News & Views

Debrief / SXSW

by Emily Hare

This year's SXSW festival saw a shift from social stories to privacy concerns, hardware gaining prominence alongside software developments, an appreciation of existing technology and the rising importance of social good in business. Contagious highlights the key trends from the convention centre and the best of the off-campus events. 

Private by default

The inclusion of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald all joining the SXSW lineup via Skype or Google Hangout from their respective exiles ensured that privacy would be a dominant theme at the festival. 

The trio urged the audience to be more concerned about their privacy and the information they share. They advised ways to stall groups such as the NSA and GCHQ, such as more people using file encryption and being prepared to pay for email and social services, so that tools can be built which, as Snowden sees it, allow for secure transmission of data and communications 'automatically and seamlessly' rather than 'by geeks for geeks'.

Snowden, speaking from Russia, stated that 'the constitution has been violated on a massive scale' and Assange warned of a 'movement towards surveillance totalitarianism' and ‘a greater power inequality’ as organisations gain more information about us. 

Brands' position is problematised as people become increasingly concerned about privacy and the information that they share. Christopher Soghoian, principle technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, who spoke with Snowden on the panel said: 'The tools we use to browse the web are made by advertising companies who are not going to give us tools that are private by default.' Soghoian believes that start-ups have an advantage to disrupt this model, by building offerings around an alternative business model. Snowden told the packed audience: 'We rely on the ability to trust our communications. Without that our economy cannot succeed.' 

Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, speaking earlier at the festival, was pressed on his views about Google’s reaction to Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, and was unequivocal: 'In hawks versus doves, hawks win. Fight for your privacy or lose it.'

Another key theme was data-permanence and the potentially damaging implications for a younger generation who use digital channels to freely broadcast their innermost secrets and social activities. Such behaviour is the equivalent of leaving digital scarlet letters which could incriminate them later in life: 'Tell your kids about data permanency before you tell them about the birds and the bees,' recommended Schmidt.

The next issue of Contagious and our Now / Next / Why event will look at the issue of privacy in more depth, including bespoke qualitative and quantitative research with insight and brand consultancy, Flamingo.

Social Good

In contrast to the unenvious position of many brands in the privacy debate, there were a number of brands and speakers present at the festival championing the idea that brands have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to the world. Lauren Bush Lauren, speaking about her accessories and apparel brand FEED, which donates meals to the developing world for each product sold said: 'there's no difference between philanthropy and doing business now'. Bush Lauren spoke about viewing FEED's consumers 'as advocates and donors' adding 'we want to empower our consumers to own the cause and the brand'.

Chelsea Clinton also spoke about how 'technology has disrupted the very nature of how we can improve the world by empowering individuals to make a difference'. 'Giving, volunteering and contributing have been democratised like never before.' Clinton also encouraged companies to be candid about their failures, sharing that she believes the tech community is far better than the charity sector in learning from its mistakes.   

Ethical shoe company Toms' founder Blake Mycoskie used the festival to announce the expansion of its buy one, give one model to coffee, with a donation of day's worth of fresh water supplied for each bag of coffee beans purchased from Whole Foods or a Toms store.

And American entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen also set out to invigorate the audience about the positive change they could make in the world. Kamen showcased his work with Coca-Cola to develop Coke Ekocentres, providing drinking water in the developing world. Echoing the belief shared at the festival that businesses can and should make a positive impact in the world, Kamen believes that the Bill of Rights should be accompanied by a 'Bill of Responsibilities'.

An alternative search engine based around social good was presented by Twitter founder Biz Stone, who shared details of his recently launched start-up Jelly, a search engine built around the promise of a connected society and belief that people are basically good. As the internet reduces degrees of separation between people, Jelly allows people to source answers from a friend or a friend of friends. 

Using Existing Technology for Innovation

Google's head of creative partnerships, Ben Malbon, spoke about using existing technology to drive innovation, saying 'being first has always been a big thing in the advertising industry, but the future's here already... Innovation doesn't need invention.' Malbon believes that brands already have incredible opportunities to create storytelling experiences, and it is far easier to bend the rules of online advertising infrastructure than TV or print, offering massive opportunities for creatives.

MIT Media Lab's showcase of its work, just away from the convention centre, brought existing technologies to new and exciting forms. Its showcase included the Little Bits modular synth kit, shown above, and The Girl Who Was Plugged In, a sensory fiction experiment that develops plot through a wearable device and networked sensors and actuators. Joi Ito, the Media Lab's Director was inducted into the SXSW Hall of Fame at the festival.

 co-founder and editorial director Paul Kemp-Robertson and James Kirkham from Holler presented Full of Tomorrow: Brands, Technology and Miracles. Based on a 'No more jetpacks' principle, the presentation showed how existing technology has the potential to affect the near future and how brands can position themselves in that space. If you missed it, or want to follow up, the Scriberia-animated individual Wildfire scenarios are in full on YouTube, and we’ve collected some of the individual examples we showed on Tumblr.

Quality Content

Producing quality and considered content whether for TV, social media or other online platforms was a recurring theme. Dana Brunetti, producer of Netflix breakout show, House of Cards, believes 'it's a fantastic time for content creators if you're looking to reach an audience'. His co-speaker, Randi Zuckerberg, added 'we now live in an age where your audience has an audience'.

Producing content in a slower, considered way, and achieving a higher quality output as a result cropped up in a number of sessions. Statistician and blogger Nate Silver spoke in favour of slow journalism: 'because it’s so easy to publish on the web, people think that it’s a speed thing. I believe in differentiating on the basis of quality.’ 

R/GA used its panel on Social Media fiascos to position brands in the publishing space. Neal Mann, multimedia innovations editor at the Wall Street Journal, advised: 'Be listening. As a brand you're in the game that publishers are in. Understand the news cycle, how people perceive different news events and what's not appropriate to comment on.' Tone of voice, authenticity and an investment in social media at a senior level were all cited as important to social media success. Chapin Clark, R/GA's MD of copywriting, added 'I hope brands get away from being "always on" on social media. It's more about always being relevant.'

And, taking an alternative perspective, Blast Radius' Steve Johnson, applied user experience learnings from porn to web design. His conclusions? Streamline navigation, explore greater fidelity, facilitate communication and expand the experience. 


Scientist and computer programmer Stephen Wolfram laid out the tools he designed to allow people to communicate with technology and link programming languages, thus creating software in much simpler ways, with near-instant APIs hosted by Wolfram’s Programming Cloud. The potential of a more natural way of processing data continues to be a lofty goal in developing the next generation of mega-distributed software, particularly with regard to the internet of things, and connecting up the large number of objects expected to arrive on the web. 

Off-campus, the hardware vs. software debate was brought to life through food, thanks to Oreo and IBM's super computer Watson. The Modelez brand's Trending Vending lounge allowed users to 3D print Oreo cookies - users browse a selection of ‘trending flavours’ on a large touchscreen panel, and then select one of 12 available flavours and colours of crème. A 3D printer developed by MAYA Design then printed the unique cookie in under two minutes. 

Watson kept an eye on trending twitter topics under its #IBMFoodTruck - chefs from the Institute of Culinary Education used Watson to suggest intriguing recipes based on the selected dish, based on the chemical composition of the ingredients. Selected recipes ranged from Chilli Con Carne, Poutine, Vietnamese Apple Kebab and Belgian bacon pudding.