Twittering, liveblogging and chatting Lawrence Lessig at SXSW

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Lawrence Lessig at South by Southwest. Inset magnified below. Credit: David Sarno.

This is Twitter’s third year at South by Southwest. The first year, 2007, was its coming out party, where the newly-introduced system was adopted by partygoing technophiles here in Austin as a way to coordinate their evening activities on the fly.

Last year, when it had a few watts of buzz behind it and a larger user base, Twitter made headlines for enabling ‘back channel chats'--where a few audience members would whisper to one another about the happenings onstage: this kind of silent chatter made headlines when an irate crowd--which had riled itself up via a stream of heated tweets--revolted during Sarah Lacy’s keynote interview of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But this year, backchannel chatting has moved to the front of the room. Live conversations have become a primary and even officially endorsed way for audience members to participate in talks and panels.


Once the lights go down, you won’t go ten seconds without seeing an eager audience member tapping a few sentences into their Twitter client via laptop, iPhone or Blackberry. It’s a lot like a college classroom where everyone is taking notes. Except the notes are public.

If you wanted to stay home from class but still enjoy a running commentary on, say, Lawrence Lessig‘s presentation on money, lobbying and democracy this morning, you need only have searched Twitter for the word ‘lessig.’ Dozens of twitchy-fingered participants contributed to a non-stop flow of Lessig notelets, quoting the Stanford law professor’s pithiest formulations, summarizing his points, and finally tweeting in unison about the standing ovation Lessig got at the end. (Being one of the favorite voices of the digital culture crowd, he was not playing to a tough audience--except for this guy.)

Though I counted more than 500 tweets from the hour long talk, chatting was happening in more places than Twitter, too. Sitting prominently on the stage next to Lessig was a sign advertising a live chat room on Meebo, and a group of chroniclers was collectively transcribing the presentation on the live-blogging service Scribblelive.

It’s hard to know if there’s a true audience for all the note-taking, or if the audience is its own audience, but one thing’s for sure: By the time an old-media blogger gets back to his hotel room an hour later, ready to cough up a post about the talk (a previous version of which is available here), the event feels like old news. The Twitter/livechat/liveblogging storm has moved on to new country, and all that’s left to do is make a meta-comment on all the commenting...

--David Sarno