NYC's pre-SXSW party: What the heck is the next big thing going to be?

The digital-media festival is often thought of as an incubator for some of the next big ideas. So what will show up this year?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

I've heard people refer to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival as "spring break for geeks." I guess that means Monday night's pre-festival networking event in New York was the equivalent of those on-campus mixers that travel companies hold in December and January. But instead of learning just how all-inclusive that rum-soaked Caribbean getaway will be, I was trying to figure out exactly what's going to happen at this year's SXSW. Are we going to see the emergence of the next big thing in social media?

The organizers of SXSW Interactive have been throwing networking events in a number of U.S. cities in anticipation of the festival proper, which takes place March 7-11 in Austin, Texas. The New York edition's venue, the East Village bar known as No Malice Palace, was unfortunately too dark and loud for ideal "networking"--but that's OK, because they gave us each a drink ticket when we showed up. Those always seem to make everyone a little bit more agreeable.

Whenever I asked attendees at the mixer what they were expecting to see at SXSW, about three in four immediately mentioned Twitter. Last year, Twitter made its breakout debut, but its failure to develop a profit model or break outside the alpha-geek crowd has resulted in some disappointment. This year, some expected to see the notoriously unstable Twitter's decline--"They couldn't handle Macworld (without crashing)," Worth1000's Michael Galpert told me. "There's no way in hell they're going to be able to handle South by Southwest."

But aside from Twitter, some talk turned to the emergence of "hackable," open-source projects like Google's Android and OpenSocial, leaving some of us speculating whether this would be the breakout phenomenon of SXSW '08. The iPhone's software developer kit (SDK) will be released by then, too; ever since the launch of the Facebook Platform last May, developers and third-party applications have been front and center.

There were some other ideas tossed about, too. A few people brought up location-based mobile services, but one added that GPS-enabled phones still haven't reached the critical mass that such technology would need for widespread adoption. And Bre Pettis, who recently made the jump from Make to Etsy, said that he speculates a handful of alternate reality games (ARGs) and "big games" will be launched at SXSW '08, in part due to the presence of keynote speaker Jane McGonigal.

Nevertheless, Pettis told me, it won't be a breakout like Twitter. "Probably only 10 people will know," he said regarding ARGs at SXSW, "but they're the right 10 people."

So who else showed up on Monday night? Greg Galant, founder of occasionally disruptive fake celebrity blog site News Groper, said he wasn't sure yet whether we should expect fake SXSW coverage; Boinkology editor Lux Alptraum told me about the "Sex and the Internet" talk she'll be co-hosting at the festival; Mint Digital's Toby Daniels filled me in on his company's new TV production endeavor; and Fearless Cooking video blogger Grace Piper said that her kitchen-centric show is "kicking ass"--but she couldn't tell me a whole lot more.

Piper said that when it comes to SXSW, she's hoping to just meet new people, network, and barbecue. Apparently now that "bacn" has joined the tech terminology, we might be seeing some bacon-heavy SXSW delicacies. Yeah, that's the next big thing.

(Don't tell your arteries.)