March 19, 2012

SXSW recap: In case you missed anything

Posted by: in North America

Our recap of the overwhelming, (at times) inspiring, soggy-turned-sunny experience that defined this year’s SXSW Interactive merely skims the surface of the event in terms of conversations and content. Anything more would be a near impossibility, given the 100-some parties and 1,100-plus panels and presentations ranging in focus from branding, journalism and science to convergence, culture and gaming (and those were only the ones on the official docket!).

“It’s hard to maintain the intimacy that you had in the early days,” observed Gawker Media founder and SXSW panelist Nick Denton. He was referring to online reader comments, but the observation applies equally to the Austin interactive conference, which celebrated its 18th year this month. Some put the attendance at 50,000, and while that may be an exaggeration, it sure felt a long way from intimate.

The aim of social network Path is to bring intimacy back to the Web, with a friend limit of 150. The point is to “share more frequently with the people you love the most,” said Dave Morin, co-founder and CEO of the two-year-old startup, on a panel loosely based on happiness. Morin also pointed to data’s role in helping us improve our health and our happiness, offering as an example the Nike+ FuelBand, a wristband that syncs with smartphones to help wearers monitor their daily activity via an app.

Big Data is a hot topic across the conference circuit, and SXSW was no exception. At the SoLoMo Redefined session, Matt Galligan, co-founder of forthcoming Circa, a stealthy news content startup, emphasized that people will soon begin to realize the monetary value of the data they’re generating with each mouse click across the Web. And Chris Messina, an open Web advocate at Google, spotlighted the rise of the “data privileged,” those who manage to derive advantages from the data they’re creating in the form of discounts, deals and the like. Of course, this all depends on consumers’ willingness to trust apps not to embarrass them by sharing too much information and on the way laws evolve to address new privacy concerns.

Reflecting today’s data-driven, real-time world, some speakers voiced caution over knee-jerk reactions to the chattering class. “Twitter and Internet comments have scared people—they have hindered experimentation,” commented Gawker’s Denton, pointing to Gap’s quick about-face last year when some consumers greeted its new logo with disdain. On the other hand, Steve Jobs found great success in completely disregarding naysayers. “In the end, Steve Jobs wore down the Apple critics,” Denton said.

Among those in agreement was Billy Corgan. Following the audience “kills the artistic impetus to move forward,” the irreverent Smashing Pumpkins frontman told an audience at the Austin Convention Center last Tuesday. “One moment of inspired insanity becomes a negative. … Asking artists to take this ride up and down the social chain is [ludicrous].”

In a provocative Q&A with Brian Solis, author of The End of Business as Usual, Corgan railed against a culture that no longer supports music with substance yet champions American Idol-like clones that churn out “laptop rock.” “We have to be responsible for the culture we’re creating,” he said. “If you care about your world, you have to understand your responsibility in that world. You can’t hide in the [masses].”

Calling music streaming services like Spotify a transitional model, Corgan offered some suggestions for artists looking for sustaining success: “You can no longer think of the thing that you make as your main source of income. Music is still my center, but I have to be bigger. … Artists have to create their own worlds. [They have] to figure out a way to drive people to them.”

Al Gore and Sean Parker discussing media and politics

Clearly it has been the end of business as usual in the music industry for some time now, with Napster marking a watershed moment back in 1999. Interestingly, Napster co-founder Sean Parker shared a stage at the convention center later that afternoon with Al Gore. The serial entrepreneur was there not to talk music but politics. Parker’s latest goal: getting more people signed on to his fundraising platform, Causes, and then moving them up the ladder of engagement—turning them from slacktivists (aka armchair activists) into more informed and engaged citizens. “A well-informed democracy is integral to a functional democracy,” Parker said, adding “We’ve been exceptionally apathetic.”

Both Gore and Parker aim to lower the costs of a viable candidacy and increase the number of informed and empowered citizens, using digital tools. “The role of money has grown and grown and grown. And the quality of the political discourse has gone down and down and down,” said Gore, who wants to start an “Occupy Democracy” movement.

Promising startups were everywhere at this year’s SXSW, with the passive location-based apps Glancee and Highlight among the most talked about. JWT’s Gemma Pollard walked the exhibition floor on Tuesday and filed a post on the upstarts she found most interesting.

For fledgling tech companies looking to pitch agencies and brands, JWT New York chief creative innovation officer James Cooper dispensed some advice along with David Tisch, managing director of the startup accelerator program TechStars in New York. For more on what they had to say at this Sunday panel, check out this Adweek story.

The Warby Parker party

While many spent their last night in Austin scamming tickets to the American Express-sponsored Jay-Z concert, we opted for a more subdued but civic-minded Warby Parker party that featured a quirky performance by vaudeville-inspired troop The Citizens Band. A few nights before, JWT hosted a capacity crowd at the Kung Fu Saloon, with the overflow partiers enjoying libations a block away at The Brew Exchange. For those who couldn’t get in, you missed out; we certainly messed with Texas!

Speaking of, with so much going on simultaneously at SXSW and so many at-capacity events, Fear Of Missing Out is rampant, with FOMO references flying across Twitter and Facebook alike. So we couldn’t think of a better place to talk about it; if you missed my presentation on that very topic, you can see Jessica’s synopsis here.

Inevitably, with such an overwhelming amount of people, panels, presentations and parties at this year’s SXSW, the topic at one panel turned to the question, “Has SXSW jumped the shark?” What do you think?

1 Response to "SXSW recap: In case you missed anything"

1 | Michael Dezso

March 24th, 2012 at 1:08 pm

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Thanks for the thorough synopsis. It’s hard to get your hands and head around it when you’re there.

In terms of the question of whether SxSW has jumped the shark, I’d say that it’s reminiscent of the Yogi Berra-ish that no one goes to the restaurant anymore because it’s too crowded.

I’d say in some ways that the scale makes it difficult to get exactly what you need out of the conference. As Sunni Thompson said to me, “you have to meet SxSW halfway.” I’d add that you can no longer just stroll around and get it. You have to have a plan and stick to the plan. It’s too big to just wing it.

But where else can you see the future of tech, culture and commerce?

SxSW is dead. Long live SxSW.

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