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SXSW Interactive Shrugged the App and Launched Some Heavy Conversation

March 12, 2014

Has South by Southwest jumped the shark? That’s a question SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forest half-heartedly posed to an audience Sunday afternoon on the topic of SXSW trends. It’s a question he often gets. It’s year 21 for the interactive conference, and Forest was the one who launched the arm, then named the SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference (silly how the term “multimedia” seems tres passé now).

Forest was candid in calling Twitter a blessing and an albatross. On the one hand, Twitter put the conference on the map. SXSWi struggled with growth for over 10 years before Twitter launched, and two years later, became the game-changing app that’s now embedded in our lives. A the time in 2007, however, no one recognized Twitter for the phenomenon it would become. Now each year, people scrape interactive panels looking for the next big thing, the next Twitter. And indeed, on Monday, I chatted with a designer from Holland attending her first South By, and she told me she wasn’t impressed; she hadn’t seen anything new. I got the sense that Forest was rather tired with this perceived metric of success.

I’ve never attended SXSW in search of the next shiny start-up or life-changing tech solution. I like to survey the landscape, to see the passion projects that excite people, to be among the conversations that set eyes gleaming, voices tilting. And sure, I go to get a taste of what’s in store for the coming year.

This time around, the interactive program shifted its focus from launching apps and nerding out with tech to staging critical conversations on the politics and ethics of technology in our lives. In previous years of SXSWi, the spotlight was on social networking sites and apps (i.e., Twitter, Foursquare and GroupMe), and start-ups continue to come hoping to be discovered. Yet, there was a consensus put forth by CNN producer Josh Rubin that social media has reached a plateau. Social is no longer a trend because everything is social; it’s embedded in everything we do. Tech writer Erin Griffith pointed out that in fact, that new social media apps launched at South By just feel like pandering to the conference. So we’re social and floating out data endlessly, now what?

Influenced by the “fugitive tract,” as Forest referred to the live conversations with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, there was a tension between the scary guard-your-privacy panels and the big bright data panels for the marketing and agency set. Imagine observing the conversation with Snowden, hailing the necessity of encryption, when the day before, you were at “I’ve Got Social Data, Now What? A Retailer’s Guide.”

I attended a panel on “Algorithms, Journalism and Democracy” led by Pointer ethicist Kelly McBride (with a #scaryrithm). McBride illustrated how Facebook and Google impact democracy and the social order by wielding the power of algorithms, affecting what we see in our feeds, how our Facebook movies turnout, and so forth. When a techie stood up, a self-professed “algorithm nut,” and asked if McBride could name an algorithm of good, McBride gave the halo to Netflix and its list of suggestions for your queue. Awww.

Other buzzwords of the fair included: wearables (I saw a lot of Google glass and felt like a rube when I tried to look without looking), disposable media (re: Snapchat), drone tech, more 3D-printing, the maker movement and electric cigarettes. Of course, there was the pretentious “I got your text, now give me your 60-second elevator pitch” overheard on the escalator. And, “This is the line for fucking pizza?! Jesus.” I felt it, too. But there was also “This is my first South By!” all giddy on the street corner, and I never get tired of hearing that enthusiasm.