The SXSW Download

SXSW 2011
After 5 days of panels, parties, core conversations and conversations starting with, “Hey, we know each other on Twitter!” I’m back from Austin and am generally exhasuted. And freshly motivated. Exhaustingly motivated is probably more like it. 

For starters, the South-By group is on top of their gadgets. In all my travels, I’ve never seen a plane full of people more eager to turn on their devices than on my JetBlue flight from JFK to ATX on Friday morning. In fact, the majority of people double-holstered with an iPhone 4 and an Android device. At one party, I even left my iPhone 3GS charging on a bar table unattended for a few hours. But I never had to worry about it getting stolen, since everyone already has the newer version. And on Saturday I felt compelled to tweet, “Having an iPad 2 at SXSW is like having a puppy in a sorority house.”

Jokes aside, SXSWers are really smart, down-to-earth and fun people. It was nice to upgrade relationships on Twitter to real life conversations with a beer in hand. Unsurprisingly, talking with a variety of interesting individuals was the best part of the conference and more eye-opening and fruitful than the majority of the panels. Lots of good people are doing lots of cool things and that’s what the SXSW environment is really about.

Here are three macro scale observations from the past week:

Facebook is now the Wal-Mart of the Internet

Much like Wal-Mart caters to the masses for everyday low-priced needs and wants, Facebook does the same online. The social network has even grown at a Wal-Mart pace, until you can scarcely find someone who isn’t a loyal fan. Ironically, I didn’t use Facebook once over 5 days of the world’s leading technological conference. Nor did my esteemed creative director and comrade Pelle Sjonell. Granted, I haven’t been much of an active Facebook user for over a year now, but when you have 20,000 forward-thinking people using less and less Facebook, that means something.

Instead, new friends I met soon became Twitter connections, not Facebook friends. More often, the people I already followed on Twitter became friends in the real world. That’s a critical difference between Facebook and Twitter – Facebook is generally geared towards having friends in real life that extend online, whereas Twitter is about starting connections online that become real world connections. So Twitter is fundamentally changing the dynamic of a mass social network. This behavior used to happen only in very niche gaming or online worlds like WoW or SecondLife but is now becoming very mainstream.

Furthermore, why shop in one spot when you have great boutiques? Twitter is ideal for status updates while Instagram is a hot newcomer for photo sharing, Foursquare is making groundbreaking moves in location-based services and GroupMe is an awesome tool for groups of friends to text each other. It’s become clear that cooler, savvier startups are beginning to chip away at Facebook’s verticals and have gained some deserved traction. Instagram in particular is now growing a developer community in addition to its user community after opening up its API. Projects like Instaprint, a location-based photobooth and Instagrid, a tumblr-like photo blog, could help Instagram become the next really big online photo franchise. Many of the tech folks at SXSW would be considered boutique shoppers when it comes to web tools and services.


Hopefully you like games, because they’re going to be everywhere

Seth Priebatsch at SXSW

Seth Priebatsch Keynote at SXSW, via CNNwhatsnext

Games and game mechanics were all the rage this year with no less than 33 panels revolving around the topic. Most notably, Seth Priebatsch, the founder and CEO of SCVNGR, delivered an energetic pitch for the what he dubbed “the third era of the web” which means applying gaming principles to a multitude of institutions. He explained how the traditional mechanisms of levels and rewards in education are contributing to bored and unmotivated students and believes that modifying those norms in educational institutions could lead to proper self-governance and higher internal motivation. Although he gave some anecdotal examples to justify his claim combined with a group audience game, he left the subject a bit unclear as to what the correct principles really are to change gaming systems in order to make them more effective.

We’ve seen a rise in the gaming dynamic for years with XBOX and other gaming consoles overtaking TV as a primary form of entertainment and with massive growth in online games like FarmVille and AngryBirds. Their success has influenced feature sets in social services and online communities and is beginning to bleed outward. The amount of inertia that gaming idoleology has built is unquestionable and will undoubtedly create movement in how communities, statuses and rewards are structured in a variety of institutions.


“Good” Business is the new Good Business

Good Businesses

Recently we’ve seeing more and more companies adopting strategies around social good and transparency. While I’ll expand on this concept in a very near-future post, it was reinforced at SXSW as well. Blake Mycoskie, founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” of TOM’S Shoes explained how the intrinsic philanthropic mission and purpose of his company has led to commercial success without sacrificing the product or customer in the process. Additionally, Mark Ecko delivered an unforgettable presentation that summed up his life, label and beliefs into a mindboggling mathematical formula that explained ‘authenticity’. Then he revealed his new social enterprise, Unlimited Justice, to fight corporal punishment in schools. Lastly, Gary Vaynerchuk, whose presentation last year remains one of the best I’ve ever seen, was back in action again touting transparency in business and building authentic relationships with customers.


Some additional individual hightlights:
• Foursquare Co-Founder and CEO Dennis Crowley’s interview with Mashable’s Pete Cashmore on Foursquare and the future of location-based services

• Barry Diller’s thoughts on net neutrality, start-ups and entertainment media (namely, Netflix)

Groupme was the breakout SXSW Newcomer of the Year and is a great service to group text all your friends. We used it a lot.

• For social events, the Town Holler with Instaprint was a blast as well as the Wieden+Kennedy party and most nights ended with everyone at the Lustre Pearl


Next year, I’m hoping to see some more applications of technology – what could fashion or product design do with it? Granted this isn’t CES but it would be cool to break out of startups that are all primarily service or app-based. I’d also love to see the guys from game-changing microfinancing outfit Kickstarter give a keynote presentation or host a session.

All in all, it was an incredible week although the keynotes and general content seemed more a bit more intriguing last year. But it’s really about the conversations with peoplebefore and after the panels anyways. I feel lucky to have caught up with some old friends while meeting a ton of new ones. Ultimately, nothing can replace real life.

Were you at SXSW this year? What did you think?


Article Info
Posted by: Steve Peck
Thinking About: Culture / Interactive / SXSW / Technology
Location: New York City
Twitter: @stevenpeck
  1. Caprice Yu

    Interesting that you mentioned SCVNGR’s gaming mechanics. This article on their gaming mechanics was passed around CPB for a bit and I’ve referred back to these points many times, though I find it’s usually not for gaming.

    They’re great observations on behaviors with actions and principles put against them. They can be applied to many different fields. Sounds like it was a good panel.

  2. Kate

    Hey Steve,

    Met you at SXSWi when I stumbled upon a serious dance off with you BBH folk at the Vimeo/Nikon party. Good stuff.

    I am throwing Bob Garfield’s panel on Brand Journalism in there as far as highlights go. I’m a content developer/strategist, so it was interesting to hear how brands want more objective content put out, good or bad.

    Other highlight: Torchy’s Baja Shrimp Tacos. God damn.

    Great meeting you. I’ll brush up my moves in case I stumble upon you guys in a dance pit again next year.


    • Steve Peck

      Hey Kate, thanks for reading!

      I wasn’t able to make Bob Garfield’s panel on Brand Journalism but the premise is certainly an interesting one.

      It was great to meet you as well and you’re always welcome to join in on the BBH dance-offs. We do not mess around.

      Cheers and hope to see you again soon!

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