SXSW: Day One Recap

This recap is also posted on Talk Business.This is my first time at the geek Mecca that is South by Southwest (SXSW), held annually in Austin, Texas. Anxious to jump into the experience, I obediently waited outside my hotel at 8:30 AM for the shuttle service to pick me up. The driver was there by 8:45 AM; eight stops and thirty minutes later, we actually arrived at the Austin Convention Center. (Keep in mind that the events of this first day did not actually begin until 2 PM that afternoon.) After securing my badge, bag and swag, I had nothing to do but park myself on the floor near an electrical outlet (convergence and socializing seem to occur around electrical outlets here) and geek-out with the rest of the geeks.Guys definitely out-number the girls around here and the ages skew under 40 years old, but over 25 (although there are many that fall on either side of that range). If you are using anything but a Mac computer, you stand out as odd. Everyone walks around with his or head down, focusing on the mobile device of choice.Themes heard on day one were (1) social media is diminishing human interaction and (2) location, location, location. There were over 60 sessions today, occurring in three scheduled time periods, so being one person, I could only attend three of those 60. My panel/event attendance for the day included:

  • “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age”
  • “Do Cool Kids Leave When the Suits Arrive?”
  • “Time + Social + Location. What's Next In Mobile Experiences?”

“Program or Be Programmed,” presented by Douglas Rushkoff, was an argument against the passive approach to the digital space that we are taking. He cautioned against the use of long-distance technologies in short-distance situations, the oversimplification of choices we are given on the Internet and translating those into life, and anonymity that the online space allows. Rushkoff highlighted the fact that until five years ago, 80% of communication was non-verbal and now most of our communication is done online, thereby negating non-verbal cues. Perhaps a bit overly intellectual, but nevertheless fear-inducing, this presentation was not what I expected to hear at festival celebrating technology.“Do Cool Kids Leave When the Suits Arrive?” was conversation about whether the early adopters of social media applications are right to feel ownership of the spaces, and insult when there is an attempt to incorporate aspects more amenable to the general public in an effort monetize the application or service. Basically, it was the “what do I do when my mom/my boss/my kid friends me on Facebook” discussion; “cool kids” and “suits” were simply metaphors for whatever a participant’s particular situation might have been. Because this session was structured as a conversation open to all attendees in the room, the discussion branched several different directions. Most interestingly, however, was that most people walked into the room assuming they were a “cool kid,” but soon realized they were a “suit.” At one point, even Google was likened to a suit, and it used to be the coolest kid around. The simple fact is that we are all in business to make money and to make money, we have to take on a “suit-like” attitude.Another interesting turn in the conversation was use of the social media space and user maturity in understanding what can be said and what should be shared. There was a sentiment in the room that frequent users are being conditioned to share inappropriately; that his or her privacy filter has disintegrated. The moderator noted that the next iteration of social media will be more about improving human-to-human interfaces rather than human-to-computer interfaces.“Time + Social + Location. What's Next In Mobile Experiences?” was, by far, the most engaging session of my day. It was at last year’s SXSW that FourSquare took off, so it is fitting this year that there is a lot of discussion about location-based applications. In fact, there are eight sessions over the five-day festival where location-based applications will be discussed. It was standing room only in this panel-led session and a poll of the attendees revealed that almost everyone in the room had “checked in” with at least one service, and many people had checked in with two or more. Services, or applications, used included FourSquare, Gowalla, Loopt and Twitter (which just launched its location-based feature in the last couple of days), among a smattering of others. Location-based applications are services that allow the user to update his or her status (much like Twitter or Facebook), but attach a very specific location to that update, either with a dot on a map, a longitude and latitude reading, or a location defined and named by the users (a restaurant, retail location, ballroom at a convention center, etc.).The big question about location-based updates: is it creepy and dangerous to announce your exact location to the world? The simple answer: no. The panelists quickly dismissed sites like Please Rob Me as irrelevant to the discussion because, in truth, we have been announcing our locations for years using Twitter and Facebook. By defining the location, we are creating a database for future reference of that location. We are giving those locations more meaning by being able to walk into that location at a later date and know not only who has been there before, but what they did there and what they thought about that location. The social power of location-based applications is in knowing where friends have been, not in where they are right now.An additional twist to the location-based applications is that they award participants points for their check-ins. Frequent updating of status becomes a game, with users attempting to out-score people they have never met and reap the reward of badges and mayorship of locations where they check-in.Day one of five is complete. I am excited to see what I learn during day two. Stay tuned.