Drinking the Zeitgeist: SXSW 2011

This post is cross posted to the Sequentia blog. Posted here for my own future reference.

SXSW is huge. Tens of thousands of people descend on Austin for two weeks of Interactive (aka web), Film, and Music programming. It is the largest web conference in the world. Media, pundits, and bloggers have written a million words or more covering SXSW over the past few years, and with good reason: SXSW offers a unique view of where the web (and culture in general) is headed.

When I first attended SXSWi in 2005, the emphasis was squarely on web design and development. This was pre-Twitter, when you still needed to explain what a blog was, and the Palm Treo was the hot gadget. As the web has matured, so has the conference. Today, the web touches most aspects of our lives. Design and development are still covered, but the keynotes, talks, and panels on business, marketing, community, non-profits, journalism, startups, psychology, culture, storytelling, games, etc outnumber the once dominant conversation by a huge margin.

There are 3 main reasons I go to Austin every year: to spark ideas and inspiration from the talks, to meet brilliant and inspiring people, and to bathe in the zeitgeist.Not much is written about this last point, probably because it’s hard to quantify. Rather than give a highlight reel of the talks I attended, this post will attempt to capture some of the energy and trends one observes by simply being at the heart of SXSW.

Geek culture = popular culture

While no one was looking, the geeks inherited the earth. As global culture has shifted online, the people building and designing the software, hardware, and interfaces we use have been elevated from fringe to centre stage. Mastery of digital tools, once a reason for derision, has become table stakes just to sit at the big kids’ cultural table. By building the tools and platforms the world uses to talk, share, learn and entertain, the geeks dominate and direct popular culture.

Game mechanics in the “real” world

Games engage humans like few other non-survival activities. Strategists, developers, and marketers are figuring out how to use the very things that make games so engaging in non-game scenarios. I’m not talking about making everything into a game, rather the application of certain motivational hooks to move people through a process. This will be absolutely fascinating to watch.

We live in a post-PC world

There were more iPads and smartphones being used to take notes than laptops. There were tens of thousands of photos taken, and very few dedicated cameras. The age of the PC is moving past us. Tablets and smartphones have taken over. SXSW attracts an early adopter crowd. Within 18 months, laptops will start to vanish from most business meetings.

Group messaging is the next big thing

Group.me and Beluga were two of the “winning” apps this year. Both programs allow the user to send short messages to a group via SMS, email, web, or directly in the app. This simple fact has huge implications. It allows for the creation of cross platform ad hoc social networks. In Austin, the main use was to coordinate meeting places with friends. In the near future, we’ll see these apps used for news reporting (topic specific updates), collaboration, permanent small-group networks, and ad-hoc event based networks. The ability to create segment specific networks (all my vegetarian friends in Austin) opens a whole new world of social media.

Location, location, location

First there was Foursquare and Gowalla. Then came SCVNGR, Facebook Places, and now Google Latitude. Despite a growing ennui from some, the money’s on Location Based Services exploding over the next couple of years. And with good reason. The combination of loyalty incentives (check in to a store three times to unlock 25% discount on your 4th purchase), growth in smart phones and new sensors and protocols like NFC that will allow auto-checkin makes for a potent mix of culture and marketing. Lots more action here in the coming years.


Everyone is talking about it. No one really agrees on how to measure it. To some, an influence score is the holy grail of social media. To others, it’s a terrifying reduction of the human experience into a single metric. One thing is for sure, influence and the conversation about it are not going away any time soon.

Information overload

Too. Many. Options. How do you reach your audience when they are increasingly scattered (in both attention and location)? This year, there were hundreds of just-launched apps vying for eyeballs. Noise, distraction, and infinite choice characterized both the streets around the Austin Convention Centre and the web in general. The number of destinations we can visit and the devices we visit them with are going to continue to increase. Organizations are going to have to become very adept at monitoring and engaging in multiple locations and in multiple formats in order to reach their audiences.

Is it worth it?


Peaks, valleys, and the triple whammy of the middle ground

This isn’t about the valleys. They’re bad enough they need no explanation.

It’s the damned middle; the non-peaks. Coming off a peak, the relative dullness of a given situation is magnified by the non-peakedness of the moment. Not only does one feel off because of the relative dullness, one magnifies the intensity of the displeasure by resisting the descent from the peak. IE, I feel droopy, I feel shitty about feeling droopy, and I feel shitty about not being on the peak. Triple whammy.