The annual technology spring break, South by Southwest Interactive (SxSWi) has concluded. This year’s conference featured almost 20,000 participants, over 1,000 sessions and countless vendors discussing and showcasing almost every emerging (and a few tried and true) technologies.
I am a SxSWi veteran. Each year I make the three hour trek from Dallas to Austin to commune with fellow technologists to gain new insights about technology, learn about startups, people watch and be over served at the many parties. This year’s conference did not disappoint. Here is my list of observations from 2012.
Everything Is Big in Texas (trend)
This year’s conference was filled with sessions, people, vendors and parties. Each year it seems that the conference couldn’t possibly get any bigger; yet, the next year it does. Walking around the Austin Convention Center and the various hotels that host SxSWi events, you frequently hear South by newbies exclaiming how overwhelming the conference is. You see a mix of excitement and exhaustion on everyone’s face.
This year as soon as check-in started, the lines began. For the entire conference, people lined up outside of exhibit halls, conference rooms and venues. Every hour of the day, attendees waited, passing time compulsively updating social media on their chosen mobile device, chatting with their blogging idol or drinking beer. At some point organizers will need to decide how big is too big. At some point, which seems to be approaching quickly, the conference will be too big and the balance will tip from crazy, busy, awesome to crazy, busy, this is a waste of my time.
Guerilla Social (disappointment)
SxSWi is one of the biggest technical conference in existence, so you expect devices and social media everywhere. This year however I noticed companies not only promoted their social identity, they strong armed attendees into tweeting/pinning/updating about their brand.
Many vendors required installing an app or tweeting about them to get conference swag. This isn’t too surprising given the increasing pressure marketers face to show the ROI of social media efforts, but pressuring someone to engage isn’t necessarily the best approach.
Attendees are already promoting a brand by wearing logo plastered shirts, hats and bobbles in the photos they compulsively share. A forced connection isn’t likely to produce long-term engagement; in fact, the approach it turns some potential users (like me) away from the brand because the tactic seems too pushy and inauthentic. Anyone that uses an installed user or visit metric collected the day after SxSWi began is likely trying to inflate performance numbers.
Humans as Computing Equipment (surprise)
There is always quality people watching at SxSWi; there is a critical mass of geeks and eclectic personalities in attendance. This year, however, SxSWi took it up a notch with human charging stations, homeless hotspots (which created a huge controversy), walking credit card terminals and human QR codes.
The homeless hotspots, homeless people carrying MiFi devices that offered a 4G connection placed by marketing Bartle Bogle Hegarty Labs, caused quite a bit of controversy. Homeless hotspots were originally intended as updated version of the homeless newspapers the homeless populations sell in many cities.
Homeless participants wore an “I am a 4G hotspot shirt,” and users could pay whatever they thought was fair for the connection (either in person or via PayPal online) and the donation went to the person providing the connection. Critics of the experiment said it was dehumanizing exploitation that provided no benefit to the homeless beyond a few bucks. I can understand the stance, but the experiment provided a brief income source that I’m sure the participants appreciated.
Social, Location and Gamification (trend)
Almost every conference and vendor offering incorporated location, social media elements and gamification. Vendors competing for customer attention are using the tools to (hopefully) increase user engagement. Several sessions discussed the topics from every imaginable angle from implementation challenges to how to measure success.
The Future of Interactive
I enjoyed SxSWi, but I’m exhausted. Now it’s time for me to return to the real world where I have to actually pay for food and drinks and my days don’t start with discussions of big data.