The great geek circus maximus known as SXSW Interactive 2011 is now over, its endless array of panels and posters and apps now covered over by the hellish din and beer-goggled memories of the famous music festival. Here are the winners and losers – at least what our information-addled brains could remember. – Sean Yeaton, Alex Pasternack, Don Caldwell
- Also see a review of the conference.
ONE: The Panel “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted. Not!”
Like many of the best panels this year, this one – featuring media futurists Calvin Baker, Joanne McNeil, Kevin Smokler, and Richard Nash – was located far from the conference center, in the basement of a Sheraton. But it was worth the trek: this was the panel that I wish the Rhizome one had been, exploring how both art and technology can inform each other. “Can the rules of making art help us make more useful technology?” it asked. “Can such concepts as the minimum viable product help us do a better job of writing, editing, designing, and disseminating novels, films, music?” The Twitter hashtag, #assassinscreed, was as deliciously, devilishly disorienting as the panel itself, mixing high conversation about media in a world where, per the 11th century murderer’s maxim “nothing is true and everything is permitted,” with chatter about the popular shoot-em-up video game.
Listen to it here.
Zero: The Death of the Internet
Just in case the death of the web wasn’t enough for trend-sayers, the Internet was declared over multiple times at SXSW. It wasn’t clear what that meant exactly, but it was clear that developers are more interested in getting people off “the Internet” as we know it and into a realm where our mobile devices activate real world experiences. Words like “game layer,” AR, and LBS were on lips across the convention center, in the search for better ways for advertisers to sell things to us while possibly also making us better human beings.
ONE: Panel: “Urban Technology on the Dark Side”
Architecture thinkers Benjamin Bratton and Molly Wright Steenson offered a tour of the strange and disturbing landscapes that arise when technology meets the city. Not games and maps but spectacular Archigram structures, apps for transborder migrants, and the city as a medium for violence. A did you know from Bratton: 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta had a masters degree in urban planning.
Listen to it here
Zero: The Crowds
“Attendance has doubled every year since I started coming to Interactive,” said one old-timer and panelist. The more official number I heard – an increase of 24 percent in 2011 – was confirmed by the flood of people at every party, panel and street corner.
One: Sponsored Pedicabs
Pedicabs are fantastic human-powered vehicles for quickly and comfortably getting to the bars on 6th street, but they’re not cheap. A ten minute ride costs about $20. But during SXSW, that cost goes down to the simple act of following Intuit on Twitter: for that your ride was covered. mention your driver’s name and he got a bonus.
ZERO: The Lines
“It’s not South by Southwest unless you’re waiting on a line. It’s always the way it is. You turn a corner and you see people waiting on line and you think, ‘Oh, it must be something good,’” a young woman, slouching with a tote bag over her shoulder said. “And it never is.”
ONE: A game that made us all feel like we’re changing the world, sans app
Seth Priebatsch, the chief ninja of the ubiquitous game layer (read: app) SCVNGR organized a game at the end of his ebullient keynote to illustrate a point about the ways that games can incentivize good behavior: 2,400 of us self-arranged randomly distributed colored cards so that each row was the same color. We did it in 180 seconds, so Seth donated $10,000 to the National Wildlife Federation. The best part? No app needed.
Zero: The speculation
An assessment after a few hours of SXSWi:
One: Korean BBQ tacos
If you ate from this truck – especially after standing in a long line – you became the mayor of yum yum and made your trip to Austin worthwhile.
“Guru” would make a great name for an app at SXSW. Arguably, considering how many gurus there present, it already is.
ONE: Panels about memes
Internet memes are arguably the meta topic of the interactive festival, and there was heavy representation from people across the strange nexus of art, culture and sociology concerned with how these viral ideas spread. Don Caldwell, co-editor at Know Your Meme (and at Motherboard!), helped lead a raucous panel discussion that toured the range of viral successes, from awkwardly commercial (Jennifer Aniston’s Smart Water Commercial) to less awkward commercial (Old Spice) to not-yet-and-possibly-very-soon-commercial (search Reddit). They also wrestled with what exactly a meme is. As if 4chan isn’t already creepy enough, listen to Don’s description: “We don’t like to think of meme as a classification of culture," he said. Rather, it’s more like a living thing. "It produces, it replicates.”
A few days later, Barbarian Group’s Lindsey Weber and co. continued the meme conversation, exploring how fans participate and interact with their favorite (or least favorite) bands through the web. The lesson – learned by artists like Xzibit and Metallica – is that bands can’t push their musical meme: they must learn to embrace the ways that the Internet takes ownership over them, even if that ownership isn’t exactly flattering.
Zero: Missing JAmes Blake and HAving to watch on Youtube
One: DAvid Foster Wallace Reminding Us What Is Scary about This Conference
The writer wasn’t there, but his spirit was, and not just because of the Infinite Jest and the Internet panel. Paper’s Michael Miller went to UT Austin to check out Wallace’s recently acquired collection of papers:
In many ways, Infinite Jest is the absolute antithesis of SXSW, and I don’t think it’s presumptive to say Foster would have felt very uncomfortable here… His 1000-page novel is about a society in decline, one that has lost the ability to think for itself because of the incessant intervention of technology. The book, with its characters attached to the blue glow of their “teleputer” screens, was published in 1996, but eerily predicts the rise of the Internet and its role in communication’s general virtual shift toward social media rather than, say, talking face-to-face). At its heart the novel is both about—and an explicit reconstruction of—the anxieties and repercussions of a mind that can no longer control its thoughts (there are over 200 pages of footnotes, for instance, the narrative literally interrupting itself in the midst of thought).
Zero: Everyone bought an iPad 2 but didn’t really know why
The Apple pop-up shop was the place to get the newest gadget that no one really knew why they needed. For the rest of us, this was the best place to recharge our inevitably discharged iPhone batteries.
One: Good printer marketing
As guest at a makeshift astroturfed trailer park across the street from the convention center – built by Hewlett-Packard to promote its fancy TouchSmart printers – I was treated to an unusual bit of 21st century David Lynchian surrealist experiential marketing. The Gregory Brothers and Michael Cera’s super-group stayed there. Andrew and Andrew, a pair of iPad DJs, were also guests. Das Racist showed up, as did the comedian Eugene Mirman. Occasionally, people even used the printers provided to print out silly photos. As contrived as it all was, in the midst of the madness of SXSW the park was the rarest of places: an oasis of calm. Even the printers were pretty quiet.
Zero: Group messaging apps
Apps like GroupMe, Beluga, Fast Society and Yobongo were apparently the talk of the town. But a lot of that talk seemed to be coming from the people making the apps, or it was happening on the apps themselves, where those of us without the apps couldn’t hear what was being said. In any case, the “sensation” of SXSWi 2011 left many of us craving a Foursquare or a Twitter or a nap.
One of South By’s real gurus, Reubens was laid back, never missing an opportunity to make self deprecating jokes about his infamous darkened adult theater incident and wanting to use CGI to de-age his face in the forthcoming Judd Apatow-produced Pee Wee movie. Unfortunately, he swore to Apatow he’d not reveal anything about the movie.
One: This robot we discovered on the 4th floor of the convention center.
Zero: Twitter refrigerator
The Samsung blogger lounge has a fancy refrigerator outfitted with a screen that lets anyone Tweet from the door. Presumably that can be used to ask any of your food items if they have gone bad, assuming that they have Twitter accounts. Also, to Tweet at staffers of the Samsung blogger lounge to let them know that the fridge no longer contains any more free drinks. (N.B.: make sure your refrigerator is connected to the internet.)
One: SXSW Film Bumpers
The SXSW film crew put together a series of fantastic shorts that sat in front of every screening. This one’s called “Mario”:
Zero: The Cheezburger Network built a cheese sculpture
Nothing makes you remember a website like a very smelly sculpture, and nothing says bad SXSW promotion like a sculpture made out of cheese.
One: Some Apps and Sites We Liked
Path lets shutterbugs post their photos as experiences to more focused personal photo sharing networks than other sites offer.
NeighborGoods helps to connect things that aren’t being used with the people that need them.
3Frames: A simpler solution to improving group dynamics is an app that places emphasis on real-world interaction, and takes it in wild directions. It’s called 3Frames, and it’s the iPhone version of a not-popular-enough website that gives average schmoes the power to make their own animated GIFs. It’s a healthy dose of the 90s in the midst of the future.
Grubbly: an app for connecting eaters with nearby chefs.
View helps you discover things around you, mainly through photos.
iFixIt is a resource for repair manuals submitted by a community of users.
BNTER was designed by the creator of Texts from Last Night and lets people share, well, texts from last night, among other conversations. Their sticker was the one of the most attention-grabbing we saw for any app: “Fun to do drunk.” That was also a handy slogan for the whole SXSW experience.