Next weekend, just a couple of days after the dust of the primary campaigns will have settled, national media attention will return to Texas as Austin is turning into party central for the annual South by Southwest Festival (SXSW, March 7-16). SXSW Interactive, added in 1994 to the music festival, has evolved into one of the most influential tech conferences in the country and beyond. While somewhat geeky in its first years, SXSW Interactive is now considered a must-attend venue for big tech players (Google, Microsoft, Seagate, etc. all have a strong presence at the show), start-ups, creative agencies, software developers, futurists, designers, artists, media, and bloggers alike, all of whom are chasing the next big digital thing. A key contributing factor for SXSW's success may have been that the initially narrow meaning of "interactive" has expanded its relevance to more industries, media, and platforms over the past few years and now serves as the modus operandi of all business, no matter how creative or digital it is. With its more solid business underpinning, SXSW Interactive has overtaken both the Push conference in Minneapolis and Wired's Nextfest in terms of relevance and commercial success.
The Soul of the Machine
Yet despite its explosive growth (16,000 overall attendees are expected in Austin this year), "South By," as conference goers dub it, has done a good job evading all attempts to be easily categorized. The interactive part, in particular, has somehow managed to remain its cutting edge. It still offers a wildly eclectic bazaar of topics, trends, opinions, and applications, and one can truly say that all of the tech conferences out there it is the one best positioned to explore "the soul of the machine."
The organization is professional but there is still a lot of room for the unexpected, below-the-line, grassroots eccentricity that gives the conference its special flavor. A big part of this can be attributed to Austin, which has emerged as a thriving hub for creative people and embeds SXSW in the kind of community fabric that doesn't tolerate any over-spin or sell-out. The organizers have also made a point to add many community elements to the event: web 2.0 for web 2.0sters, if you will. For example, this year, they pioneered a "panel picker" that allowed users to vote on submitted panel proposals and essentially democratized the entire programming. I'm not entirely sure if this is the best application for the "wisdom of crowds" since there is a real danger that the panel selection turns into a popularity contest or an easy target for PR professionals and speaker bureaus. I, for my part, am old-fashioned and prefer conference programs to be curated by a curator, simply because it is otherwise daunting to ensure the right balance between diversity and cohesion. Anyway, it's too early to tell -- we'll see how it turns out.
In addition to the panel picker, SXSW has teamed up with Microsoft and frog design to create a rich, interactive online community hub for the conference. The application features premium content from SXSW Interactive, including video clips from keynotes and panels, as well as user-generated videos, Flickr images, and social networking content. At the same time, aggregators from Technorati and del.icio.us comb the Internet for relevant information, keeping the site dynamic.
But not everything at SXSW will be user-driven. In fact, some of the program highlights were carefully chosen: Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, will give the keynote on March 9. Other keynotes include Frank Warren (March 10) and Jane McGonigal (March 11). Opening Remarks (March 8) will be delivered by Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson, and Michael Eisner, former head of Disney, will be interviewed in a special session on March 11.
Searching for the Killer App
As eyeballs wander towards Austin, it will be interesting to see which digital innovations this year's conference will bring. Google's Dodgeball blew up at SXSW Interactive in 2006, and last year, a hitherto unknown service called Twitter enabled attendees to chat about panels in real-time and in public, and as instant as the format was its proliferation in the blogosphere: Twitter became the app de jour at SXSW and then, quickly, the rage of all digerati.
So who will be this year's Twitter? Practically speaking: Meebo. The instant messaging service is the official sponsor for live chat at SXSW 2008 and has stepped into Twitter's footsteps, which is kind of ironic. Meebo as Me-too. And philosophically speaking? Who knows. It seems safe to place a few bets on models around the new "Digital Green." The conference will be hosting five panels devoted exclusively to sustainability issues (five more than in previous years, if you're counting), among them "10 Ways to Green-ify Your Digital Life" and "Green Software -- Really?" Another big topic will be how gaming, virtual worlds, mobile and contextual web will converge (yes, convergence is resilient!) in the "Age of Engage," including discussions on OpenID and hardware mash-ups ("the long tail of gadgets"). And then there are interesting sociological tangents such as "Sexual Privacy Online," "Self-Branding," or the existential question for the attention junkie: "Do You Have to Disappear Completely to Get Things Done?" The most exciting domain for disruptive innovation right now is probably news (which, as we know, is broken), and several panels will discuss the future of Internet radio, Internet TV, as well as crowdsourced, hyper-localized models of news production and aggregation.
Or maybe, after five days of "geekspasm" and partying, ReadWriteWeb's prediction may come to pass: "The killer app in Austin might just be beer."
We will report from SXSW Interactive on this blog, but in the meantime here are a few helpful links to get you in the mood:
Official SXSW Festival Site: http://www.sxsw.com
Interactive SXSW Schedule/Calendar: http://sched.org/
Official SXSW Live Chat: http://www.meebo.com/sxsw
SXSW Insider Guide: http://sxsw.ning.com/
SXSW Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/SXSW-Festival/7826953993?ref=s
Unofficial Weblog: http://sxswbaby.com