March 19, 2011
SXSW 2011 Interactive Summary (Including Photos & Tons of Links)
I was so inspired to write during my first two days in Austin for SXSW and yet after returning to the drizzle & gray skies of San Francisco, I suddenly seem absent of any creativity or thoughts about my week.
I recall a wonderful stream of consciousness at 4 in the morning on Day 3 that ran some ten pages long, yet I never captured it on paper or a device. (this happens frequently when you blog a lot as those who do will attest to).
The week started with a near sprained ankle when I stepped off a curb the wrong way en route to my abode for the week, the Intercontinental, located directly across the street from the infamous Driskell Hotel which continued to be a late night hangout after people tired of the long lines and noise from the umpteen parties starting on the half hour every half an hour night after night. (See Werner Vogel's tweet below on "why stay at the Driskell").
It was my seventh or eighth SXSW so I wasn't a virgin nor was I an old timer like Bruce Sterling, who once again did the closing keynote, a tradition since the early days.
Bruce encouraged the women of SXSW not to embrace cowards in his closing remarks. He lit into the prostitution (and more) incidents linked to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi calling them a calamity again and again. Here's a link to the New York Daily News article to bring you up to speed if so inclined and a little flavor to the beginning of his talk. Bruce also talked at great length about passionate virsuosity.
Previous years, I either went with a client or a business partner so there was always a mission involved, even if it was a 'soft one,' talking to X and Y about Z. This year, I was determined to "proactively" take in not just Interactive, but Film & Music unlike previous years where film viewing & music listening were an accident at best. I tended to divide my time between sessions that mattered directly to me or my business, networking, the blogger lounge and the late night parties. That seemed to work well when there were 10,000 people.
This year, they touted some 50,000 attendees whereas last year, they came in just under 37K. As fast as my mind works, and as fast as these fingers type (120 wpm), and as fast as my camera shoots, and as fast as I walk (I'm told), I couldn't keep up with the pace of what was thrown my way, so much so that the entire event was 80% reactive and 20% proactive.
Despite my best attempts, writing in real time didn't seem to work if I had any hope in hell to be 'present' where and when I showed up. I also learned that attending films and follow up discussions were a huge time sink if I wanted to connect with friends in the Interactive world, a problem that many encountered, including a reporter pal of mine who had to file 3-4 stories a day. (Note, he was only able to take in 3 sessions the entire week).
Bottom line: there's too much to do, too many people to see, and too many tracks going on simultaneously that you may want to take in.
Note to self and advice to others for next year: focus on an outcome for each part of the festival. If you decide to only take in Interactive, then it's a tad easier, although even if that's your world professionally and otherwise, I'd encourage you not to miss the rich experiences that the world of film and music has to offer. There's nothing quite like it as people who have been to Mardi Gras, jazz festivals around the world, Burning Man and more can attest.
As a side note, things I tend to forget to bring every single year: bandaids, earplugs, walking shoes with great support, and Tylenol PM since its hard to sleep when you start to get used to "no sleep" and bands are raging in the street till 3 am.
Below Groupon's CTO Ken Pelletier (sat next to him during Clay's talk: great guy btw), Aza Raskin and Apture's Tristan Harris:
Interactive: there were some incredible sessions, many of which I missed because my schedule was so packed. From gaming, location-based services (LBS), microformats, science meet-ups, insights for independent producers, analytics & social tools, anatomy of design, android & iphone developer sessions, avatar secrets, democratization of music education, the web for the greater good, demystifying online privacy and empowering the digital self, design for hackers: reverse-engineering beauty, book readings, social media SEO, and hundreds more. (note: I'll cover Film & Music in separate blog posts this week, including a very cool Red Carpet experience for movie Win Win).
Mashable had more than one party and as always, they were massive and loud. They had "get your photo taken" booths set up, pool tables, free beer and depending on what time you arrived, incredibly long lines. But, everyone seemed to pass through their doors at some point during the evening.
The good news is that most of the events this year were walking distance and when they weren't, there were tons of pedi-cabs for the taking. The idea is that they cart you from A to B for tips although the word on the street was that during SXSW, rides were $10 per person plus tip for a short trip.....meaning a ride for two of you could cost $25 versus $5 for a cab. Still, they seemed to have plenty of business and Intuit's GoPayment sponsored a number of them so if you had a Twitter account and tweeted about your experience, you rode for free and they picked up the tab. Sweet and a creative way to get some viral attention. Below one of "my" drivers during the week. (with a British accent I might add).
There were a few more 'exclusive' bashes which DID actually serve food, such as the one hosted by the Dachis Group at the Art Room on Congress and The Path at Kenichi which had a sushi bar set up in the back near the music.
Below, the Dachis Group bash had women in neon-lit hula hoops entertain the crowd with a DJ and a roof-deck that served margaritas, wine and breakfast tacos till 2 in the morning.
There were other unusual things that came up such as tweeting for meat. Vegetarians cover your ears, but yes, I tweeted for meat at a Nokia-sponsored meet-up at Fago de Chao (thanks @sanford & @azeem from PeerIndex). After eating nothing but nachos for three days (I kid you not), what option was there? A woman has to do what a woman has to do after 20 hours of non-stop SXSW marvelous insanity :-).
Below at the Nokia bash: Chris Saad, Microsoft's Michael Celiceo and ReadWriteWeb's Mike Melanson:
Flipboard CEO Mike McCue was part of a series of meetings on a "red couch" in a suite at the Ritz Carlton with other vendors, where interviews were conducted with well known musicians, producers and social media gods like Gary Vaynerchuk.
Below in the suite: Vanessa Comones, Renee Blodgett, Ben Metcalfe, Tina Hui
The result of Gary Vee's presence at the Phoenix mid-week resulted in a club jam that was beyond fun. Even if you were there to get your five minutes of fame with Gary, he wouldn't have been able to hear a word you had to say nor would you have had a moment to connect without getting bumped by the herd of thousands of people pushing and shoving to get to the back of the room where he was pouring wine.
Trust me, I was there and it took me over a half an hour to get to the exit. (photo to the right is of one of the dancers on stage I shot from my iPhone on-site).
Other vendors had tents and parties and big brands like Pepsi seemed to sponsor every musician and event under the sun since I couldn't seem to escape the Pepsi logo hitting me in the face every time I turned a corner or entered a room. (While it was a bit much, I have to admit, I love the work of Pepsi's head of digital & social media Bonin Bough who I had a chance to hang with at a late night Stubbs party).
Two years ago, it seemed like while SXSW was expanding its attendee mix from young geeks to marketers, mid-sized businesses and consultants, it was still solely a young geek crowd. Last year, the brands started diving into the conversation and this year, the big boys seem to have taken Austin by storm.
I had a hard time avoiding "logos" and they weren't start-up ones on stickers, the old norm. It was astonishing how many marketing directors from big brands and PR and advertising firms were floating around the hallways, in the sessions and after parties.......and they didn't just send one or two people. (Notice below a shot I took of local singer songwriter Dave Madden at the Austin Airport upon leaving - sure enough, he was drinking a Pepsi and the logo was plastered across the wall behind his piano).
Nokia even sponsored a concert with Chris Cornell who has a voice like husky honey....a voice I wanted to hear more of every time he finished another song. (video here: he was amazing and yeah, that's my braid in the front row).
Big brand-sponsored events aside which definitely have its pluses, organic meet-ups were still possible but you just had to work much harder at finding the people you wanted to spend time with and more importantly, "hear."
And quite honestly, let's face it: things change dramatically as you cross the so called chasm and we're certainly crossing one. You can't go anywhere now and not see a Twitter and Facebook logo on the bottom of a small business banner, business card or advertisement. You even see a social media 'presence' on the bottom of hair salon and restaurant menus. The conversation that used to happen within the bubble of the select few social media purists and early adopters is now happening in board rooms.
I used Foursquare religiously like I did the previous two years and like last year, it was an incredibly useful tool to find people you wanted to connect with who like you, were migrating from venue to venue as the herds migrated.
The first half of the week, Foursquare seemed to pretty reliable whereas the second half proved to produce far too many false positives. I'd get to a venue five minutes after a friend checked in only to find that he or she left already. System overload? Network f-up? Latency? Whatever it was, it wasn't effective and phone calls and text messaging were not proving to be that much better.
A funny share: Nose buried into my iPhone checking where folks were on Foursquare as I was walking by a Gowalla truck (I believe it was Seventh Street) and one of their guys offered me a burrito and a t-shirt. I have to admit that although I don't plan on switching, I had a guilty moment eating the "Gowalla" burrito while using their competitor's service and later on, sleeping in their peach colored shirt. (great choice btw) They also did a great job at stickering up Austin since I seemed to see Gowalla signs everywhere.
Foursquare had a huge turnout at meet-ups various times throughout the week where hundreds flooded to partake in free beer and more with Dennis Crowley and friends.
Clay Shirky did one of the keynotes, and as always, was amazing and forced you to dig beneath the surface. Rather than focus on social media in business, he explored politics, injustice, war and more. Have a listen: Part I and Part II.
I also attended a keynote of someone I had never heard of: Seth Priebatsch, Chief Ninja of SCVNGR (where's the vowels? No chance I'll remember this name -- ever -- but I will remember Seth).
His youthful energy was addictive as was his passion for game mechanics, as it can be applied with traditional gaming and in the real world to accelerate business and social change.
Seth brought up examples of game mechanics as it applies to both business and education, engaging the audience with physical activities to demonstrate his point.
Below is the audience in full play during Seth's session, showing how together in groups, we can create more significant results than playing solo. (this applies to business, social causes, love and war does it not?) Here's a much more in-depth blog post (and video) about his talk.
The blogger lounge was in full force again this year, with ongoing chicken wings, nacho chips, diet coke and beer. Samsung was showing off their new slick Galaxy and musicians popped in and out throughout the week. Below is Keaton Simons playing for bloggers during a break.
And, in the middle of this incredible interactive, film and music energy, Japan was hit by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded on March 11. The magnitude-9.0 quake spawned a deadly tsunami that killed thousands of people and left almost half a million people homeless.
In response, SXSW Cares was created on the ground in Austin -- interview between @SamsungEsteban and Leigh Durst from @LivePath here. Kudos and a big thanks to the efforts of Natalie Pethouoff, Leigh and others who pulled this off and helped raise money to help those in need in Japan during this tragedy.
Others were trying to do what they could to raise money as well. Patrick from The Next Web was "working it" in the main hallway -- below Ayelet/Blonde 2.0, Patrick and Renee Blodgett.
Tim O'Reilly was on the main stage this year -- his first SXSW I learned at the Ginger Man on evening one. A clip of his talk here.
Steve Rosenbaum had a book signing for his latest on curation: Curation Nation: How to Win in a World Where Consumers are Creators.
Scott Beale of Laughing Squid held his traditional gathering at the Ginger Man again, where I ran into Joe Stump and Jay Adelson (once upon a time, Digg and now Simple Geo - see Nov 2010 announcement via CNET).
I also ran into the Plancast founders who are doing some incredible things with a team of only 3. Below founders: Jay Marcyes and Mark Hendrickson.
Below, Megan McCarthy and Alexia Tsotsis (from TechCrunch). Love the glasses...
And while we're talking fashion and fabulous glasses, I had a chance to meet and hang out with Nokia's Manager of Crowdsourcing, Concepting & Innovation over from Finland: Heli Haapkyla, who also 'gets' glasses and knows how to wear them: (yup, that IS an angry bird hanging from her neck)
Angry birds are the craze in some circles....not any that I travel in, but hey, I learned a lot about them this SXSW. Ewan Spence rounded up two to bring back to his kids in Scotland. I have to admit, I gave mine away.
While we're talking Scotland, that brings me to another major trend and shift I saw this year vis a vis previous ones: the growth of an international presence. Industry pals flew in from far and wide to attend this year's SXSW (for Interactive alone) and they weren't just big brands. In fact, many were independent consultants, bloggers, entrepreneurs, and start-ups. And yes, some press. A reporter friend from Paris' Le Monde flew over and had a Platinum pass.
Those who I managed to get time with included folks from South Africa (a blogger friend brought me two boxes of Rooibos tea: now, that's what I call friendship), Israel, England, Ireland, Germany, Chile, Brazil, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Holland, Mexico and Greece. (and I'm sure I'm missing some).
They also held a South Africa Technology Summit this year, which provided an hour-long exploration of the new media scene in South Africa. Speakers covered the hottest new technologies as well as the identifying key players and companies, current investment opportunities and the kinds of programs available for technology entrepreneurs.
Those who are geeky enough to know about flashmobs will appreciate the fact that we found ourselves "in one" by accident in the main hall one afternoon. Below is a We Blog the World tweet of the "event" in real time with a link to a photo if you care to see the visual. (Imagine a thousand arms up in the air and you'll get an idea :-)
Lastly, a big kudos to Hugh and his team for an outstanding event as I can only imagine it gets harder and harder to keep the i's dotted as the event expands year after year. Below, he announces the final keynote and thanks the audience, participants, sponsors and speakers.
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