This post is adapted from an article written for Campaign magazine (25.03.10), available online at campaignlive.co.uk next week.
South by Southwest, or SXSW as it likes to be referred to, has celebrated emerging film and music for over two decades, but 2010 was the year the Interactive component of the conference shifted up a gear and gained critical mass. Last week around 15,000 people descended on the city of Austin in Texas for 5 days of neck-deep immersion in progressive digital culture.
Despite its mind-blowing scale, a few key themes emerged for us from SXSWi’s smorgasbord of panels and presentations.
GEO-LOCATION, GEO-LOCATION, GEO-LOCATION
If 2009 saw Foursquare unveiled at SXSW to palpable excitement, 2010 so far has seen the mobile & web app and its competitors come of age. Over 300,000 check-ins to Foursquare alone (others used Gowalla, Whrrl and the like) over the course of the conference translated to a whole host of SXSWers updating their location, notifying their friends where the great panels & parties were, in real-time. Foursquare knows its audience like nothing more than a little competition, so threw in a few specially commissioned SXSW ‘badges’ and, er, temporary tattoos to collect.
Location also strayed into data visualisation, with Stamen design sharing a range of maps, one detailing crime hotspots in Oakland, Ohio and another set (in partnership with the NGO MySociety), visualising the commute time it takes to get into and across London.
Overall, no surprises here, just more overwhelming evidence that social, location-based apps & digital services will take hold because they have a real and useful role. SXSW acted as an accelerator / bootcamp for all involved.
NETWORKED FOR SOCIAL GOOD OR EVIL?
SXSW was living proof of an obsession with noodling around on networks and at least three keynote speakers showed a growing impatience or concern with this as any kind of end game.
Microsoft Research’s danah boyd opened the conference with an intelligent piece examining the increasing social and corporate pressure to publicise data about ourselves via social networks, versus the human need for control. She cited Facebook’s handling of their new privacy settings as an example of this going badly wrong, with 65% of users clicking to accept the changes without digesting the implications. The move to force people to opt out, rather than opt in to making their data more public caused a furore, only fueled by the stories where previously private data about a person had distressing consequences. The lesson for businesses wanting to engage communities online: make no assumptions about what people are comfortable with (and on a personal note, go check those Facebook settings now, if you haven’t already).
A day later, with one of the most compelling & charismatic talks of the conference, the writer Clay Shirky put forward a counter-point of sorts: how being very open with our data can improve civilisation, even save lives. He referred to Patientslikeme.com, an online utility that encourages patients to share personal information about their illnesses. The site deliberately runs counter to the culture of secrecy in healthcare. Rattling off examples from Napster to women’s rights in India, he continued to talk about radical collaboration, or, as he memorably put it: “Not the unicorn and rainbows sharing, but jackhammer sharing…that destroys the things around it.. can’t be stopped”, he said. “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.”
Bruce Sterling‘s cantankerously brilliant closing keynote also pulled no punches on how future generations will perceive us: “We’re basically networking while Rome burns” he said, describing our collective unwillingness to use technology in the first instance to address climate issues and poverty: “The first thing we should have open-sourced? Food & shelter.” The solution lay in deliberately changing course: “The future is a journey, not a destination.”
A LITTLE LESS CONVERSATION (LET’S MAKE SOME STUFF)
If anyone thought there was too much hot air and too few tangible ideas, Bre Pettis and Tal Chalozin’s fantastically inventive and honest talk ‘Doing it Wrong: Recently Possibly Technology‘ provided an extreme answer. Lasers, hacked photocopiers, waffle-based edible QR codes and a shower (with water pressure that gets stronger the louder you sing) all featured, to great effect. More seriously, the huge appeal of their talk lay in two things: their infectious determination to make their ideas a physical reality and their total adoption of failure as part of the process.
On a related if more philosophical note, the director Michel Gondry shared the work he’s been up to online and offline, in the process describing his fear that lifestreaming – the sharing of everything we think or do as it happens – means we lose the real, emotional impact of those moments “because we’re too busy documenting it all”.
Whether it was Spotify’s Daniel Ek talking about wanting to provide “music like water” or Susan Wu from Ohai games describing her rules for MMO games (1. 30 seconds to fun, 2. Keep it simple, reveal complexity gradually, and 3. Real world context and relationships are key), a significant theme of the conference was about making user experience as frictionless as possible.
One of the most hotly anticipated yet infamously disappointing events of the conference – Umair Haque’s interview with Twitter founder Evan Williams on the Monday – opened with the announcement of Twitter’s new @anywhere platform, which will integrate Twitter content in partner sites (Amazon, Ebay, Digg, YouTube etc), simplifying and speeding connection to Twitter without having to visit the site: think Facebook Connect for Twitter.
Finally, as if to make the point, one genius provided simple session notes on the Spotify interview as it came to a close in the form of a Spotify playlist.
WE’RE ALL GEEKS NOW
The swell in SXSWi conference numbers alone was proof we all increasingly view getting comfortable with technology as crucial. The author and thinker Douglas Rushkoff took that further, suggesting we all learn to code or face up to a future where we will be effectively ‘illiterate’, subordinated to the people and companies (Facebook, Twitter, WordPress et al) whose definition of how we express ourselves (profiles, 140 characters etc) rules.
His reactionary stance got particularly interesting when he asked us to consider the fact that China and Korea are teaching their children to program, whilst the US and Europe teach kids to use Microsoft Office and Powerpoint. His SXSWi talk was a conference’s worth of ideas alone, for a report covering his 10 Commands, check out sxtxstate’s post on the subject.
Putting the official content of SXSWi to one side, there are a few other things about SXSW you can’t help but take with you when you leave.
Whether you’re someone who enjoys the game of Russian roulette that is choosing from the vast array of simultaneously programmed sessions, or whether you get deeply irritated by the same thing, getting the most from a conference like this often means seeking out the stuff you know little about. Naked’s Katy Lindemann put it perfectly:
Adopting this approach meant instead of getting worked up about a misguided panel or lack of new thinking on a subject close to my heart, I learned something new instead. This year, the approach led me to mix the high concept web philosophy of Bruce Sterling’s keynote, say, with a quick but extremely enlightening dip into the entrepreneurial world of Silicon Valley seed accelerators and a little neuroscience. That’s not to say there weren’t excellent and useful talks closer to home, Mike Arauz and Bud Caddell’s very entertaining Web Video Thunderdome was just one example.
THE POWER OF THE BACK CHANNEL
Perhaps the thing that most powerfully kicked in this year was the subterranean rush and roar of the back channel. Twitter, blogs (including this from BBH London and @LenKendall’s speech sketch notes), Foursquare and – god forbid – real life conversation provided an ever-present, unmoderated and often very public commentary, at turns insightful / ascerbic / witty / harsh (pick one).
If you arrived in Austin with a mild case of ADD, you left Austin with a chronic disorder. This was human connection on crack, which perhaps starts to hint at the real power of SXSW.
IT’S (STILL) BETTER IN PERSON
The sheer scale of the event (“Everything’s bigger in Texas”), of course, plays a factor. Chances are that you’re going to bump into all manner of people whilst you’re here – developers, digerati, gamers, musicians and filmmakers, production companies, students, marketers and an increasing number of adland planners, producers & creatives. Thanks in large part to the growth of Twitter over the past 12 months, this year saw an abundance of weak ties formed prior to the conference just dying to be strengthened on arrival in Austin.
The good, if obvious news: you discover the people who are smart and nice on the inter-webs are (even) better when met face to face over a taco for breakfast or BBQ and a beer on 6th Street. Taking that a stage further, a group of around 30 of us spent a couple of hours on the Monday getting to some tangible ideas about how we might collaborate together more openly (see Edward Boches write-up on the subject here).
When you add all that humanity to SXSW’s strange yet awesome combination of liberal, indie Austin vibe with intense, 24/7, brain over-stimulation, it becomes very hard to resist, pretty intoxicating even. And therein lies the joy.
For more about SXSWi, check out their site.
Next year’s SXSWi will be held March 11-15 2011.