It’s a Wrap: SXSW Closes Its Biggest Year Ever

By Kiran Aditham Comment

SXSW wraps up this weekend, and it seems that 2011 will stand as the year that Interactive finally superseded Music. The conference felt bigger than ever, with major brands within view at every angle. PepsiCo filled a corner block with games, and CNN turned local restaurant Max’s Wine Dive into the CNN Grill. Pop-up food bars were placed throughout the convention center, making it the first year attendees could get real food inside the building as they ran between sessions, instead of living on Starbucks and Zone Bars alone (Zone Bars noticeably missing this year).

Several themes emerged from this year, marking a few turning points. Speakers mentioned both “evolution” and “revolution” and indeed, both apply when you ask “what’s next?”

In his keynote, LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman spoke about the evolution of Web 2.0 to Web 3.0. “We’re having a tribal and global conversation in web 2.0”, he said, meaning we’re sharing information and our identities online. The question is, what do we do with all the data we’re generating?

The answer is in mobile, and in mashing up technology. Hoffman cited the example of Google’s Route Around product, borne out of Google Maps. It adds context into the navigational system, allowing users to route around traffic. Marissa Mayer also spoke about this, noting that the Route Around product saves users 2 years of time that would otherwise be spent in traffic, per day. It’s a significant shift in how technology works for us, and works with us. Hoffman warned, however, that we must be careful about how we move into Web 3.0. There are serious issues around how organizations, and most importantly government, use the data. Augmented [Reality] traffic ticket anyone?

Gary Vaynerchuk, internet celeb and author, brought the concept of his new book The Thank You Economy to life at the conference. Before his afternoon keynote, he stood outside the ballroom and welcomed everyone in person. Vaynerchuk is notoriously the speaker with the best sound bites – “we f#$%ed up email – the way you feel about email now is anger”, “our world has become a cocktail party”, “there’s no such thing as a social media campaign” – and everyone loves him for his authenticity and energy.

This time around, his passion is over context. It’s not enough to simply be on Twitter responding to your customer’s requests or complaints – you have to really care about them. “We need to go back to small town rules,” he proclaimed, offering that our great grandparents would be more prepared for 2012 than we are. Why? Because they built lasting relationships in their day. Those relationships in turn, brought customers to their businesses and generated loyalty.

“We can’t keep using Zappos as our customer service example – we need to continue to innovate around customer service.”

SXSW has always been a sort of anti-establishment conference, and as such there were calls for the audience to use the power of technology to change the world–whether through gaming, as Seth Priebatsch and Jane McGonigal proposed in their talks, or through entrepreneurship, as Blake Mycoskie did when he started Toms Shoes. Barry Diller even got into the mix when talking about net neutrality, saying, “Not having net neutrality is the only threat to the internet. We need an unambiguous law that no one will step between the publisher and the consumer. Diller added that he was alarmed at the lack of screaming from the people. “We have let it go for years,” he claimed, noting that he concerned that the future will look an awful like things do today – content in the hands of the very few, and not in the hands of the people.

Science fiction writer and cyber punk Bruce Sterling closed the interactive portion of the conference with a similar call-out. He urged the millenials to take over business and government, and the boomers to get out of the way.
The sentiment was echoed as music kicked off with a keynote from the legendary Bob Geldof, who offered a call-to-action: “Look up. Address the world with that confidence that is strictly the province of this country. Don’t turn inward. Don’t be scared of the future. Look at it cold-eyed and try to create a new world, with your values.”
Kirsten Cluthe is a consultant with The Frontier Project and a mediabistro contributor.