Close-Up: So did SXSW 2011 really justify all that Tweeting?

It seems everyone at the event spent most of their time Tweeting about it. We asked four adlanders if it lived up to the hype.


I have been trying to go to SXSW for four years; because I heard it was cool, entertaining and full of geeks. Each year, I always ended up being too busy, but decided this year that nothing would stop me.

Beforehand, being organised seemed a good idea, but, in fact, my best experiences, conversations and insights came from a constant set of random events: a sold-out event pushing me into the meeting room next door to an eye-opening experience; an out-of-context London acquaintance met in the street pointing me to a place or event I would never had thought of; or sheer laziness leading me into the nearest restaurant.

SXSW is an event - or, rather, convention - that required patience, stamina and a brain capable of soaking up a lot of random new buzzwords that everyone else seemed to already know.

Being older than 99 per cent of those attending, I was slightly freaked out by the session on augmented reality where all the technology on show involved serious breaches of my privacy, most of which I would be unaware of even happening, involving major brands we are all already using in our lives. It confirmed my concerns that I seem to be living my life in the perception of a constant battle with Facebook over trying to keep my privacy intact in the face of its constant changing of the rules.


SXSW. Simply awesome, bro.

Not since Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure has the word "awesome" been used in such flippant manner. It was everywhere: in the corridors; in the seminars and even at the taco stand.

Making number two on the list was "cool", followed by another favourite, "real-time".

Yes, I was at SXSW, quite possibly the most overhyped and overrated conference in the calendar year - 20,000 people, 290 events per day, 15 locations, one tiny brain ... let the chaos commence.

One uber-trend that was being subtly rammed home is that the internet as we know it is no more.

Dead. Kaput. The internet is now so ubiquitous and such a fundamental part of our lives, we need to stop talking about it as a thing. Rather, we need to start thinking about how the internet (and technology) is fundamentally changing the world we live in.

With this in mind, you could literally find talks on any subject.

Health and welfare, transportation, society, medicine, design ... not to mention commerce, marketing and brands. Awesome!

We're now also at a new stage where programs, features and tools possess an artificial intelligence that automates so many of today's "laborious" necessaries. Where Facebook uses facial recognition software to automatically upload and tag certain pictures, where the GPS of your phone can relay your location anywhere and feed this into a central system that is monitoring traffic flow and influencing an ever-changing congestion charge scheme. Pretty mind-boggling stuff. And quite scary too (how much of this data are we consciously sharing and what does it mean for our privacy?).

The other big theme that followed was around "the game layer", popularised by some bloke called Seth Priebatsch. Twenty-two-year-old college dropout? Check. Geeky awkwardness? Check. Likely to be the next gazillionaire? You bet your ass.

This guy and his company SCVNGR (Scavenger to you and me) demonstrate the next level of social interaction. Why bother just checking in when you can create challenges and games for consumers that feature an ever-increasing range of rewards? Cool!

If I were to be critical about SXSW, there would be three points. First, it was a tad too large in scale, and newbies and veterans alike echoed this. It was necessary to be at each venue at least 30 minutes before events started.

Second, annoying Tweeters. Sitting beside one girl, she teetered on the verge of meltdown when her Tweetdeck froze mid-session. It's no longer sufficient to be there - the world needs to know you are there, apparently, and every five seconds.

Third, there was a distinct lack of senior industry speakers - agency and client alike. All have publicly acknowledged the role of technology in the changing shape of their business so it strikes me there is no better occasion to share this vision of the future with such a receptive audience.


Regardless of the countless number of available survival guides, it's difficult to fully imagine the onslaught of such awesome creative geek culture.

I expected to see a lot more of the ad community. Although there was a reasonable presence from agencies (mainly our American brethren) and lots of corporate branding this year, we seemed to be in the minority, with sessions called "avoiding marketing douche-baggery at SXSW" and with any mentions of agencies typically being met with groans.

There's much that agencies could learn from extreme geeks. Particularly their "always experimenting", "always in beta" agile approach to developing ideas. These points were heavily debated in a session called "Should agencies learn to be more like software companies?" I think we should.

Being a tech conference, I naturally expected SXSW to be a swarm of geeky boys with pocket protectors. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many women representing or heading up tech start-ups ... with keynotes by Felicia Day on gaming and Queen Google herself, Marissa Mayer, evangelising tech, while us geeky boys drooled.


It was going to be a weekend of chance encounters. The 10.50am Heathrow/Dallas flight looked like many of London's digital tribe were deserting the city and busy signing-off with last-minute calls.

Boarding queue chat was a mix of must-do tips from SXSW vets and excited anticipation from the rest. Travelling with Nik Roope, our first subject of excitement was picking up a black, soft-top Mustang at Dallas Fort Worth and the drive down to Austin with the roof down and open roads ahead.

The car was a success, but the open roads were somewhat clogged and sitting in Texas traffic with the roof down in March is not the opening scene of road-trip movies. But after a taco in Waco, the route cleared and Austin was in sight.

The first fact of SXSW is that you can't do everything. Accept this. Make loose plans, pick out a handful of keynotes, panels and parties that you want to get to and then go with the flow. Chance meets in the street or intros in restaurants and bars opens up new things to pursue and this is what, for me, made it so inspiring. The energy and optimism was infectious and against a backdrop of a world tragedy unfolding, this was channelled into smart ways to support the humanitarian operation. #sxsw4japan trended for all the right reasons.

There were many standout moments, but Guy Kawasaki's presentation master-class was comic relief for Sunday morning and a roof-top pool party with the Webby gang was the perfect conclusion to three days in the desert. Already planning for next year.


GroupMe, an app that allows users to share text messages, photos and locations privately with a selected group of people, received the Breakout Digital Trend Award. Group messaging apps such as Beluga and Group(in) also attracted attention as friends and colleagues used them to co-ordinate their schedules at SXSW.

The Best of Show Award for SXSW went to The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive music video collaboration between the band Arcade Fire and the artist Chris Milk.

Other winners included Jane McGonigal, the game designer and researcher, who was named Best Speaker of SXSW 2011. The Onion, the satirical news site, won the Classic Award. Airbnb, a service that helps people to rent out space in their homes to tourists, won the Mobile Award. The Old Spice viral videos by Wieden & Kennedy Portland received the Digital Campaign of the Year Award.