SXSW Opens Up, World Says ‘Eh’

webnewser_sxsw01.gifTransparency, openness and community emerged as governing themes at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference — and no, not just in the softballs thrown by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in his opening remarks on Saturday. At the same time, the conference created no small amount of cognitive dissonance for those with a mind toward the largely-unmentioned ‘e’-word here in Austin — the economy.

From the open APIs that dominated last year’s sessions, the conversation has turned to openness in data, identity, and information sharing, as panel talks and smaller-scale ‘Core Conversations’ centered around freely exchanged information transferable across sites, properties, and platforms, regardless of their owners and operators. Still, the barriers aren’t entirely permeable yet, despite the efforts of groups like OpenSocial, due to “fear of loss of control, fear of losing quality control and ability to filter and moderate content,” according to MySpace’s Max Engel, since it “has severe content implications.” In the talk “Becoming Open,” MySpace developer Max Engel, charged with overseeing the social networking site’s open ID and offsite APIs, acknowledged, “opening out is still happening much more than opening in.” Touting his veteran bona fides, a Thomson Reuters participant urged, “Maybe we can get the story out to old, big media companies that open doesn’t just mean stuff you can download,” pointing out its applications in software portability, data portability, personal identification portability, and business model portability.

Other evolutions from last year’s conference: Facebook’s plunge from superstar to sad-clown status, and Twitter’s total domination and elegant absence…

A bad interview and an impromptu appearance attempting to correct it had Facebook front of mind last year for most conference-goers. This year, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg notably absent and no PR snafus to unknot, the ubiquitous site wasn’t much talked about, even after it announced the launch of Facebook Connect for the iPhone Friday, rendering portable Facebook users’ friends, identity and privacy via the most ubiquitous device around.

Another interesting development this year is the continued dominance, yet uber-classy physical absence of Twitter from SXSW. You can’t spill a Starbucks around the Austin Convention Center’s thousands of electrical outlets and the throngs of laptop users clustered around them, feverishly juicing their laptops, without seeing at least half with either a Twitter search page or management application Tweetdeck up on their screen. And yet, Twitter brass Ev Williams, Biz Stone, and Jack Dorsey are notably nowhere to be found, having elected to not attend SXSWi this year. We find this to be a savvy move emblematic of the Twitter guys’ typically understated approach. At a time when Twitter use is surging, yet cries of monetization and clamors for some kind of business model from the site remain high-volume, it’s somehow soothing to imagine the Twitter team back in San Francisco, skipping the opportunity to throw some overcrowded, long line and watered down drink-having SXSW bash, electing to develop the site’s long-term business prospects instead. Twitter’s founders seem to have intuited that they didn’t need to stage an Austin-based victory lap, and that to do so amid a tanking economy with their own financial prospects unsure would have been gaudy.

What about that pesky economy? You wouldn’t know it was hemorraghing jobs and worse, judging from what’s happening here in Austin at SXSWi. We got a release yesterday touting the festival’s “ONLY Finance 2.0 panel,” and are still flummoxed by the economy’s utterly implausible absence from most conversations and addresses here. We’re about to interview Alltop’s Guy Kawasaki, who’ll be interviewing Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson about his upcoming book Free later today, and plan on finding out if he, at least, will be referencing the country’s financial dire straits, vis a vis Anderson’s thesis that content should largely remain open to all and unpaid.