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SXSW 2021 spotlights Stacey Abrams, Melinda Gates, Russo brothers and more

SXSW is all online this week, tackling urgency and the path forward.

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SXSW is going virtual.
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It's hard to believe, but just 12 months ago, with the threat of the coronavirus looming, there was still a question as to whether SXSW could still go ahead. But as companies like Twitter and HBO pulled out, finally, on March 6, the city of Austin called it off, making the event one of the early conference casualties for the year.

Since then, events and conferences, from Apple's WWDC to San Diego Comic-Con have all gone virtual, trying to maintain the hype and excitement in-person gatherings can generate, while keeping everyone safe at home. In 2021, SXSW will be no different. 

Instead of a sprawling, weekend-to-weekend event -- punctuated by tacos and barbecue -- SXSW is offering its keynotes, sessions and featured speakers online, on demand, March 16-20. 

"Pivoting to an entirely virtual online event has lots of challenges but it also creates lots and lots of opportunities," said Hugh Forrest, chief programming officer for SXSW. 

This year, SXSW has snagged big names from the worlds of tech, politics, entertainment and more. On the bill are Stacey Abrams, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and former President George W. Bush. Melinda Gates, Mark Cuban, Ava Duvernay, James Cameron and the Russo brothers are on tap as well. While Forrest didn't say who, he mentioned the conference was able to nab some speakers now that no one has to commit to flying in. 

And hey, Willie Nelson will be there, too. 

Reflecting on a changed world

Since 1987, SXSW has offered a wide range of sessions and speakers covering everything from business, education, the environment, entertainment and more. In some ways, SXSW is about everything.

In the past, SXSW has organized itself into different tracks. Before the pandemic hit, organizers decided to structure the event a bit differently. They picked seven themes to schedule talks around. Some of those themes, such as An Uncertain Future, The Rebirth of Business, A New Urgency and An Uncharted Future have been oddly prescient.

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Stacey Abrams will deliver a virtual keynote. 

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Take A New Urgency, for example. Forrest says it "reflects everything from what we saw in the 2020 election to the Black Lives Matters protests over the summer, to businesses that are refocusing in the wake of COVID and taking on a new social."

Another theme, Tech's Path Forward, takes a critical look at the technology industry, the systems it's built, and what exactly the implications are, good and bad. Klobuchar's panel will tackle questions regarding regulation, antitrust concerns and how revised liability laws could make tech companies more responsible for the content on their platforms. The upcoming Hulu documentary WeWork: Or the making and breaking of a $47 Billion unicorn also makes its debut, telling the story of the rise and fall of the coworking space startup, and its co-founder Adam Neumann. 

As you'd might expect, there are panels relating to the coronavirus. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University will discuss how they used data to create the dashboard that publications and organizations have come to rely on for tracking the spread of the virus globally.

NASA alone is bringing plenty of future food for thought, including sessions on the James Webb Telescope, the building of life-sustaining environments on other plants and living on Mars -- something particularly timely with the February landing of the Perseverance Rover.

Unofficial SXSW on Clubhouse

Apart from SXSW programming, there's an element to the event that's purely social. While SXSW will offer some ways to keep the conversations going via various online platforms, on an unofficial level, buzzy audio-only chat app Clubhouse could play a role at SXSW 2021. 

The app, launched in March 2020, is invite only and currently works only on iPhones. It's already proving to be a place where people are taking their side conversations, whether it's about an awards show, or Oprah's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. 

Two longtime SXSW attendees are already hosting a regular Clubhouse room about SXSW.

"There's always that, 'let's talk tea about what just happened,'" said Brian Wallace, founder of infographic design agency NowSourcing. "It's going to be irresistible for people to just jump into a SXSW Clubhouse after-hours discussion."

Leigh Durst, Bay Area founder and author talked about what some called SXSW serendipity -- those right time, right place, right person networking or social interactions -- and the desire to replicate that as best as possible. 

"I think we will be seeing significant use of Clubhouse of side channel discussions," she said, among other platforms like Zoom. 

Looking ahead

SXSW 2021's hits and misses remain to be seen, but Forrest is hoping this year will bring some perks despite the circumstances, like the ability to watch sessions on demand, to not have to worry about room capacity, or sit out the event because of the sometimes prohibitive costs of travel and lodging. 

And perhaps some of that might stick around into the future.

"Hopefully, when we are back to a real world, real life event in 2022, that would be augmented by a robust online presence, more robust than what we had done before," Forrest said.