For a long time, many people didn't know that South by Southwest (SXSW) included a technology component. But SXSW Interactive has grown exponentially since its inception, and word is that this year brought close to 25,000 techies flooding into small town Austin, TX to share ideas and showcase innovations over 6 days of panels, meetings, parties and other events. This year, Richir Outreach was in attendance, and had a front row seat at the circus.
Unlike in recent years when Twitter and FourSquare burst on to the SXSW stage, there seemed to be no clear consensus around a “next big thing" in social apps. This, of course, was not for lack of effort. Around every corner I ran into another fresh faced start-up rep pushing swag into my hands that touted a new app of some sort - this one can find you a few like minded friends in your vicinity, that one a nice place for dinner and dancing, and - oh - here’s one more to help you pay your bar tab at the end of the night to boot! In fact, heightened use of social apps to make sense of the SXSW madness did bring participants together in new and interesting ways - namely around the power outlets.
Yes, there are a glut of platforms on the market today. And yes, if anything was apparent, it was that there is definitely money to be made in the Internet. Plenty of people are making it, and plenty of people were throwing it around this year. Corporate presence was much bigger and over arching than I anticipated, with giant brands like Pepsi and Chevy displaying their new tech, speaking on panels, sponsoring parties and handing out free stuff. It was clear that corporations are hard at work learning new and inventive ways to use the social graph to market their brands. (Want some free ice cream? Just tweet about us to your network with #ourbrandiscleverandawesomesxsw)
But, if I can say anything for my fellow conference attendees, it is that they are a smart and thoughtful group of folks, and were not blind to this phenomenon. And steadily (thankfully), throughout the week, another theme broke through amidst the flash and clamor, which was: how can we use our digital tools to improve society?
Indeed, as I listened more carefully in the halls and cafes of Austin, I found buzz converging around less traditional tech players. From day 1, for example, the phrase “Invisible Children” was on everyone’s lips, as the viral video seeking to educate the public on LRA violence in Uganda pushed into the tens of millions of views. In a surprising turn, American’s Elect, an interesting web platform dedicated seeking a 3rd party candidate through a online nomination process won the SXSWi’s “People’s Choice” award. And Jennifer Pahlka's keynote on how her brigade of coders at Code for America are forgoing the big paychecks of silicon valley to improve the ways in which city government works was inspiring. Not to mention Al Gore and Sean Parker's much-hyped conversation calling on the tech world to harness technology to change business as usual in American politics (and name dropping Nationbuilder! More on that soon to follow...)
Ultimately, I left Austin with a lot of new information, which I will continue to unpack over the upcoming weeks. But my big picture takeaway was one of hope. If people can still talk about social change in a landscape flooded with free booze and free t-shirts, perhaps there is hope for us after all!
As we move into the 21st century, I am more optimistic than ever about our ability to harness the power of the digital world to build real communities around the important issues we are facing today and excited to bring this innovating spirit to our clients at Richir Outreach. Stay tuned!