Techies get set for Austin's South by Southwest

Famed fest goes beyond music (and film), with equally lauded interactive events for bloggers, podcasters, others.

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
5 min read
To many people, the annual South by Southwest conference, which kicks off Saturday in Austin, Texas, is synonymous with thousands of musicians and other music industry types corralling for several days of club shows and raucous parties.

And indeed, that'll be the case, as the likes of Neil Young, the Pretenders and k.d. Lang make appearances, and endless numbers of agents, up-and-coming rockers and fans get together for what many feel is an unparalleled gathering.

What's not so well known is that SXSW, as the 10-day conference is commonly known, also boasts long-running and well-regarded interactive and film events that have their own registration requirements; schedules; and large, committed constituencies. These events kick things off, in fact, starting up on Friday.

These days, there's no shortage of conferences catering to bloggers, podcasters, Web site owners and anyone interested in the interactivity of the Internet. And that's to say nothing of the endless number of film festivals that start around Jan. 1 and go throughout the year, bringing hordes to just about every locale the world over.

But for many who religiously head to Austin each year for SXSW, the conference has an ability to stay fresh and vital in ways other confabs can't. And that may have a lot to do with the conversation that happens there.

Craig Newmark Craig Newmark

"It's a pretty important conference regarding Internet trends, because people are talking a lot about what's really happening," said Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. "Not just the technology, but what it means for our culture in general."

Newmark said he's going to SXSW largely for the opportunity to meet with many of the tastemakers and influencers of the Internet community. Plus, he'll be sitting for a public keynote interview conducted by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

"I'm just hoping to talk to a lot of people who are involved in these efforts," said Newmark, "including Jimmy and folks involved in professional and citizen journalism."

For Heather Armstrong, better known as the popular blogger Dooce, SXSW is a chance to mingle with people who've been established names in the blogosphere for years.

"I have never been before," said Armstrong. "I had always heard about it, and I've read everybody's Web site (about it)--Matt Haughey (MetaFilter creator), Anil Dash (vice president of blogging-software provider Six Apart) and Jason Kottke (famous blogger)."

Armstrong said she's also excited to meet many of the women involved in organizing the BlogHer conference, as well as many of the other female bloggers who'll be on hand in Austin.

Among the draws for those attending the interactive event are keynotes by Newmark, Armstrong--in conversation with Kottke--and machinima pioneer Burnie Burns, as well as dozens of panels, ranging from "Beyond Folksonomies: Knitting Tag Clouds for Grandma" to a talk by "Wisdom of Crowds" author James Surowiecki to "How to Roll Your Own Web Conference."

The "Beyond folksonomies: Knitting tag clouds for grandma" panel, moderated by SPCI co-founder David Swedlow, offers alternatives to the restrictiveness of the "top-down, authoritarian, Semantic Web approach" and to the permissiveness of the "bottom-up, free-love, rebelliousness of folksonomies." Instead, panelists discuss mddle-ground compromises that can help everyone better navigate the Web.

The "Cyberplace: Online in offline spaces?and vice versa" panel will talk about how more online tools are being designed to "mobilize people offline?as well as to annotate 'real-world' spaces. Heath Row, senior director of community development for Squidoo will moderate that panelists, one of whom is Dennis Crowley, founder of the mobile social-software service Dodgeball.com. Participants are expected to leave with a better understanding of how to employ architects, urban planners and other designers of physical spaces when designing online spaces.

For those attending the film event, a big part of the draw is Austin itself, and the attitude that pervades the Texas capital.

"I'm just a big fan of Austin," said Jacob Vaughan, the director of "The Cassidy Kids," a 2006 film starring Kadeem Hardison that will play at SXSW. "I think that's a big reason why a lot of people come here. It's a quality festival, and you will see a lot of films you won't see anywhere else."

Vaughan said that while events like Sundance can be a painful part of the professional process for those in the film industry, SXSW, by comparison, is much more enjoyable.

"I think it's the atmosphere," Vaughan said. "Besides the films and the parties and the panels, people can just relax here. They can go see a film at the Paramount (theater), and then go downtown to the Alamo (theater). It's a nice place to walk."

Others agree and say the atmosphere that pervades SXSW is clearly informed by Austin itself.

"With South by Southwest, I guess it's the best of both worlds," said Eric Vespe, an editor at the online publication Ain't It Cool News who covers the film industry and who's been attending at least nine years. "You get the best of big (film) festival programming, but you don't get that insane feel. It's kind of like Austin, that's the best way to describe it. Austin's a small town and a big city."

Vespe said he plans to see at least 25 films during SXSW and is most interested in Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Not Smoking," Kirby Dick's "This Film is not Yet Rated" and Josh Gilbert's "A/k/a Tommy Chong."

Film event attendees will also be able to choose from a wide range of panels including a look, 10 years later, at John Sayles' groundbreaking film "Lone Star," a talk about how to find funding for new productions and even a discussion on blogging about films.

In the end, though, SXSW is a social event, and as such, those planning to attend are looking forward to the endless opportunities to network, even as they enrich themselves professionally.

"Everyone says the parties are really hard core and must be attended," said Armstrong. "Everyone says the parties are even better than some of the panels. And let's be honest, that's one of the reasons we're going."