Close-Up: Visit Austin to discover the joy of SXSW

What can the ad industry learn from this hotbed of new creative technologies? Mel Exon writes.

South by Southwest, or SXSW as it is generally referred to, has celebrated emerging film and music for more than two decades. However, 2010 was the year the interactive component of the conference shifted up a gear and gained critical mass.

Last week, around 15,000 people descended on Austin, Texas for five days of neck-deep immersion in progressive digital culture.

Despite its mind-blowing scale, a few key themes emerged from SXSWi's smorgasbord of panels and presentations.


If 2009 saw Foursquare unveiled at SXSW to palpable excitement, 2010 saw the mobile and web app and its competitors come of age. More than 300,000 check-ins to Foursquare alone (others used Gowalla, Whrrl and the like) over the course of the conference translated to a whole host of SXSWers updating their location and notifying their friends where the great panels and parties were in real-time. Foursquare knows its audience likes nothing more than a bit of competition, so threw in some special SXSW "badges" and temporary tattoos to collect.

Location strayed into visualisation with Stamen design sharing maps - one detailing crime hotspots in Oakland, Ohio and another (in partnership with the NGO My Society) visualising the commute in time it takes to get into and across London.

Overall, no surprises here, just more overwhelming evidence that social, location-based apps and digital services will take hold because they have a real and useful role. SXSW acted as an accelerator/boot camp for all involved.

The conference was living proof of an obsession with noodling around on networks and at least three keynote speakers showed a growing impatience or concern with this as any kind of endgame.

Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research, opened the conference with an intelligent piece examining the increasing social and corporate pressure to publicise data about ourselves via social networks, versus the human need for control.

She cited Facebook's handling of its new privacy settings as an example of this going wrong, with 65 per cent of users clicking to accept the changes without digesting the implications. Forcing people to opt out rather than opt in to making their data more public caused a furore, fuelled by stories where previously private data about a person had distressing consequences.

The lesson for businesses wanting to engage communities online: make no assumptions about what people are comfortable with (and on a personal note, go check those Facebook settings now, if you haven't already).

A day later, with one of the most compelling and charismatic talks of the conference, the writer Clay Shirky put forward a counterpoint - of sorts: How being very open with our data can improve civilisation, even save lives. He referred to, an online utility that encourages patients to share personal information about their illnesses. The site deliberately runs counter to the culture of secrecy in healthcare.

Rattling off examples from Napster to women's rights in India, he continued to talk about radical collaboration, or, as he memorably put it: "Not the unicorn and rainbows sharing, but jackhammer sharing ... that destroys the things around it ... and can't be stopped ... abundance breaks more things than scarcity does."

Bruce Sterling's cantankerously brilliant closing keynote also pulled no punches on how future generations will perceive us. "We're basically networking while Rome burns," he said, describing our collective unwillingness to use technology in the first instance to address climate issues and poverty: "The first thing we should have open-sourced? Food and shelter." The solution lay in deliberately changing course: "The future is a journey, not a destination."


If anyone thought there was too much hot air and too few tangible ideas, Bre Pettis of Makerbot (a company that produces robots that make things) and Tal Chalozin, the co-founder at Innovid (a service that allows video producers to put interactive virtual items into their videos), gave a fantastically inventive and honest talk. "Doing it Wrong: Recently Possibly Technology" gave some answers.

Lasers, hacked photocopiers, waffle-based edible QR codes and a shower (with water pressure that gets stronger the louder you sing) all featured, to great effect. The huge appeal of their talk lay in two things: their determination to make their ideas a physical reality and their adoption of failure as part of the process.

On a related, if more philosophical note, the director Michel Gondry shared his fear that lifestreaming - the sharing of everything we think or do as it happens - means we lose the emotional impact of those moments "because we're too busy documenting it all".

One of the most hotly anticipated events of the conference - Umair Haque's interview with the Twitter co-founder Evan Williams - opened with the announcement of Twitter's new @anywhere platform, which will integrate Twitter content in partner sites (Amazon, eBay, Digg, YouTube etc), simplifying and speeding connection to Twitter without having to visit the site. Think Facebook Connect for Twitter. For more info, see

Finally, one genius provided simple session notes on the Spotify interview as it came to a close in the form of a Spotify playlist:


The swell in SXSWi conference numbers alone was proof we all increasingly view getting comfortable with technology as crucial.

The author and thinker Douglas Rushkoff took that further, suggesting we all learn to code or face up to a future where we will be effectively "illiterate", subordinated to the people and companies (Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress) whose definition of how we express ourselves rules.

His reactionary stance got particularly interesting when he asked us to consider the fact that China and Korea are teaching their children to program, while the US and Europe teach kids to use Microsoft Office and PowerPoint. His talk was a conference's worth of ideas alone. For a report covering his Ten Commands, check out:

Putting the official content of SXSWi to one side, there are a few other things you can't help but take with you when you leave. Perhaps the thing that most powerfully kicked in this year was the subterranean rush and roar of the back channel. Twitter, blogs, Foursquare and - God forbid - real-life conversation provided an ever-present, unmoderated and often very public commentary, at turns insightful, acerbic, witty and harsh. If you arrived in Austin with a mild case of ADD, you left with a chronic disorder. This was human connection on crack, which perhaps starts to hint at the real power of SXSW.


Thanks to the sheer scale of the event, the chances are you're going to bump into all manner of people: developers, digerati, gamers, musicians, film-makers, production companies, students, marketers and an increasing number of adland planners and creatives.

Thanks in large part to the growth of Twitter over the past 12 months, this year saw an abundance of weak ties formed before the conference just dying to be strengthened on arrival in Austin.

The good, if obvious, news: you discover that the people who are smart and nice on the inter-webs are (even) better when met face to face. When you add all that humanity to SXSW's mix of liberal, indie Austin vibe with intense 24/7 brain overstimulation, it becomes very hard to resist. Pretty intoxicating, even. And therein lies the joy.

- Mel Exon is a managing partner and co-founder of BBH Labs, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's global innovation platform.


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