The Cutline

SXSW 2012: CNN-Mashable rumors, ‘Homeless Hotspots’ and aggregation rules dominate the first few days

The Cutline

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AUSTIN, Texas—South by Southwest, the annual gathering of music, film and interactive hipsters, is under way, and here's a rundown of the rumors, trends and issues talked about so far.

The 26th version of the now 10-day festival is abuzz with the circulating rumor—first relayed by Reuters TV, then the New York Times—that CNN is in "advanced talks" to buy Mashable, the popular tech and social media news website. According to the reports, a deal could be announced as early as Tuesday and the asking price is a whopping $200 million, noted Reuters.

"We do not engage in speculation about our business, and we aren't commenting on those reports," a spokesman for CNN told Yahoo News.

It would be a huge deal in the interactive space—with most of the major players hanging around Austin right now. But a source with knowledge of the deal characterized the reports as a "made-for-South-By rumor." And, for the moment, there is no announcement or press conference scheduled for Tuesday.

In more tangible tech news, the co-founder of Instagram, the popular mobile photo-sharing app for the iPhone, told attendees that the company plans to release an Android version "really soon."

Another story captivating SXSW, which seems like it should be a rumor, but isn't: homeless people doubling as Wi-Fi hotspots. The "Homeless Hotspots" stunt, produced by a marketing firm, has 13 homeless people strapped with wireless Internet devices walking around Austin in T-shirts that declare "I am a 4G hotspot."

BBH, the marketing firm behind the campaign, partnered with Front Steps, an Austin homeless advocacy group, to "employ" the homeless participants. The money that attendees pay for Internet access ($2 for 15 minutes of Wi-Fi access) goes directly to the homeless individuals.

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Clarence, a homeless Austin resident and temporary Wi-Fi hotspot. (Buzzfeed)

The reaction to the publicity stunt has been critical to say the least. "It is a neat idea on a practical level," David Gallagher wrote on the New York Times' SXSW Tumblr, "but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us ... we turn human beings into infrastructure?"

And the Times' Lexi Mainland noted that the ill-conceived phenomenon has an uncomfortable futuristic feel. It "seems straight out of the pages of a [Gary] Shteyngart novel."

But BBH is defending itself against the backlash.

"The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware," Saneel Radia, head of innovation at BBH, told BuzzFeed. "But frankly, I wouldn't have done this if I didn't believe otherwise."

BBH, though, isn't the only company to turn people into hardware at SXSW. As BuzzFeed points out, FedEx has enlisted at least one person as a walking power portal.

Meanwhile, Pinterest maintained its status as buzzy Internet service. At a panel moderated by Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch on whether we are seeing yet another Internet bubble, the entire panel chimed in on the uselessness of pitching your service as "Pinterest for x." "The Pinterest of fashion ... is Pinterest," deadpanned Peter Pham.

Elsewhere at SXSW, Potter Stewart's famous edict on porn was invoked more than once by writers struggling to make sense of the brave new world of online content. At a panel on what the Internet finds funny, BuzzFeed executive editor Doree Shafrir used the Supreme Court justice's definition of pornography ("I know it when I see it") to describe how to locate the Internet's best cat videos. (For cat video auteurs looking to go viral, Shafrir allowed that she is particularly fond of the cat versus printer genre.)

The Times' David Carr similarly invoked Justice Stewart in a piece on the multiple conversations around aggregation that flourished this weekend.

"So where is the line between promoting the good work of others and simply lifting it?" Carr wrote. "Naughty aggregation is analogous to pornography: You know it when you see it."

At a panel with Carr on Saturday, writer Maria Popova of BrainPickings.org introduced two new symbols that writers could use to indicate the origin of their content, along with a manifesto about respecting the chain of viral knowledge on the Web.

On Sunday, Simon Dumenco, a contributing editor at Advertising Age, introduced something called the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation. The goal: to form standards for Internet aggregators.

Dumenco's council includes a group of media heavy-hitters: Esquire editor David Granger; the Atlantic editor James Bennet; New York magazine editor Adam Moss; New York Observer editor Elizabeth Spiers; Longreads.com editor Mark Armstrong; and Slate editor Jacob Weisberg.

"We want some simple, common-sense rules," Dumenco told Carr. "There should be some kind of variation of the Golden Rule here, which is that you should aggregate others as you would wish to be aggregated yourself."

In that spirit, click here for the Times' piece on aggregation codes, here for the paper's SXSW Tumblr, here for BuzzFeed's coverage of Homeless Hotspots and here for Phoebe Connelly's live Twitter coverage from SXSW.

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