Mastering social media saturation at SXSW

With thousands of people overwhelming Austin and hundreds of events to choose from, how can a savvy SXSW attendee manage to find his or her friends and the best things to do right now?

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
6 min read
For SXSW attendees, finding friends or events during a week when there are hundreds of things to do every day, such as CNET's Buzz Out Loud party Sunday, can be difficult. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--There was a time, just a couple of years ago, when you could figure out almost everything going on at the South by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW) just by keeping an eye on the #SXSW hash tag.

Whether it was an impromptu wine party hosted by Gary Vaynerchuck or a Laughing Squid meet-up or word about a great panel going on, that hash tag was many people's essential organizing principle.

But with the explosive growth of SXSW and Twitter, the thousands who are prowling around day and night here this week looking for the next great thing to go to or do have had to branch out.

Thanks to Twitter's 2007 coming-out party here, and Foursquare's launch in 2009, the conference is now seen as the proving ground for many new social media services, and as such, there are always a steady flow of new technologies that are breaking ground in helping people figure out what's going on. Add the network effect of a massively connected community like that of SXSW Interactive, and you can quickly test whether a new service is going to be useful or not.

This week, though, Austin has been overrun by what seems like a larger than ever mass of attendees, and with them, an overwhelming number of panels and talks, barbecues, official SXSW parties, and unofficial gatherings. And that's meant that anyone who has any hope of figuring out where to go to find their friends, or something to do, has to have a game plan. Otherwise, they've faced the fruitless effort of trying to mine the dozens and dozens of #SXSW tweets rushing through each minute (see video below) for something fun.

This year, the hot new technologies have been group messaging. Services like Beluga and GroupMe have been in heavy use given that they allow people to create ongoing mobile-based group conversations.

To Chris Carella, the founder of social-software developer Super + Fun, GroupMe has been a saving grace at SXSW. Asked about the service, Carella e-mailed (from his iPhone) to CNET how it had helped him make his way through one of the party-soaked evenings here this week.

"I'm in [a] post-2 a.m. SXSW group," Carella recalled. "The entire group is heavily tapped into the party scene and are constantly updating each other on the status of parties and converging on locations that are fun. I'm finding out about VIP parties I wouldn't have otherwise and if it's hard to get in, someone in the group finds a way to get me in, even if I don't know them. Then, of course, as the name implies, after things close at 2 a.m., the group coordinates to extend the night. This group is a truly amazing experience for me (a first time [SXSW attendee])."

Beluga, another group messaging platform that's getting a lot of attention here, has its fans, as well. The information coming from the service "is crowdsourced based on specifically what my friends are relaying," said Boulder, Colo.-based social-media consultant Ef Rodriguez.

Another service that has been getting the thumb's-up around town this week has been LocalMind. In a post on his favorite new app at SXSW, uber-blogger Robert Scoble said of LocalMind, which lets users ask questions of people checked in near them, "It's like Quora and Foursquare got together and had a baby."

Scoble lauded LocalMind for giving SXSW attendees--and others back in the rest of the world--the ability to pose questions about whether a certain party is still going, if there's still an open bar, or if folks are moving on to the next thing.

"It shows you people who have checked in with Foursquare and have LiveMind open near you in the past few minutes," Scoble wrote, "and then you can ask them questions. Right now I'm using it and there's dozens of different venues with people checked in right now at them. I can ask them questions, like, 'how long is the line for the Mashable party?' and get an answer back right away."

The problem at SXSW, of course, is that there are thousands and thousands of people here, and what seems like as many or more things to do. The list of official panels and talks alone would be enough to cow just about anyone, and that doesn't even begin to touch the additional list of unofficial goings on that people might want to get to. Add to that the complexity of trying to connect with one or more friends, and someone feeling social or wanting to attend something has encountered a logistical nightmare.

For Jeremy Tanner, also a Boulder-based social-media strategist, one of the best ways to navigate the maze has been a tool called Sched.org, which he uses on his iPad. The service brings together a wide variety of event listing and descriptions, and lets users see not just what they are interested in, but also what members of their social networks are interested as well. "If you want to be lazy and let them do all the [scheduling] work," Tanner joked, "you can decide what your friends are doing that you want to do too."

However, Sched.org only lists official events and parties, Tanner said, "so when someone says they're going to take a bus of 20 down to [Austin's famous barbecue joint] Salt Lick, that's not on there."

In its 2009 infancy, Foursquare was a great tool for solving the problem of finding out what the hot unofficial gathering was because it let people see just where their friends were checking in at any given moment. And because Foursquare--and its check-in rival Gowalla, which also launched that year--was new, there wasn't yet a critical mass obscuring the real value of the information.

But Tanner said that's no longer the case, and that anyone at SXSW trying to use Foursquare to find out where they should go next is probably fighting a losing battle.

"The problem with Foursquare," Tanner said, "is that with trending topics, by the time something has become that hot on a location-based social network, it's over."

The phone
Despite the newer social media tools he uses to find his way around SXSW, Tanner also said that there are some more well-known systems that people can use to find the needle in the haystack of friends' activities and gatherings.

For one, the four-time SXSW attendee said, don't bother with the #SXSW Twitter hash tag. Instead, create Twitter lists of friends, a step that could cut way down on the noise-to-signal ratio.

Then again, why even try to rely on new-fangled social media tools, Tanner said. There are better ways to find out what your friends are doing right now. "Pick the phone up," he advised. "Text them. Voice and simple text are still the world's largest social networks--bigger than Facebook."

And then there's an even more analog way to conduct an active SXSW social life.

For Ben Huh, the CEO of Icanhascheezburger.com publisher Cheezburger, Inc., SXSW is a place to connect with the passionate community of users of the famous LOLcat site, and many others in the Cheezburger network. And "it's [also] my geek spring break," Huh said.

Huh said he's here with people from cities around the country, and that they've been using Foursquare and text messaging to arrange activities. But sometimes, he added, his social calendar involves little more than ending his daily work of meetings and interviews by sitting on a couch in the lobby of the Downtown Hilton here--which is across the street from the Austin Convention Center, where SXSW is centered--and waiting for friends to materialize. "Someone will come along and say, Hey what are you up to, and we'll go over [to some event]," Huh said. "I'm not here to go to specific events. I'm here to find serendipitous things."