At night Austin’s Sixth Street turns into the place to be scene during SXSW.
Many people who were a part of the social media boom last decade attended SXSW. It was the place to see and be seen, where apps went mainstream and reputations were forged. In recent years, social media experts have stopped going, proclaiming SXSW dead.
And after attending my seventh one, I have to agree. SXSW is dead… For social media experts.
SXSW is about the Internet, and how various media and industries are adapting to it. In that sense SXSW is a zeitgeist. And the time of social media dominating SXSW, while not completely gone, has certainly waned.
Social networking and communities are a part of the Internet’s fiber, but they are no longer a special topic. That makes social less of a premium newsmaker at an Internet conference focused on trends, and as a result social media experts aren’t getting the attention they used to at SXSW. So it is little wonder that those who used to thrive on the subject find the conference unappealing.
What SXSW Has Become
A woman solders a chip, part of a device she was building at SXCreate.
What SXSW 2015 offered was an incredible series of mini-conferences that ranged from fashion (think wearable tech in the form of smart clothing) and start-up manufacturing to SXSports and large broadcast brands boasting their digital entertainment properties. SXSW is now a festival of many Internet industries. Social media and perhaps the now stronger digital marketing communities are just individual industry segments amongst the multitude.
My friend Dave Weinberg, CEO of loop88 said, “The fact that we’re all here and that we have these serendipitous situations is what made this SXSW special. It’s totally different than it has been.”
I have to agree. This year’s SXSW was the best one I have attended in a long time. The networking was diverse and phenomenal.
“The amount of education, of giving back knowledge to the community is absolutely unparalleled,” said Howard Greenstein, COO of DomainSkate and adjunct professor at Columbia University. “From small sessions sponsored by companies on specific topics to niche panels about everything from legal hackers to bitcoin, you can learn about anything from people who are actually doing the work.”
Signs of How SXSW Changed
SXSW 2015 saw the break-out of Meerkat, the first app to breakout at SXSW in a couple of years. Yet, while this was a big story, it was not the story, far from it. There were many threads throughout the event, many of which revolved around celebrity appearances and cancellations.
For the first time in years I attended sessions, and thoroughly enjoyed 75% of what I saw. This is pretty good compared to most conferences I go to. Some of the better events and sessions I attended included the Jack Welch versus Gary Vaynerchuk discussion on executive leadership, the SXCreate session on building micro manufacturing companies.
There were fewer uber-influencer swordfests at SXSW, which made it more pleasant. It was also easier to avoid those situations when they arose.
At the same time while the mighty influencer is gone, the suit has arrived. And with the business audience has come a tension between the old school casual SXSW attendee and the proliferation of suits and heels at the conference. I’m glad I brought a jacket and two collared shirts because when I wore T-shirts and a jersey I received more than my fair share of looks.
And with the rise of the celebrity, there were more high powered executives, stars and brands attending the event. I met more high caliber successful people than I have at any prior SXSW.
SXSW is much bigger than it used to be, but is also much different. It has evolved, and with it so have my expectations of it. It’s funky still, but now it is transforming into a big dollar business event. But the reason I still come is the incredible relationship opportunities it continues to offer, even as a humbler small business owner. And that continues to make SXSW a must-attend event for me.
The following photo essay is about SXSW Interactive networking events. However, before I start that, this year’s festival was been marred by events on Wednesday night, specifically a drunk driving attack on Red River Street that resulted in death. Anyone who has partaken in SXSW knows Sixth Street, and could imagine this happening. People are walking, meeting, and greeting everywhere — as evidenced by the photo below.
SXSW Networking Culture
Many people debate whether or not the content at SXSW is valuable, but for me the conference has always been about the incredible networking parties. In fact, I have been to only one session in the past three years.
The long table at the Yahoo! Lounge.
Whether it’s sitting across a table sharing a drink or a cup of coffee or walking around at a networking party seeing friends and meeting new people, events dominate SXSW. You can walk up and down the streets of downtown Austin, and see venue after venue filled to the brim with interactive pros.
Of course, networking events are not about masses of attendees, the streets, party themes or the venues themselves. While these things add to the ambiance, SXSW is always about the people.
For example, a charity poker match benefiting charity: water hosted by Porter Novelli provided an opportunity to catch up with my friends Richard Binhammer, Christopher Barger, Wesley Faulkner and Laura Thomas.
My original SXSW coach from 2009 and former housemate Aaron Brazell caught up with me at the DC All Star party. He’s showing off his new tattoo in the above photo. Both Aaron and I have a penchant to get ink in Austin. Fortunately, I escaped tattoo-free this year.
One of my colleagues at client Vocus Dee Wong struck up a conversation with this sales rep from Hootsuite. The two were pretty funny on camera!
It was wonderful to talk more with people who I am just getting to know like Ann Tran.
That’s in spite of the fact that she and Kerry Gorgone photobombed this pic of Calvin Lee and Brivo Labs‘ Mike Martoccia, LOL! That’s what SXSW is all about, hanging out with work colleagues, building new relationships, and having a little fun together.
What was your favorite SXSW 2014 moment?
The top featured image was taken at Mellow Johnny’s during the Chevy Tweethouse event. You can see my whole SXSW 2014 photo set here.
The topic of surveillance threaded the general conversation at the SXSW Interactive Festival this year. From live video keynotes by the exiled Julian Assange and Edward Snowden to ever present sensor enabled wristbands and a surprising amount of people wearing Glass, privacy — caused by sensors, data, and the Internet-powered applications they empower — found its way into the very pores of the conference.
As a result, the always-on quantified self created a bit of a freak-out amongst attendees. Almost every conversation I had touched on this topic.
First, let me say it was refreshing to see social media and marketing take a supporting role at SXSW as the conference moved to discuss larger trends in the interactive sector. Clearly, the movement towards an omnipresent Internet creates dramatic implications for society and businesses beyond extrapolating personal data to deliver contextual marketing.
It was ironic to see everyone wearing sensors and discussing the latest personal data-driven app, while they conveyed concerns about societal. Those fears included stalking, government and corporate abuse of data, personal privacy (will your Fitbit report your bedside activity?), and the impact on self identity caused by constantly being on.
Yet, most of us felt that while valid, the sensor train has already left the station. We move about our lives vaguely knowing the tech we love is disrupting our own privacy and security, and ignoring the consequences. People may value their privacy, yet they strap on their fitness band or allow access to personal data via social networks, mobile phones, sign-ups and web browsers.
Perhaps it was the Snowden and Assange video keynotes that caused the underlying meme. Invariably, when conversations begin about on these topics people become concerned.
Having attended (and walked out of) the Assange session and seeing what Snowden said, the two keynote speeches struck me as the self-justifying rants of sociopaths. The exiled self-proclaimed defenders of the public interest seem to need the attention, and enjoyed the audience. It is clear Assange and Snowden think they are above the law, and have no remorse for the certain deaths their actions have caused.
I am not saying that the societal impact of surveillance by friends, family, co-workers and government is not a worthy topic. People are rightly concerned.
BUT surveillance is a government, corporate and personal action that has been occurring since the beginning of civilization. Discussion of spies can be found as far back as Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The medium creates the current manifestation of data and video surveillance. It’s no surprise that governments are collecting and sharing data, while pressuring companies to open their information repositories.
Unrestrained corporate actions leveraging personal data are not a surprise either. We live in a free capitalist economy that influences the government with lobby or special interest dollars.
No Restraint with Personal Technology
My reaction to a full explanation of sensor-driven personal data.
What is surprising is our personal lack of restraint about data and privacy. We treat it like we treat the environment. There is no personal valuation or action to address the situation even though we fear the worst.
Yet when surveillance in this new digital world order is discussed, we freak out. That is ironic given the larger context. In reality, the fear is self-centered. We don’t like the thought of our little wrongs and guilty pleasures becoming easily accessible to others via the Internet.
Vulnerability is not openly embraced by a vast majority of people.
In the social media era, we saw ourselves, good and bad. In the end, we saw the ugly side of human nature. Perhaps we’re not ready to see even more of the bad openly served to the digital public thanks to our various personal technologies.
Yet, you have to think that such exposure would be bad business for many of the companies involved. Who wants an app that’s going to out them at every corner? Of course, if you live an honest life this is not an issue.
In addition, this is an issue of the moment, and for the older generation. The next generation, the children of today, will grow up in this world. It won’t even bother them.
What do you think?
The highlight of my SxSW experience this weekend was meeting Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. I took the opportunity to ask Sir Berners-Lee what he thought of social influence metrics like Klout, Kred and PeerIndex.
His response was remarkable, but before I share it with you let me frame the scene.
Sir Berners-Lee is clearly a savant. He is so brilliant he struggled with the bloggy attention he received at the IEEE SxSW reception. When he talk, he gestured somewhat wildly, and was clearly aware of the surrounding cameras. It was exactly how I imagine Einstein would function in this 21st century world of cameras, tweets, and instant access… Like a brilliant wild person forced to live in a zoo.
I immediately recognized time would be short with this man, that he would move on quickly. So I listened intently.