At SXSWi, the new Twitter is...Twitter

Twitter was the hot thing last year at SXSW, and this year the hot thing is Twitter again.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
At SXSWi this year, Twitter has emerged once again as the technology everyone is using to organize themselves. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

AUSTIN, Texas--After last year's explosive arrival on the geek scene at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) of Twitter, a lot of people wondered what technology might take the conference by storm this year.

Well, after three-and-a-half days of SXSWi, I'd say we have an uncontested winner.

Announcing the technology that more than anything else has governed how the thousands of attendees here are organizing themselves, finding out what their friends are up to, weighing in on the merits of keynote address interviewers and so much more.

Drum roll please.

It's Twitter. Again.

I have never seen anything like it, not even last year.

Part of that has to do with the fact that even though Twitter dominated at SXSWi 2007, it was still new to many people. This year, it is absolutely ruling this event.

Everywhere you go, people are talking about how they heard about this event, or that unofficial party or this controversy or that rumor on Twitter. People are stopping in their tracks to read Twitter posts on their phones and some of the more talked about happenings here are generating hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Tweets, all in an entirely organic and uncoordinated manner.

Basically, I think a lot of people must be wondering how they managed to get through SXSWi before Twitter came along. It's like trying to imagine the days when there was no email.

In practical terms, Twitter has been terrific, particularly when it comes to the many social events that are wrapped around SXSWi. For example, as my colleague Caroline McCarthy wrote, once people began finding that the lines to get into some of the more popular evening parties were too long, they began using Twitter to find out where new, unofficial gatherings were taking place.

On Sunday, meanwhile, Twitter became a battlefield of sorts as many people used the service to vent their frustrations at Sarah Lacy, the journalist who was interviewing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for the day's keynote address.

While discontent was spreading rapidly throughout the packed ballroom where the keynote was being held--and through at least two overflow rooms--about Lacy's interviewing style, those were able to get online were firing away at her on Twitter.

I won't repeat those postings here, but suffice it to say that people were angry and belligerent and were using the service to express themselves.

Afterwards, Lacy herself turned to Twitter to express her own feelings on the matter.

"Seriously screw all you guys," she wrote. "I did my best to ask a range of things."

A day later, even, Twitter is still the best place to find people's evolving thoughts on the Lacy controversy, as many people are posting--including lots who aren't even in Austin for SXSWi--about what happened, about where they can find video of the interview and about their responses to an interview Lacy later gave about what happened.

And while Twitter has been a terrific source of information about what's going on around SXSWi, it is not always accurate.

For example, earlier today, I saw a Twitter post from uber-blogger Robert Scoble in which he said he thought that Zuckerberg would be holding a make-up Q&A session.

I blogged the news--careful, however, to not state categorically that it was true.

That turned out to be a good thing, as, in the end, Scoble had gotten it slightly wrong. In fact, Zuckerberg was taking part in a previously-scheduled Facebook developers' event that was not open to the public and which didn't seem to be a response to what had happened on Sunday.

In part, however, I had been at fault for writing about the potential Q&A session without confirming it and without looking more closely at what others had Twittered after Scoble's original posting.

All of which gave me a lesson that what happens on Twitter doesn't stay on Twitter and that therefore, it's worthwhile to reality-check what you read there.

As SXSWi heads towards its conclusion--there is still a little more than a day left of the event--I have no doubt that Twitter will continue to be the single most influential organizing factor.

But there's also other technologies at play here, as I'm sure some will be quick to point out.

Pownce, for one. Meebo for another.

And, believe it or not, the telephone and even e-mail.

Late last night, as some friends and I were trying to figure out where the crowds were, we found ourselves without the ability to get Twitter feeds.

But we had cell phones and through a painstaking process of calling people, checking email and pure luck, we ended up getting the word that we'd been waiting for.

Still, we all knew that if we'd simply had Twitter, we could have gotten the information a whole lot quicker.

Looking ahead, then, at what might be the Twitter of SXSWi 2009, I'm putting my money on a relatively young technology that not long ago, no one had heard from.

Yes, it's Twitter.

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi (click here).