Thoughts and Impressions of SXSW 2015
This is the eighth year of the SXTXState.com project, a course I teach where graduate students prep for and attend SXSW Interactive. What a blast we had. It’s always so great to see the students integrating into the SXSW community, doing interviews and having conversations. This year, TXST students heard from and met with people like Lawrence Lessig, Bob Metcalfe and Gary Vaynerchuk. They learned about innovations in space, sports and gaming. They played with robots and tested out virtual reality. I’ve been looking through the site all morning, and I am blown away at what they were able to see and do over the past five days. They all worked so hard, and I hope they are enjoying a bit of much-deserved rest right now. Please take a look through this site to find out more about what happened at SXSW.
For myself, SXSW is always a great chance to get a peek at the future and find ways to be inspired for another year. I like to bring ideas from SXSW back to curriculum and my research. Here are the themes and takeaways I got from the sessions I was able to attend.
Capitalism and entrepreneurship are more than revenue and profits – several people focused on the impact of a company and how your goals as an entrepreneur should be focused on creating a meaningful and enjoyable work culture. Several speakers mentioned working on projects that they themselves would want to use. Many talked about caring deeply about the user experience. I heard that from industry veterans like Steve Case who founded AOL and other entrepreneurs like Biz Stone, Twitter founder now working on Super and Burnie Burns of Rooster Teeth.
Technology centers need to be developed across the US and globally. That’s another thing on which Steve Case is focused. He talked about the need for more cities to develop technology cultures so that we can move beyond just looking to Silicon Valley for this type of innovation. I found it interesting when Case pointed out that at one point Detroit and Pittsburgh were the “Silicon Valleys” or the hotbeds of innovation in their day.
There were some radical ideas for media addressed at the conference. From Ben Lerer of Thrillist to Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed, the intersection of commerce and content becomes a critical consideration. Lerer had some provocative ideas about media companies merging with their biggest advertisers – as he suggested imagining if The New York Times bought a company like Warby Parker that speaks to the lifestyle of their users. Peretti talked about BuzzFeed’s strategy for putting content where the users are, without necessarily linking back to their sites. I was on a panel with some great people who work for innovative media companies – Trei Brundrett of Vox Media, Inc. and David Cohn of AJ+ (formerly of Circa and Spot.us) – and we had a great discussion about the role of platforms (both internal and external) in being critical to a media company’s future, as well as the future of journalism education. I was also on a panel during SXSWEDU where I talked about the need to teach coding across the curriculum – in disciplines like liberal arts and communication, and not just in computer science.
Data was obviously a big emphasis at SXSW, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Steve Duenes talking about NYT’s strategy for data visualization. I love that they really want to tell elegant and meaningful stories with data, not simply add a few numbers to a bar chart. I really need to get his presentation for my students.
Other themes addressed hacking various aspects of life – transportation, food, science in areas like space and the climate crisis, even mortality itself. The Martine Rothblatt talk contained the big idea that we could find a solution to death sometime in the future. It’s these big ideas that really seem to push discourse that happens at SXSW.
Diversity was also a big theme, one in which I am most interested. Princess Reema talked about issues associated with women working in Saudi Arabia, and there were several talks about women in technology culture, girls learning to code and gamergate. There were panels on Black Twitter and startups for Latinos.
One of the new platforms that was tested at SXSW was Meerkat, the streaming video service that integrates with your Twitter following (even though Twitter shut down some of their access due to terms of service). People were doing their own streams throughout the festival, testing the capabilities. Uber and Lyft were popular apps, just due to transit necessity (personally I patronized Car2Go and CapMetro), and Twitter and Instagram were standbys that continued to provide real-time updates for the event. We relied heavily on our WhatsApp group to stay in touch throughout the festivities.
But the best thing I saw all week was actually a film keynote. Mark Duplass is a very hot producer-director-actor-writer right now. He stars on the HBO show Togetherness and the FXX show The League. He’s known for indie films. His speech was just one of those sincere talks about the realities of making it in the film industry. He was charming, straightforward and funny. You should watch the whole thing. His mantra that “the calvary isn’t coming” was interrupted with the surprise realization that after a career of doing things that matter to you and taking control of your art that one day “you are the cavalry.” You don’t need to play by the rules of the old guard, because you have created your own reputation and network. It was one of those messages that gave me chills when he reached that conclusion, and one that can be applied in a lot of scenarios. I won’t forget it. One thing I love about SXSW is that I can take a break from Interactive to see something in another area that really takes it home for me.
Our Taco Party has become a bit of a tradition. It’s a great way for students to meet with professionals in a smaller, more relaxed setting, away from the general chaos. We are greatly appreciative of the folks at the Texas Tribune who help us secure the space in their building and for all of those who took time out of their SXSW to attend. We had people from NPR, Vox, Texas Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, Stanford, AJ+, Die Zeit and more. I loved seeing all the productive conversations happening around the room. Check out Kimberly’s Storify of the party for more pics and insights.
So, I’m a little in denial that Interactive is actually over. I will be attending Music panels and shows for the next few days, so I’m not completely finished. But the portion of the event for which we spent so much time prepping has come to a close. I’d like to thank Hugh Forrest and his team for putting on this wonderful look at the ideas that will be driving the future. Until SXSW 2016. Get your ideas ready for PanelPicker!