News & Views

SXSW / Interactive

by Contagious Team

The world's digital enthusiasts converged on Austin again this weekend for the yearly pilgrimage to South by Southwest Interactive, and our North American crew was there to experience it. In between mouthfuls of barbecued meat, our NA editor Nick Parish relays his experiences at the festival.

Probably the first rule to apply to your SXSW trip is this: you can't do everything. So I'm not going to try to cover everything that went on here. And I'm going to aim to avoid sounding like a total hippie in my praise for the best parts of this festival, because the top-line stuff is often airy and obtuse. 

But that'll be difficult, as the parts of the thing that need to be emphasized and lauded most, the community spirit, the feeling of openness and sharing, the exchange of ideas, they're at the far end of the spectrum from the parts of the conference that tend to get exaggerated and slammed - the bro-grabs and business card exchanges, the fast-talking popped-collar dealmaking, the douchiness. 

Leave it to Seth Godin to state it simply, but the interesting conversations are what make the experience in Austin so special. Free-flowing, riffing, real-life conversations with far-flung associates are the heart of the festival. Serendipitous encounters. Running into the person that did that thing you really loved, and having a chat about it. 

The festival remains the premier place to share and learn about our society, and to participate in a culture of ideas. Period. It's no longer just our digital society. (Really, just take a look at the scale of the thing.) 

The issues discussed at SXSW are those affecting the world at large, across national boundaries, across bands of connectedness and disconnectedness. The shapers of culture, the makers driving social change come here to discuss their ideas. Technology is at the intersection of everything now - that's what makes this conference so critical. And its role in the creation of culture is what makes it relevant to everyone. 

It's easier than ever to access the other bits. The interactive festival's been happening over fifteen years, and there's surely a greater amount of data on every panel and talk open and available on the web than ever before. You can comb through the Twitter hash tags and revisit every panel, reconstruct the arguments and dilemmas and slideshows, but those group connections are what makes the event so special.  

The earthquake in Japan cast a long shadow, despite the revelry the festival supports. On Sunday, Architecture for Humanity founder Cameron Sinclair used his session for enlisting technology firepower to help Japan. 

New York Times editor Bill Keller cancelled his appearance due to the tragedy, but the festival held a town hall-style SXSW for Japan event instead, with updates, a call-in from Keller and the latest news and information on how to help and flex the power of the SXSW community. 

'Let's not just talk, let's show', said one festival producer before 4chan founder Christopher 'moot' Poole's keynote, urging attendees to but a metaphorical drink for Japan for every party they attend and donate money to the relief effort.

SXSW has become a gathering of people with unparalleled desire to create change. If you're reading this, you're likely in the same camp, and you should be down here next year, or find a way to gather some of the energy and intensity this festival gives off. 

And the awards go to...

Best sponsorship effort, practicalOgilvy's Ogilvynotes, which took the scribing capacity SXSW had at last year's festival and blew it up, expanding it to dozens more panels, enabling a quick visual reminder of what you saw. The best part is each day they physically print thousands of tabloid-size pages of the doodles, so you can pick up souvenirs of your favourite panel or catch up on what you missed. 

They were nice enough to illustrate the panel I got to participate in, 'Client Knows Best?', which looked at the challenges of selling non-traditional or radical ideas. (You can catch up on that here, if you're interested.)

Runner up goes to the Foursquare/American Express tie-up that gave you a $5 kickback on your bill whenever you checked in and used your card at participating retailers. 

Best sponsorship effort, aestheticGE's Carousolar, a solar-powered carousel, developed with The Barbarian Group to explain the company's solar energy efforts, stood out among the over-flashy elements (yes, you Pepsi Max). 

Most utilized newcomer startupGroupMe. Group SMS made finding out about long lines, the plague of the festival, a little bit easier. 

Best Spring Break in Austin sighting: A guy in a plush Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume (Michelangelo) riding a mechanical bull.

Best photobooth evolutionBreakfast New York's Instaprint Instagram adaptation, which prints photos tagged with venue information

Best live panel-enhancer: A near-field enhanced T-shirt that reacts to audience tweets 

Best attempted bouncer bribe: 'I'll give you $100 and two invites to my private beta...' Rejected.

Best Food Trucks (in order of bestness):Korean BBQ on Congress St. 

Firefox Mobile's ice cream truck 

Wherever Foodspotting said you should eat 

Meta McMetahead Award: Posting a photo on Foursquare of Foursquare founder

Dennis Crowley playing foursquare in the Foursquare venue...and receiving a Foursquare on Foursquare badge for it. 

Most unique business cardSomething from m ss ng p eces 

Suggestions for next year: How to handle size? The festival felt too big this year. Arriving 30 minutes early for some panels wasn't enough to get a seat. The campus of venues has expanded and become too big. In trying to give everyone a voice, the festival runs the risk of polluting the core product, the great content.