I headed down to Austin for South by Southwest last week with lots of hope, a loosely knit gameplan for panels I wanted to see and a vague idea of what it was going to be like. Sure, I know Austin is an awesome town for food and music already and that the festival is the hottest things around for indie music, films and yes, interactive media but I hadn’t attended before.
At check in I realized exactly how big this thing is but at the same time ran into several people I knew from on and offline. Over the next 4 days I had an opportunity to have in-depth conversations with many of the leaders of the social media community, hear many of them speak and then rub elbows with musicians, filmmakers and media designers at an overwhelming number of parties. Parties are a big thing at SXSW and I’m proud to say I managed to navigate 6-8 parties in a single evening without having to live up to Scott Stratton’s t-shirt (make sure you read both sides) and still have fun.
I attended the all day Tech Munch workshop at Parkside Restaurant sponsored by Bakespace.com and SteamyKitchen.com. Out of about 100 people there almost half were local Austin bloggers. They’ve got a very active network there. Check out their Facebook page too. Speakers included well known bloggers like Cathy Brooks, Brian Solis Addie Broyles, Jaden Hair and Sarah Evans and topics ranged from the new FTC guidelines and PR to finding ideas, marketing your blog and finding good examples to learn from.
In the panels I have to say some were stellar and some were not. To get an idea of what it was like check out the YouTube channel for SXSW.
As for Keynotes I thought Dana Boyd’s talk on privacy and publicity was spot on. Basically it distills down to this for me. If you want to keep something private don’t put it on the internet. Opt out or hide your friends lists info you don’t want people to know about them. She also pointed out how aggregate information can cause reactions different than one might expect. For example during the BET awards trending topics were dominated by the event and the black community which triggered racist comments that then showed up in the live stream of the event itself.
Everybody’s already covered the keynote with Evan Williams from Twitter and I’m not going to say much more than it’s a missed opportunity to get some deep questions answered instead of a rather fawning interview by Umair Haque. As often happens the back channel lit up on Twitter and the users basically shredded Haque in the first 5 minutes. It was reminiscent of the much maligned Sara Lacy interview with Mark Zuckerberg in 2008. Too bad Louis Gray wasn’t doing the interview but then maybe @Ev would not have shown?
Probably the most interesting apps at SXSWi weren’t new at all. Foursquare and Gowalla were heavily in use and it quickly became the way to find out where the hot panels, parties and restaurants were and locate your friends. At one point I saw over 300 people checked in at one venue (the Diggnation Party) and it was pretty clear lots of other people took that as a clue to get over there before the beer was gone. The two augmented reality superstars weren’t the only ones in use. Check out this Cnet post for more on the geo-location games. I can’t count the number of times I checked in on one or the other (I use both) and one of my connections joined me at the same panel. I can see event planners integrating these apps a lot more in the future.
The biggest fail seemed to be the proliferation of 2d barcodes called QR codes that were everywhere from attendees badges to posters and t-shirts. Why a fail? It was supposed to be simple. You download a QR code reader app for your phone, snap a picture and voila you profile is transferred to their phone or a web page launches. Many people were frustrated with the process and abandoned it relatively quickly. One guy told me he just felt stupid trying over and over to take a picture of the codes over and over and not getting them to register.
Of the apps I downloaded the one that worked best was from Microsoft (on my iPhone no less!) called Microsoft Tag, but it only works on the tags they design, not on the designs on the conference badges for SXSW or the others. The other one that worked well looks like a more traditional bar code with an interesting twist. StickyBits allows you to stick an adhesive sticker on anything and attach a digital file to it. Tag a business card and attach a resume that will open when the code is scanned. Attach a video to a sticker on a birthday present. the possibilities are amazing. All in all the implementation was an interesting test and as the kinks get worked out and image quality gets better this is going to be an interesting space to watch.
Beyond the interactive portion of SXSWi is the film and the music portion which was what this was all about until just 1995. I caught a few indie films and musical performances but nowhere near what I would have liked to have seen. I can’t imagine lasting through the entire festival though so maybe I could have planned differently.
All in all would I go to SXSWi again? You betcha! It’s so important to meet the people you’re connected to online face to face and have a real conversation with them. I met many of my Twitter, Facebook and blogging friends, CEO’s and marketing folk, some relative superstars in the social media world who are real and interesting one on one too. I met a lot of people I might not have met through my usual networks and got to know them, expanding my knowledge base and my friend network.
It was exhausting, amazing, overwhelming, invigorating, sensory overload for four days and I will gladly do it again next year.