SXSWi 2012: So That’s What All The Fuss Was About
You probably don’t need me to tell you what SXSW is, how it rained most of the weekend in Austin, or even about the big controversy over an agency’s project there called “Hotspots for Homeless.” CNN, NPR, Fast Company, Mashable, AdAge, Digiday and thousands of personal tweets covered all that. And who wants to hear about parties you didn’t attend.
But like Cannes Lions and The One Show Festival, SXSW Interactive (the newbie to music and film, which overlap with it) is too big and too important to casually dismiss. This year, SXSWi included big name speakers such as Al Gore, Jill Abramson of The New York Times, Danah Boyd of Microsoft, and Frank Abagnale (remember Catch Me If I Can?) as well as regular, less known people who may have created your favorite website or app. And if you’re a young, tiny startup passionately toiling away in isolation most of the year, it’s a unique opportunity to learn and connect with like-minded folks and even your personal heroes. Maybe people with money too.
1. New stuff. I am sure I could read more tech blogs back at home, but from both formal presentations hallway conversations I picked up dozens of web sites and apps about which I didn’t previously know. For example: GigWalk (quick jobs in your town for companies); Hackpad (collaborative note taking); and Unroll.me (email filter and bundle system — I got an invitation to the beta. Love it).
2. Shifts in the talent market. One of the themed tracks I followed was The Future of Work. In “Serial Monogamy” Dan Finnigan of Jobvite talked about the disposable worker, and with career mobility, how recruiters are more important than ever. He observed that employers are less interested in how many jobs you’ve had but what your experiences have been. I believe in this, hoping we all build a ‘portfolio’ of stories that we amass over our career and can talk about. I believe we each should add at least one juicy experience to our CV every year.
3. Talks beat panels. Panel discussions like Planned Parenthood’s case study of crisis communications weren’t very informative or surprising, but in-depth interviews such as Gawker Media’s Nick Denton was. Interviewed by Anil Dash, Denton defended gossip, calling it “news you actually want to hear.” He also gave his view on how comments need to evolve on his network of sites, with the goals of increasing the quality even if it restricts the volume. More responsibility needs to be shared by the contributors and climate has to be protected for clear-headed debate. “How many of you only want to have a conversation with people who agree with you?” he asked the audience. In response, Dash mused, “That sounds like San Francisco,” poking fun at the city’s humorless zealotry. Some 15-minute talks also were productive, such as “Open APIs: What’s Hot? What’s Not?” where I learned that hackathons can be companies test out their API’s and apparently, REST Is hot, but SOAP is not. I know what an API is and their importance, but I don’t know squat about programming languages behind them. Probably a good conversation starter in my next developer meeting. Another fast-track session was on creative leadership by Sarah Nelson of Tapir and Tine. I’m a punctuation fanatic, so among the gleanings that stuck with me:
Business is about ! and . Creative is about ? and ,
#creativeleaders are translators between them.
That made a lovely tweet, which every attendee did with anything wise or catchy.
4. Who was there. Who wasn’t. Walking around sponsor and non-sponsor tents and parties, my husband Bryan Fuhr, who also works in the business, wondered: Where’s Facebook? The social network behemoth was apparently sitting this one out. Google, on the other hand, not only had a rented a house nearby for parties, but rented FOUR houses in a neighborhood to demo various products (including maps and Android) and host cocktails. I saw a lot of industry folks and friends I hadn’t seen in awhile, although too many were New Yorkers who I could have seen back here anytime. The most notable presence, to me, was the demographic makeup of the thousands of attendees. You might not be surprised by the 20:1 male to female ratio at a technology event, but what was depressing was the homogeneity of the folks on stage and in the audience—aside from Baratunde Thurston, it was mostly white guys. Leaving as the music festival was starting, I noticed much more diversity emerging. Someone more qualified to talk about this will hopefully rail against the white bread problem. Wait, in Salon, someone did.
5. Storytelling. There were at least six sessions with the word story in it. Content is finally hitting its stride and new platforms let us tell stories in different ways, but the word is getting so overused and diluted it’s going the way of utility, platforms, dashboard, innovation, guru and awesome. Video, on the other hand, is among favorite things to talk about and create, and I enjoyed a refresher (and reality check) at “The Viral Myth”, led by former colleagues Rob Davis and Jeremy Sanchez. Using science as well as art, they led us through how to develop video for success from the very beginning (tapping search for insights, naming your channel), even before you develop the idea.
6. The food wasn’t that great. People rave about Texas barbecue and Austin food, but I must have very different taste or am too spoiled by Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke restaurant in New York. I went to a few decent dinners with my husband’s Havas crew as well as Flintstone-size BBQ ribs at famous IronWorks with colleagues from my former company, but wasn’t that impressed with the food or wine scene. The only gastro highlight for me was many, many beers (the local Lone Star brand) without food with colleagues from my team when I was at R/GA. As you many know from my other posts, I have many allergies but luckily not to this lighter beer, so thank you Austin for not killing me.
Crowded conferences such as SXSW definitely have operational issues. Lines to pick up your pass on Friday afternoon, for example, stretched to two hours for many of us, forcing us to miss several sessions we wanted to attend. Spread over multiple locations and hotels, too many of us were turned away from sessions even if we arrived early. If SXSW wants to be this big and accept everyone who buys a ticket, they need to figure out how to run it better. Maybe, um, use technology to measure and manage capacity? Parking lots are starting to do it surely the brains and community of SXSWi can. Next year, if I go, I think I’ll attend more of the geeky tech sessions and less of the marketing/brand stuff, too full of TWAK (things we already know). After all, what’s special about SXSW is the technology, film, and perhaps what we missed entirely: the music.
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