Eight Scintillating Lessons from SXSW

I heard a story about a business man who had a half-day layover in Paris.  He told a local person he had four hours to see Paris and asked him what he should do. The Frenchman said, “Sit on the curb and cry.”

That’s a little how I feel about trying to describe my first experience at SXSW, the World Cup of Interactive Media, Film and Music. The scope of this annual conference is so vast that it simply cannot be captured in a blog post … let alone a short one!  But I would be remiss if I didn’t write about this significant experience with the community, so here are eight highlights:

Social media evolution and revolution — I have long-admired Clay Shirky and was delighted to be able to see him live as one of the keynote speakers. In a speech that had people talking for days, Shirky described the evolution of “abundant media” starting with the first printed Bibles — authorities have been threatened by this idea for centuries. He took a direct shot at Malcom Gladwell’s claim that the “revolution will not be tweeted” by stating that social media does enable social change through synchronized information, documentation (ability to get the word out), and coordination. Probably one-third of the discussions I attended had some reference to social media and the developments in the Middle East.

The game layer — Another keynote speaker was a 22-year-old Princeton drop-out named Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR. Priebatsch opined that the era of social is over and will be replaced by the “game layer.”  His presentation generated controversy and I found my mind alternatively wandering between a) “he’s 22, and not everybody thinks like a gamer,” and b) “this guy is a genius.” Basically he believes that everything from education to global warming could be more effectively addressed if we applied game theory to it — building rewards into the system to generate enthusiasm and emotional connection.  His ideas are rooted in sound psychological principles and in the end, I think he’s on to something. Here is his TED talk.

Social media and society — I expected SXSW to be dominated by Facebook- and Twitter-related topics but it was not that way at all. A big theme was mobile, personal and location-based apps and how these personal interactive technologies were being applied to diverse businesses and social problems. For example, several panels addressed how technology is driving more open and accountable government. My new friend from Iceland, Gunnar Holmsteinn used text mining and sentiment analysis to “grade” public proclamations by politicians against the sentiment of the public. Probably the gem of the week was attending an intimate early morning discussion with the Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. and Presidental Advisor Aneesh Chopra. He said the U.S. government is moving beyond exposing data to enabling engagement. He sees technology as helping governments be “conveners,” enable citizens to help solve civic problems and streamline purchasing processes.  A representative from NASA said you no longer have to dream about becoming involved with the space agency — they have many online programs to participate in.

Networking — SXSW was an opportunity to meet-up with dozens of friends from the {grow} community — too numerous to mention! Thanks to all of you who went out of your way to meet me! By far, that was my favorite part of the conference. I also got to meet some well-known people in our field like Tim O’Reilly, Guy Kawaski, Brian Solis and rub elbows with some of my favorite bloggers like Jason Falls, Shelly KramerAmber Naslund, Stephanie Wonderlin, and Jay Baer.

The Epicenter of Desperation — This is the World Cup of tech start-ups and I sensed a pervasive tone of desperation throughout the cacophony!  Entrepreneurs tried every way to attract attention, from ridiculous get-ups to free parties. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how unprepared most of these companies were for the real world. The stereotypical entrepreneur had put a lot of work into an idea or app without much thought about marketing, financing or a business plan. I guess the raw innovation and craziness is part of the charm of the conference but I heard this naivety repeated over and over.

Hyper crowd-sourcing — I was blown away by what is being crowd-sourced these days — research, mapping, tagging, innovation, consulting services. Everything from the mundane to the profound.  Samasource connects menial labor with “marginalized” people around the world. One panel explored the controversy behind this trend. Is this the 2011 version of a sweat shop?

Augmented reality — I am really excited about this technology and absorbed as much as I could. I think this is going to be the next huge game-changer! : ) Combining an interactive layer to inanimate landscapes and objects (through smartphones and eventually eye glasses) is going to unleash unprecedented new creativity and applications for education, entertainment, marketing and networking. Can you imagine a book coming alive with 3D animation or a virtual character leading you on a tour of a city street? Probably have a blog post coming soon about this topic.

What’s the next big thing? This is the most popular and important question of the week. Everybody wants to know if the next Twitter or Foursquare will emerge.  What app was the winner?  If there was a buzz on one thing I missed it! But hey, there were thousands of new businesses trying to “launch” at SXSW and I’m not the guy to turn to for “inside tekkie” news! However, I did try to pay attention and here were some of the new businesses I liked:

  • Slide rocket — Finally, an alternative to Power Point? This paid service could solve a lot of presentation problems.
  • Start-up Boulevard — A much needed connector between start-ups, investors and corporate sponsors. See my interview with Founder Enrique Shadah.
  • Foodstream — Founder Paul Lo has put together an ambitious Foursquare/Urban Spoon/Living Social mash-up that discovers the menus, coupons and reviews at restaurants near you.
  • Harmony Institute — You’ve heard of product placement, but what about “cause placement?” The New York-based non-profit combines research with cutting-edge media production to generate entertainment with targeted social and environmental messages.
  • Birdcore — An innovative approach to text mining that has caught the attention of some major brands
  • AYTM — Low cost, crowd-sourced consumer research
  • Fish Technology — Combines RFID chips in a wrist bands to provide information-sharing and personal interactive capabilities in a live environment. Would be an interesting application for trade shows or career fairs.
  • Raven Tools — I loved this low-cost, integrated social media monitoring alternative. Might be a good option for small agencies.
  • LifeKraze — A new social network that is kind of a Foursquare for fitness and healthy living.


OK, here is the big question — Was it worth it?  We’re talking $2,500 plus five days of lost productivity and billable hours — an expensive and time-consuming jaunt. Yes, it was worth it, at least to me. I was really pleased that social media shilling was at a minimum and great content was abundant. There was far, far too much to see and do and despite crushing crowds that made navigating the Austin Convention Center extremely challenging, the experience was rewarding.  I’m looking forward to next year!

More SXSW coverage on {grow}:

Interview with Joe Fernandez of Klout

Interview with Rick Wion of McDonald’s

Interview with Kip Bodnar of Hubspot

Coverage of journalism versus content marketing debate

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  • Mark, great list of takeaways from an event that is near impossible to manage, consume and capture. Perhaps the only thing we can guarantee in the human condition is we will always have plenty of opinion. The social web has proven the century’s old human need to connect and belong but having our spin on an issue will always be the fascinating part of the journey. I admire Clay and Malcolm and agree with much and disagree with some of what both say and that is the gold, Jerry!

    Sir Ken Robinson summed up the future perfectly, none of us, not one of us, has a clue what’s coming next.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Thanks Kneale. It was certainly an epic event!

  • This is a great round-up of some useful highlights from the conference. I get that I’m probably a bit outside of the generation that habitually thinks like a gamer (unless we’re applying PacMan and Centipede theories to things nowadays), but I do find the concept fascinating and a logical evolution. I look forward to diving more in-depth to the helpful links you’ve supplied.

    Thanks for the round-up!

  • Reading this post has motivated me even more. I will be there next year!You read it here first. I will be the one interviewing Mark! (I will be the very short, cute redhead with the very loud voice)

    That video you posted really got me thinking this morning. That is exactly the information I need early in the morning. You read it here first.

    I have learned that if I state a goal out loud, I have a much better chance of achieving it.

  • You crack me up. This is great Nancy. I love your energy and passion. I’m sure I will see you there next year and we will have a great interview! I appreciate you!

  • The best thing about SXSW was hearing people like Seth, who is outside my normal experience. In fact, of all the panels and talks I attended, I had only previously known of one of the speakers. There was so much to choose from — often 10 or 12 concurrent events — and I looked for the more obscure and cutting edge topics. I was happy with how that strategy worked. Thanks for the comment Shane!

  • Anonymous

    Great review of what sounds like an overwhelming avalanche of ideas, inspiration, connection and fun. I have not attended as yet, but would love to see it happen in the future. Looking forward to SoSlam

  • Social Slam is going to be “SXSE” : ) For other readers, it is here: http://www.socslam.com A few tickets still available!

  • Nark, reading your roundup of “Eight Scintillating Lessons from SXSW” left me feeling as if I was there {minus the crowds ; )}! Comprehensive, impressive and well-done! Thank you…

  • This was actually a very difficult to write. So much to consolidate into a short post! Glad you liked it!

  • Applause! Applause! Applause! Bookmarked as resource materials — moving forward ; )

  • I would love to go to SXSW to learn more about integration and engagement. All of these tools and platforms are super cool, but how does it benefit the end user? How does it make life easier compared to the current platforms out there? That’s the stuff that would excite me.

    Perhaps next year!

  • Terrific post. Really glad you found value in your first SXSW experience, as that’s not always the case. Sounds like you wisely balanced the educational and the social. Fantastic getting a chance to spend a little (too little) time with you.

  • I will expect a lot of Tweeter and Facebook Interaction as well. What was wrong with Social media Interaction at SXSW? lack of time?

    It would have been awesome to meet such amazing people like you, Jay Baer, Jason Falls or Hajj Flemings, but then again, will we have the time to have a quality conversation, even while sipping a drink after a busy day?

    Crowd-sourcing should be great to experience there. But the best part of this blog article is: What is next? I am starting to read about those new apps and networks.

    I am still Social Media hungry.

  • You are asking precisely the right question, Paul! That is the question all of these start-ups should be asking themselves!

  • Well it was really encouragement from you and Shelly Kramer that pushed me to go (Hey! You’re an influencer!! ) It’s a big commitment but i got a lot out of it Next year I will probably spend a little more time on the “social” part of it and organize more meetings. I didn’t know what to expect this time so I kept my schedule fairly loose. A lesson learned. Thanks Jay! Good luck in Portland!

  • There was plenty of Twitter and Facebook activity (a frenzy actually) but they did not dominate the actual speaking engagements like I thought they might. The content was pleasingly balanced and usually high-level, although there were some “how-to” workshops for developers. The ideas I presented here about social media and government, society, game layer, etc were fairly typical of the high-level thinking I experienced.

    I’m hungry too Luis. When should we go get that drink together to talk it over?? : )

  • Interesting insights here Mark… what stands out in my mind was your expectation for Twitter and Facebook to dominate the social media society discussions. It must have been an eye opening experience in some ways for those expectations to go a completely different direction.

    It will be interesting to see if the the things you learned and insights gained will start showing up on your blog. The mobile web will (is) having a huge impact on how people use/ access the web. Personal and location based apps are localizing the web. Interesting stuff to be sure.

    I’m looking forward to seeing some more of your insights on these and other topics mentioned in this post.

    Cheers Mark!

  • Anonymous

    I was surprised and pleased to see you mentioned Slide Rocket. That booth really got my attention. I’ve written PowerPoints for technology clients for 20+ years (PowerPoint is 24 years old). It’s not a content management system, obviously, and that’s what people really need – people like my husband, who manages the American sales force for a Japanese solar company, and is constantly vexed by the problem of version control, message control, and branding in their presentations.

  • One of the reasons could be that i chose my own schedule and i went kind of an eclectic route. : ) Thanks, as always, for your great comments Mark

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  • PG

    Very cool!

  • I think it is an interesting development … and I saw some amazing slides! Thanks for contributing Claire!

  • I totally agree about Priebatsch. Personally I think he’s brilliant (although much of game theory is rooted in basic human psychological study…the world didn’t start with the internet, folks), but he is terribly young. It’s hard for the mom in me to not just want to make him a PB&J sandwich, give him a hug and go bury those sunglasses in the backyard.

  • Mark,
    I couldn’t make the trip (hoping next year will be my inaugural visit), but thank you for this fabulous wrap-up … all those links and things to check out. It’ll be like my own virtual SXSW – guided by Mark.

  • I didn’t give it fair credit Jamie, but hope to see you down there next year at the second annual {grow} tweet-up! ; )

  • Comment of the year : )

    I constantly struggle between being “wise” and being irrelevant. Perhaps part of wisdom is knowing WHEN you’re being irrelevant ; )

    Ironically, I was probably more irrelveant when I was 22 but didn;t have the wisdom to know it. Time to stop. I’m starting to sound like Oprah or something. : )

  • I created a Sliderocket account and an initial presentation in the fall of 2009, then let it collect dust until last month when I build a slide deck out of it for a social media marketing course I taught. I’ve used it since, especially because it enables easy synchronization of images from Flickr.

  • Pingback: World Spinner()

  • I haven’t tested it out on my own yet but plan to once I get through the next few projects! Thanks for the nudge!

  • Thanks for the Raven shout out, Mark! This was a great post to read because we were “trapped” in our booth all day long and did not have a spare moment to get out and see what folks were on about at SXSW this year. Now I’m no longer curious. 🙂

  • Thanks for checking in Alison. Keep up the good work. Hope it was a successful event for you.

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