What happens when you put more than 28,000 people in a room (well, actually a city and an enormous convention centre)? A whole lot more than a trending hashtag, that’s what.
This was my second time attending SXSW (South by South West). However, despite this I’m still not actually sure how to describe it. Is it a conference? A festival? A down home BBQ-fueled Texas hootenanny y’all?
I think that this is part of the strength of SXSW: it defies any attempt at classification, other than being an annual meetup for the world’s interactive (what does that even mean anymore?), music and film industries. This makes SXSW not a single event, but means that it occupies a position as the Swiss Army Knife of the conference world, only instead of having that thing to remove stones from horses’ hooves it comes complete with panels, speeches, keynotes, parties, networking and trade shows fit to meet every interest.
The other reason that SXSW is unique because other than the keynote speeches it’s largely user-generated, with panels proposed and then voted upon by attendees. As well as making for an incredibly diverse program and elevating people’s FOMO (fear of missing out) levels to stratospheric heights, this means that the greatest inspiration comes not from above, but from beside you. Let me explain.
I have to admit that I was excited to hear from Al Gore (again!), Dave Grohl, Shaq, 50 Cent, Deadmau5, Depeche Mode and the odd billionaire (and odd they are indeed). However, as exciting as it was to hear from these people in person it was also a little strange to see them so far out of context. I’ve seen Dave Grohl and his band Foo Fighters eight times over the last 18 years, but I’ve never seen him wear spectacles and read pre-prepared notes from a lectern. It was all a bit fish out of water, or more accurately rocker out of concert.
On the other hand, the rest of us are in our natural environment, enjoying the opportunity to meet one another as peers to share what we’ve been working on and where we’re headed for the next 12 months. Because many of the ideas that were shared came from contemporaries—and on occasion literally from the seat next to me—this meant that not only was the work incredibly inspiring, but so too was the DIY ethic behind it. The key outtake of this was to make me repeatedly think 'Gee, I wish I’d thought of that'.
So what were the highlights from the seat next to me from this year? I had three standouts.
1. When the startups meet the skinny leg jeans
The middle of SXSW is “convergence day”, a one-day overlap where the interactive and music streams—or startup crowd and skinny leg jeans contingent—meet, highlighting how SXSW is both one festival and three festivals at the same time. While so much of the focus on SXSW revolves around the launch of new technology, this was a much needed reminder about just how much heavy lifting that music can do for our work, how much it gets the short end of the stick ('You mean we’ve got no time and no budget? Awesome!') and the incredible opportunities that exist to go beyond licensing and to create something great that benefits both bands and brands.
2. Channel your inner hacker
Last year’s festival featured We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, a documentary film that looks at the history of the hacker group Anonymous. This year hacking—in spirit and culture, if not actual form, was everywhere—Al Gore even declared that “democracy itself has been hacked”. While a lower order of hacker culture, one of the most repeated messages during panels was about the importance of 'gaming the system': disrupting, but not destroying, the way that things operate. Last year I wrote that “coders are the new copywriters”. This year it seems that hackers are their art directors.
3. The future of the living room is not in the living room
While mobile-first design is not a new trend—last year Vevo announced that they are focusing on this ahead of the desktop experience—people are increasingly untethered from the couch and the desktop device. Whether it involves Google Glass or gossip network TMZ's claim that in just five years neither TV nor the Internet will exist, people are taking their digital life everywhere they go. We need to stop catching up to them and start meeting this need.
So whatever your interest, I hope to see you in Texas next March for the Swiss Army Knife of conferences. Who knows, we might even end up sitting next to and inspiring one another.