatedly joining and exiting thanks to a flakey wireless connection.

Calconis and Virtual DentonKC on IRC

The highlight for the day was the Web Awards. After all, that was the whole reason we made the trip out in the first place.

At the hotel, we were greeted by a woman who asked to interview us on the live webcast. As they set up for the interview, she asked where we were originally from. Tom allowed that he was born in Taiwan while I simply stuck with Canada to avoid the inevitable question to follow:

Woman: “So you speak Chinese?”
Tom: “A little. Mandarin.”
Woman: “Great! I speak a little bit, too. Well this webcast is being watched all over the world including Taiwan and I want to say hello to them. So when I say ‘Ni Hao’ (‘How are you’ in Mandarin), can you guys bow?”
KC: “Chinese don’t bow. Japanese do.”

But it fell on deaf ears and so if you ever catch a rerun of the webcast (assuming they make it available), you’ll know why we were bowing like idiots at the beginning of the interview.

My girlfriend, Kathryn actually was watching the webcast live from London in the wee hours of the morning and after the interview, I talked to her. “Take off the toque,” she said. Never one to go against a woman’s fashion sense, I complied. Later Tom also commented that I took off the “ridiculous hat”. When I asked why he hadn’t told me earlier that it looked ridiculous, he added: “I thought that’s what you were going for.”

Finally, we went into the ballroom where the awards show was. We sat at a table with a few finalists including Classic finalist O’Reilly Networks and Student finalist Leslie Chicione, surrounding a rather unique and appropriately geeky centerpiece. The show started late, but quickly flew by with a few gags from the pink haired host, John Halcyon Styn and regular appearances by the intern accepting absentee awards.

Web Awards CenterpieceJohn Halcyon Styn

As we got closer to our category, we began thinking about our speech, or lack of one. Tom wanted me to beatbox while he rapped but I vetoed the decision, mostly due to my inability to beatbox. For a moment, I was content not to have any speech prepared at all but just when they got to “Green/Non-Profit’, it occurred to me that we were in the HUMOUR category which meant a certain level of expectation from the audience. After all, the tag line for the category was, “the funniest sites on the web.”

I was beginning to hope that we didn’t win to avoid the stress of being funny (God forbid) in person. With all the exposure that Voter Virgin was getting, we had even rationalized that all the other sites were more likely to win. Tom quipped, “Voter Virgin is definitely going to win. I mean they’ve got their barely legal teen voters, right?”

Brilliant. Tom had just come up with our speech and he didn’t even know it. Not a moment too soon.

“… and the Winner is … OK/Cancel”

I’m in a state of shock. As we approach the stage, “We Got It” is playing in the background, which shocks me even more.

KC: “We didn’t really prepare a speech because we thought Voter Virgin was going to win.”
Tom: “(Barely Legal Voters…)”
KC: “Afterall, how could you go wrong with Barely Legal Teens?!”
(pause)
KC: “I want to thank – “
(Tom is taking a picture of KC)
Tom: “Don’t look this way, keep talking”
KC: “I want to thank my muse and inspiration, my parents and my girlfriend Kathryn”
Audience: “Awwww”
KC: “Nono, don’t start that!”
Tom: “I want to thank his girlfriend Kathryn, too”
(KC does a double take. Audience is cracking up.)
Tom: “Heh, I’m just messing. I’d like to thank Lucille…”

Accepting the Award

So that was our pseudo-planned impromptu speech. And this was our reward. I later discovered that last year’s winners got some kind of glass award with a hologram. Oh how the dot com has fallen… but we were not complaining.

Tom and KC with the award!

During the rest of the award ceremony, I was running high on adrenaline. Tom ducked out after our speech to play the grand piano in the comparatively quiet reception area. The activities beyond the awards was mostly a blur of eating, drinking, more drinking and general celebration. I was able to see the first showing of Hellboy.

Monday

It was clear that we were never going to make the 10:00 panels. As much as I love CSS Zen Garden, I could only make it to half of Dave Shea’s panel. I must commend him as he couldn’t have been much better off after winning the Best in Show on top of the Developer’s Resource. More on their panel in the panel reviews. Someone during the question and answer phase asked what they thought of Adobe InDesign CS. Apparently, this guy had just come from an Adobe Workshop and got the impression that InDesign makes a great web integration tool. Dave handled this professionally, referring to more relevant software such as Dreamweaver and GoLive but the Adobe guy would have none of that. “I’m talking about InDesign”, he said. Dave replies, “so far as I know, InDesign is not an appropriate tool for integration. It’s useful for setting layout ideas.” Adobeman persists, “But what version of –“ “CS,” Dave cuts in. And that was that. Or so we thought. Adobeman went up and belaboured the issue with Dave after the panel thus leaving very little time for me to really get to talk to him. What does Adobe teach these people?

Between the panels, Tom had a mini-debate with one of the wireless panelists and danah boyd. Meanwhile, I finally got to meet Simon Willison. We also had a chance to speak with Gabriel Jeffrey and Jason Fried.

danah boyd debating with Tom

The rest of the day was uneventful save for a flurry of activity between each panel as we handed out trading cards left and right. People were now coming up with ideas on how to use the numbers on the cards to play games and others were introducing us to cool people to get additional cards. Interesting talks included Howard Rheingold’s keynote and eff Veen taking over for Jesse James Garrett in a panel.

Howard RheingoldJeff Veen, the head of the Voltron

We were starting to get into a system of both card distribution and panel attendance. I recruited Leslie to help hand out some cards and the three of us took on a different panel each at the end of the day. Unfortunately, the shotgun approach failed as it seemed the Neal Pollack panel was the place to be and none of us had attended it. Oh well, it was time again for drinks.

A short get-together with our HCI friends from Trilogy and it was off to the Blogger/Google party where the dot com lifestyle was in full effect. We missed the open bar but free T-shirts were always welcome. We also arrived in time to see the best (or worst) side of everyone. I got to talk to Jay Allen and chatted more with Tantek Çelik, Lane Becker, Dave Shea and probably a ton more I’m forgetting at the moment. Tom was looking tired and mostly just sat next to a huge pile of Blogger shirts.

Later on in the night, I met Jonathan Abrams of Friendster and Jim Young of hotornot, who’d already been talking to Tom. Tom introduced us and told me Abrams was friends with fellow humour nominee Pud, from Askpud.com. Before Tom could even finish, Abrams points a drunken finger in my face and says,

“I know you! You’re OK/Cancel! I HATE you! You beat my friend!!”

Apparently, Tom has already listened to this. I assess his level of inebriation and decide that he was being a jackass and deserved neither subtlety nor tact (not that they were my strong suits) and respond tersely:

“Sorry, dude. I guess we’re just funnier.”

When I asked him for his business card, he gave me a Friendster condom. I think he was hitting on me.

Dinner with Dave, Leslie and Matt May ensued. Tom and I then had our first in person discussions about OK/Cancel’s future direction. The process was rather enlightening as all our brainstorming and discussions had been performed virtually up until then. Unfortunately, the price to pay was yet another late night.

Tuesday

On the last day of the conference, we were definitely feeling the lack of sleep. We caught what we could of the morning panels when we finally rolled into the convention centre. Immediately before lunch, we had a flurry of trading card activity as one entrepreneur took it upon himself to get a full set of OK/C cards in record time. He introduced us to a group of 6 or so friends in quick succession. His friends, upon realizing how they’d been used (and further realizing they were now unable to introduce the same friends to get extra cards of their own) weren’t too pleased.

Keynote speaker was the hung over Abrams. I don’t need to go into detail about his speech as danah and many others have talked about it. I wasn’t sure if my views were skewed by meeting the drunk Abrams first anyways.

I left immediately after for the airport and of course, took with me a last sample of Austin cuisine: Amy’s Ice Cream. Pity I didn’t have room for some of the Salt Lick BBQ next to it.

Jonathan AbramsAmy's Ice Cream

Tom stuck around another hour to attend one last panel. I wish I could have stayed as I never got a chance to meet Lance Arthur at the conference. Soon after, Tom caught his own flight but not before capturing one more Austin moment on his camera:

Texans Do Math

Links to some other SxSW coverage:
SXSW Videos
SXSW Community Blog
Mike Slone’s SXSW Link Roundup

4 Responses to “SxSW: The OK/Cancel Experience”
J wrote:

I like the photos of the cow hat and the math license plate. For some reason I just see them and I know they had to be Austin. Or maybe I’m just too familiar with the Austin landscape. :-)

my:dentity wrote:

SxSW Highlights

Many people asked about the highlights of the SxSW trip so here it is….

Teresa wrote:

You guys are very funny, even in person. I knew OK/ Cancel was going to win because all the judges take your humor personally and appreciate someone that understands them, so I had no worries at all at the web awards of having to get on stage. Congrats on a site well done and the award you fully deserve. Nice to find out you are charming people as well.

Marina wrote:

A nice review! A pink-haired guy anf the cow-hat are funny!


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?