Go South by Southwest, young techie


It’s not just about the music – SXSW is also attracting hordes of techies and thinkers, eager to exchange ideas at the festival’s technology conference. It’s a sure sign the times they are a-changin’

DID YOU experience SXSW envy last week? Chances are, if you’re a habitual user of social media, you certainly noticed that there was this thing called South by Southwest happening in Texas and that there was a lot of stuff going on that was getting people by turns excited and irritated.

It’s inevitable that any event which features a cast of characters such as Al Gore, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Sean Parker, Anthony Bourdain, Amber Case, Barry Diller, Kevin Smith, Seth MacFarlane, a multitude of techies, film-makers, musicians and even homeless people turned into mobile internet hotspots is going to grab headlines and tweets.

The 10-day technology conference, film festival and musical jamboree in Austin, Texas has been around in various guises since 1987. However, this was the year when thousands of people who’d never previously come across the event went “SXSW? WTF?” as the avalanche of news, gossip and tweets from the event became impossible to ignore. You could call it a tipping point, but that’s so 2000 in SXSW’s world.

The hardest thing about the event is trying to define exactly what the hell it is these days. On the one hand, it’s a gathering that brings people interested in technology, music and film to Austin every March. Long associated in many minds with its massive music programme (over 2,000 bands turned up in 2012), SXSW’s biggest growth area in the last five years has been its interactive conference, which attracted 25,000 delegates this year. While the film festival may not receive as much love and attention as the other two, it has a great reputation among film-makers for the friendly, lively, impassioned audiences who turn out in droves to see new films in such great cinemas as the Paramount.

But what makes SXSW so intriguing – and so hard to define – is what happens when you bring all of the above disciplines and practitioners together. The overlap between these creative folks leads to an energetic surge of ideas and innovations. It happens at the panels and keynotes held in various rooms and halls during the day and, of course, at the parties, events and gigs that keep delegates entertained throughout the night at the city’s many bars and venues.

The presence of so many creative and influential movers and shakers in Austin naturally attracts even more people to come along. You get delegates from the non-core disciplines keen to feed their brains and disrupt their thinking. You get the big brands keen to associate themselves with SXSW’s cool (hence the reason a credit-card company gave Jay-Z a very large cheque to play a show for it and why a crisp manufacturer crassly decked out its stage as a huge vending machine). And you get some people out to pull a PR stroke.

One of the best lines I heard about SXSW’s appeal came from Amy Buckland of McGill University Library. Speaking at a panel on libraries and community publishing (the span and depth of topics and themes at SXSW really does cover a multitude), Buckland said it was better for librarians like her to attend SXSW rather than go to a convention where the audience consisted solely of other librarians. Why preach to the converted when you can come to Austin and be part of a bigger, deeper, wider conversation with peers from other areas? Even seasoned pros such as the non-profit Technology, Entertainment, Design (Ted)team recognise this feature. Fresh on the heels of its annual conference in California, it organised two salon evenings in the Driskill Hotel to show SXSW-goers what Ted is about. Featuring illuminating eight-minute pitches from such thinkers as DJ Spooky, Ayah Bdeir, JP Rangaswami and others, the aim appeared to be to persuade some of those who turned up to their soirees to become paying punters at the next Ted conference.

But it’s not just a case of simply turning up and doing stuff, as the BBH Labs agency found out. Given that one of the big bugbears at an event such as SXSW is poor and patchy internet coverage due to excess demand, BBH Labs decided to turn homeless people into mobile hotspots. But there was a massive backlash online against the “homeless hotspots” idea, with many attacking the agency for what was seen as exploitative behaviour.

Such distractions aside, SXSW does have a “something for everyone in the audience” style to it. The conversation between Al Gore and Facebook and Napster kingmaker Sean Parker, for instance, showed that politicians can make far more charismatic rock stars than technology industry golden boys. The pair talked about everything from how “democracy has been hacked” (a great soundbite from Gore) to Parker’s current work with campaigning sites Votizen and NationBuilder.

Gore talked passionately about how US politicians are in hock to vested interests to ensure they have the cash to pay for TV campaign ads. Parker, however, believes that new online tools will mean future campaigning will be less encumbered by having to raise cash to pay for TV spots.

The pair, though, were outshone a few days later by Bruce Springsteen, who delivered a keynote address that wowed all who were there to witness it. Hearing Springsteen talk so passionately about doo-wop, The Animals, Bob Dylan and country music (among many other genres in his record collection) was hugely inspirational.

SXSW also addressed the issue of SXSW itself with a meaty spot of navel-gazing. At a panel entitled Social Media Is a Bubble and SXSW Is a Fad, there were complaints that, as the interactive conference has increased in size, it has become overrun with social-media blaggers and brand gurus. It was almost as if many wanted SXSW to go back to the way it used to be years ago, when it was a laid-back spring break for developers and designers in a cool city in Texas.

The problem is you can’t go back to the way things were. If social media turns out to be a bubble, the evangelists will move on to something else and, more importantly, SXSW will itself change again. Long before social media was a thing to be talked up in a business plan, SXSW was there to spotlight, discuss and encourage tech innovations.

It’s telling that the panel discussions are already moving on and in many different directions. It’s as if someone had the bright idea that “hey, SXSW can be about anything we want it to be”, and decided to programme the event to meet that criteria. Panels on attention spans, how fashion has been changed by social media, city hackathons and a discussion with the man who live-tweeted the raid which killed Osama Bin Laden rubbed shoulders in the hefty programme with more atypical SXSW Interactive topics such as Apache Cassandra, the redesign of Google and the future of the interface.

As if to emphasise these changes, SXSW is planning a new event for later in the year. SXSW Eco is a three-day event that will provide “unique networking opportunities and engaging sessions” for those working on environmental issues in the public, private and academic sectors. Don’t be surprised if other SXSW offshoots follow in due course.