Thoughts and Impressions of SXSW 2014

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The TXST gang right after Kiana's panel.

The TXST gang!

Here we are, last day of SXSW. I’ve got a film to see this afternoon and a few music showcases, and then that’s it for 2014. Where did the time go? It seems like we just got started. But I’m also pretty exhausted and not sure how much more of this I could actually take.

I’d like to share some of my thoughts and impressions of this SXSW. It is often difficult to make sense of things amidst the chaos, but as usual, trends emerge.

First, I must express my sadness for the sad circumstances of Wednesday night. The crash on Red River that took the lives of two and injured several others is a terrible tragedy for SXSW. My heart goes out to all affected. It was a senseless action that has shaken the SXSW and Austin community. We are moving on, but with very heavy hearts.

Second, I need to mention this SXTXState project. We have refined and improved this project over the years so that the participating students have the best possible experience. I think you can see from the site that Jake, Melody, Jordon and Priscillia worked very hard, met some great people and had tons of fun. Please view my post on the “Where Are They Now?” of SXTXState to see the impressive people who have come out of this project. I know these four have great things ahead for them. We really appreciate all the people who took the time to talk with them.

I am also proud that two students from last year had panels accepted to speak at SXSW this year!

For Interactive, there were a number of trends upon which to reflect:

Wearables: A key part of SXTXState over the years is that we are using the tech as it is being discussed at SXSW. We have used group messaging for years (this year’s WhatsApp group was invaluable in our on-site communication) and we have used various social platforms – like Storify when it was just in beta – to promote our work. This year, we took the leap with Google Glass. Students had a chance to try it out for coverage and we got some nice interviews and a trade show tour as a result. Students learned that testing new technology isn’t easy or perfect, but I think they were excited about being on the forefront of this development. At SXSW, Google Glass was not the only “wearable” being discussed. Expect things like Fitbit and other tools that provide information and data to grow in their importance. The wearables trend seems to be the next step in mobile, which continues to be an evolving aspect of SXSW.

3D Printing: Continuing from last year’s theme, 3D printing was a theme, printing anything from guitars to car parts to food (Make your own Oreos, yum!).

Privacy/Surveillance/Journalism Fugitive: Of course, a big theme this year was hearing from the keynotes Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, who all appeared virtually. The privacy/surveillance contingency is keenly aware of the power of the tech community, so it is not surprising that they made their appeals to this audience.

Fewer Dev Panels: In the past, I tried to attend new tech panels to introduce me to things I need to be teaching students – CSS trends, Responsive Design, Web frameworks – these are all things I first learned about at SXSW. I feel that this year there were fewer of these panels, and the ones that were on these topics were positioned more as workshops. I didn’t detect a strong “new tech platform” trend that I needed to go out and learn right away so I could integrate in curriculum. The panels were more about future concepts and ideas, which is a good thing, but I did miss some of the “nerdier” tech-focused sessions.

Cryptocurrency: Bitcoin was on everyone’s mind. Some are confused by it, some are hopeful, some are cautious. It’s a potentially scary thing to disrupt an economy’s currency. But I think if financial markets are ripe for technology disruption, it is a good bet that no industry is immune. We’ll see what the future holds.

Future of Social? Some discussion centered around whether or not social was mature, and no longer a big issue at SXSW. There was no new technology announced, although I did hear discussion about private social networks like Secret or Whisper gaining ground. Personally, these platforms don’t interest me. If I am going to go to the effort of posting things on social media, I want them to last and have meaning. But I understand there is an audience for Snapchat and the like, and I will keep paying attention to those who find them useful.

Platforms: The term “platform” is kind of vague. Everything is a platform and not everyone understands what is meant by “platform.” One of the most interesting panels I attended was by Zach Seward of Quartz on this idea of Platform vs. Publisher as it relates to news. He did a good job of highlighting the different sites as hybrids of platform vs. publisher, the directions to which they approached these hybrids and some discussion of the future implications. I think this is just the beginning of this consideration, with a lot of potential for research and development.

International Focus: As SXSW grows, so does its international focus. There were more people from different countries attending this year, and this is good, as the global implications of technology become more apparent.

Health and Science: There were a lot of panels about health issues, science and space with appearances by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Adam Savage and Bill Nye (the science guy).

Data: Data is a big interest area of mine, and this continues to be a trend at SXSW. It, too, is a broad category with various definitions. It can be related to data storytelling, big data, sensors and drones, as well as the surveillance theme.

More Intimate Gatherings: SXSW is the home of crazy, giant parties. But it seems like people are trying to create smaller experiences for themselves. Personally, I have hosted a smaller, invitation-only Taco Party for the past several years that helps my students meet my professional friends from out of town. And we had nice end-of-day dinners to reflect upon each day’s activities.

Taco Party in full swing. photo Sara Peralta

Taco Party in full swing. photo Sara Peralta

Music: As a music lover and fan, and someone who moonlights as a music journalist and has had more than a few conversations with musicians about social media and promotion, I enjoy attending panels about music and tech. But I have to say, the best ones of these are during Interactive. The Music conference is light years behind in what they discuss, and that’s because the panelists are mostly from labels or other parts of the music biz. My advice for music folks is to seek inspiration and advice from those who are strongly involved in the tech industry. The things they are talking about now – wearables, sensors, data, and platforms – are all on your horizon. Social is a given. You have to do it, but you need to use data to understand your fans better. You need to create interactive experiences for them so they can participate in your community. The panel on Music Tech Trends featured tech enthusiast Robert Scoble, so that brought a more forward-thinking approach to that panel.

I attended a panel on music and copyright in the digital age, featuring my friend Rhett Miller. While the panel was good in terms of describing a complicated topic and representing some artists’ viewpoints, I think it lacked diversity of opinion. It really needed someone to support the “creativity” angle. I definitely believe artists should have control over their copyright and be able to make money from their work (especially if someone else is). But we live in a world where we have easy tools that let us be creative, kids doing mashups, posting things on YouTube. And, even though what Girl Talk does is commercial, he’s demonstrating a range of creativity in his sampling process and has lots of fans who love his shows! How strongly should these activities be controlled?

I did get to see some great shows, and that post will be up soon on my music blog

As Hugh Forrest said during the panel on trends at SXSW, at an event of this size, “the dots don’t always connect.” Technology is disparate and supports a diversity of activities. SXSW is one place where a lot of those things are represented. You have to curate your own SXSW, amidst the multitude of panels, chaos and distractions. You have to spend time preparing and then be ready to “Surrender to Serendipity.” (also a Hugh Forrest quote)

Yes, SXSW is big. The commercialism even began to bother me, a chronic SXSW evangelist, with the Subway park, Marlboro smoking lounge and the Mashable tent sponsored by Friskies. But I have learned to take the good with the inevitable. There is still nowhere else to go to get this broad of a perspective on the future. And it is still the best conference for students to attend for gaining exposure to the most forward-thinking innovators out there. If you work in a field like journalism or music or anything communication or arts-related, I implore you to pay attention to these trends. They will affect you in the future.

I had to laugh when Kiana said she thought she probably used that iPad mini last year.

I had to laugh when Kiana said she thought she probably used that iPad mini last year.

Lots of fun to be had, inside and outside.

Lots of fun was had, inside and outside.

Students will be posting their overall impressions in the next few days.

Until SXSW 2015! Best to everyone.