SXSW 2010: The Buzzword Takeaway

Another SXSW Interactive ends. The “spring break for nerds” lived up to its unofficial title again. I had a wonderful time catching up with old friends and making new ones. SXSW is just as much making those connections as the panels you attend. Add the panels and the conversations that they inspire over drink and meals after each day's events and a picture of what's in store for the interactive world over the near future begins to emerge.

The event is large, growing from 8,000 interactive attendees in 2009 to 12,000+ in 2010. The scope of the event means there are many final impressions. I'll share mine with you to add to the numerous ones already posted online.


I think the biggest news of the conference was Foursquare. (I hate to even type this next sentence, but, here it goes.) Foursquare is emerging as the next Twitter. Yeah, this "the next Twitter" language gets tossed around a lot, but it wasn't just Foursquare presence here, but it's ubiquity. Among the geeks and nerds, it was the thing to do. You arrive somewhere, you check in with Foursquare. Gowalla was present at SXSW as well, but it came in a distant second from my observation. The emergence of location-based services has been talked about for several years, but I think it's officially arrived now, although we're still at the beginning of its ascendancy. Foursquare position at the top of the heap can still be challenged, but I think they've got the momentum that will keep them there. Foursquare's biggest threat is other entrenched services (ie Facebook) out-doing them somehow.

These are a few shots of Foursquare for SXSW 2010. Notice how checking in raised money for charity. Gets people motivated to check in for doing good, but gets them hooked at the same time by earning their badges. Smart move.

Screenshots from Foursquare during SXSW 2010

HTML5/CSS3 vs. Flash

Want to pick a fight with a developer? Take the opposite side of this dispute and you've got a fight on your hands. Flash has been the dominant multimedia tool on the we for years. YouTube, NYTimes awesome info graphics, and the majority of advertising on the web all rely on it. With the growing popularity of devices that don't support Flash (iPhone, iPad) and the new emerging standard HTML 5, Flash's place in the spotlight is being questioned. If you look through the list of panels, you'll see the new kid on the block, HTML5, throwing its weight around. For a standard that is not even ratified yet, there are already some very impressive examples of what this open standard is capable of. How will this one play out? Let's talk again at SXSW 2011. 

Social Media, is a non-buzzworrd buzzword

I almost didn't list “social media” as a buzzword, but I'll give in and list it anyway, but it's like say “speaking” is a buzzword on talk shows. Social media is just everywhere. What's more interesting  is how it has become simply part of how we all think. Every panel at the conference had a preassigned hashtag. Attendees are expected to Twitter. I even saw Ashton Kutcher in the hotel lobby and I just expected it to happen because, well, why wouldn't he be here? Being here at the center of the Twitterverse is sort of his job. 


Privacy is a pet topic of mine. I didn't hear users' privacy mentioned as much as I expected, but it did come up in several panels as an ingredient of the discussion. There were panels that I didn't attend that had privacy as the primary topic though. How I'd position the topic of privacy this year was more about respecting your users. Respecting your users means handling the data they provide in an ethical way.

Respect isn't limited to data rights. Far from it. Respect is a design principle. It's a content strategy decision too. For example, in a panel devoted to iPhone app design, respecting your users takes the form of paring down an application's feature set to what is worthy of your user's time. A successful iPhone app is one that is focused, so giving respect to your users means success for the application, which can mean you are more successful. It's a virtuous circle. 

Game Theory in Design

Another more subtle trend I've seen is how gaming principles are seeping into what we do online. I'm not talking about full on games, like Farmville, because they are so clearly games. I'm referring more to more mundane, non-gaming tasks incorporating gaming ideas. Foursquare is doing this very well. (Yes, more Foursquare again.) It's made checking in with your current location not just a social thing to do, but it's clearly a game with rewards attached. I earned a variety of rewards from Foursquare for using their app. The rewards are icons on my Foursquare profile for doing certain tasks, like checking in at a BBQ place 3 times. It's still a game and it appeals to our competitive nature. Every time I or my friend unlocks a badge, it gets reported to my Twitter stream.

Been to LinkedIn lately, filling in your profile has gaming principles now too. You're encouraged to fill the whole thing and fill up your completeness meter. It's worked really well for LinkedIn. 

Closing thoughts.

A lot of SXSW veterans talked about the conference losing its way this year due to the explosion in attendance. Was SXSW perfect? No, it wasn't, but these were good problems to have and I'm sure the organizers are already working on solving them for next year.

Windows Genuine Advantage strikes at SXSW 2010

Yes, SXSW Interactive was more crowded. Perhaps there were more “unworthy” panels. But, I don't agree that SXSW 2010 was a failure as some people have claimed.

With the growth of the event, the number of panels has also grown substantially. More panels mean more bad panels. I also think there were more good panels. The larger number of panels did make for a harder choice when it came to choosing what to attend though.

More attendees did change the feeling of crowd. Would it have been worse for 33% fewer people to have attended than the 33% growth? I was happy to see the growth because 2009 was a tough year, but the geeks and nerds seem to have survived and thrived. That makes me very happy.

My perspective of SXSW is just that though, one viewpoint on the events. Luckily, this event is something heavily written about on the web. Want a place to start? Here are three links with more perspective for you.

Are you going to be there next year? Look me up, because I plan on being there.

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