This Friday marks the start of another South by Southwest Interactive conference, where thousands of early-adopters, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists make their annual pilgrimage to the sunny sprawl of Austin, Tex., to talk tech and get their fill of barbeque.
And once again, The New York Times will be there, with extra chargers, notebooks and cowboy boots in tow.
As part of our coverage of this year’s fest, we’re resurrecting our Tumblr, which we will keep laced with live updates and dispatches from the ground.
We’ve got a new cast of characters contributing and sharing their experiences in Austin, from their most memorable hallway conversations and favorite events to party observations and strange encounters during the week.
We’re saddling up. We hope you’ll come along for the ride with us.
The only other time I’ve been to SXSW Interactive was in 2001. That was soon after the collapse of the first Internet boom. One panel was called “Internet Industry Trends 2001: Is Anyone Making Money?”
I wasn’t there to find out the answer to that question. I was there because I had become fascinated with blogs and the other new forms of what we now call social media. It was not yet clear that this stuff would yield much in the way of money. But it was already clear that it was quite powerful, at least for the crew of early-adopter bloggers I met at the conference. Many were there just to meet one another, to peer shyly at others’ badges in hopes of putting faces to personal blog names, since posting lots of photos of yourself online had not yet become something everyone does. Then they would drink beer and talk about this weird thing they were helping to invent, just for the love of it.
The other night in Austin, at a party that a start-up had spent a lot of money on, I ran into Anil Dash, who was also there in 2001. He said comparing the conference then and now was like comparing the original McDonald’s restaurant to what the McDonald’s Corporation has become — they’re entirely different beasts. There’s some truth to that. A night out at the conference now involves parties thrown by brands and sponsored by other brands, where marketers for entirely different brands will approach you so they can tell you about their social media management solutions. And it is easy to get cynical about the social stuff now that we know it’s a great way to get people to cough up valuable demographic data.
But for me the fascination is still there, and I get the feeling that there are still plenty of people in tech who are excited about the weird things they are inventing, just for the love of it. If I go back to Austin next year, I’m going to make it a point to spend more time with them. — David Gallagher
SXSW Interactive is, in a way, one big conflicted mishmash of openness and exclusivity. In this context technology, both hardware and software, is about enabling communication for worldwide social networks and individuals alike. Share your location with 50 million others, but keep your password to yourself.
There are the panels about privacy and anonymity, and there are ones about transparency and universality. There are parties hosted by companies eager for attention, where you can drop in, uninvited and rolling 10 deep — and those other parties that you’re probably not getting into, no matter what the affiliation dangling from your neck may say. There are the BBQ joints within walking distance for any curious and hungry attendee, and there are those taco spots on the outskirts of Austin, inaccessible to anyone without a car and a local friend willing to share these secret gems. As it turns out, there is pretty decent free Wi-Fi around the convention center that is open to all. But then there is that locked, much better Wi-Fi presumably available to whomever SXSW deems a VIP. At the end of the day, everybody is welcome to sit, stand, listen, eat and drink, talk or dance at least somewhere within the city limits. A small subset were able to do some or all of these things with a much more curated, if you will, pool of attendees. — Andrew Kueneman
“The decline of larger companies did allow us to become the underdog. If Nokia or Kodak comes out with a new huge digital camera, we don’t care. it doesn’t affect us.”—
In a afternoon panel called “Being Considered Obsolete is Awesome,” Alexandra Klasinski, the online US head of Lomography, a film community and social network, said that the world of analog photography is alive and well. Ms. Klasinski said that her company, which sells film cameras like the Holga that come outfitted with neat lenses and filters that allow light to leak in and other quirks to give the resulting photographs a vintage, washed out effect, is thriving. The company, which invites users to upload their photos online, has collected more than 10 million photos and garners 3 million visits to its site each month. “We’ve released 20 different kinds of film and more are on the way,” she said. — Jenna Wortham
One of the hot topics of conversation this weekend: Is South by Southwest still the place where the next big thing is launched? Unlike Foursquare, which hit big in 2009 and 2010, and GroupMe, which took off last year, Pinterest, the most talked about company of the weekend, has yet to set foot on the Austin fairgrounds. In what will surely be a well-attended panel, Ben Silbermann, one of the company’s founders, will be answering questions about the service on Tuesday. — Jenna Wortham
Getting a decent data connection at SXSW can be a challenge, given that it attracts what may be the most data-hungry crowd in the world. With a project called Homeless Hotspots, a marketing company is helping out with this, while helping the homeless and promoting itself. Homeless people have been enlisted to roam the streets wearing T-shirts that say “I am a 4G hotspot.” Passersby can pay what they wish to get online via the 4G-to-Wi-Fi device that the person is carrying. It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us… we turn human beings into infrastructure? — David Gallagher
In between the panel sessions and festival events, Jenna Wortham, Brian Stelter and I connected with Matt Buchanan, an editor at BuzzFeed, and Andrea Vaccari, the CEO of the new mobile app Glancee, to download each other on the goings-on. — Lexi Mainland
“The invisible boundaries that separate people from technology are all around us.”—Jo Guldi, a Harvard professor, speaking at a session called “Roads to Power.” She suggested that tech types ask the people they see in the real world — say, a cashier at a grocery store — about technology. “How do you rent an apartment?” “Do you read books on an iPad?” “Do you read books?” Asking, she said, can make visible the invisible boundaries.
Dennis Crowley of Foursquare, interviewed by MG Siegler, said his service’s Radar function, which pops up messages about nearby friends or good places, is still a work in progress. Mr. Crowley, who answered questions in his standard happy-go-lucky mode, said Foursquare was thinking about ways to automatically adjust the way Radar works when a user is in an unfamiliar city and might be in need of more tips. But the company is wary of overloading users with too many alerts. Mr. Crowley said it was “a hard problem” to decide which of a thousand places to tell a user about as she is roaming city streets. He said this kind of passive alert system was going to be “the new definition of location services” over the next year or so. Foursquare might one day serve as kind of a Pinterest for places, allowing people to save faraway sights or restaurants they want to visit and then alerting them when they are traveling in that area, Mr. Crowley said. — David Gallagher
“We’re about the upgrading of our own humanity and our own freedom.”—Baratunde Thurston, in his SXSW keynote address, discussing the motivation to use technology for more than “the check-in and the status update.” — Lexi Mainland
A mobile social network that revolves around the weather sounds like it would be a flop. But after 24 hours in Austin, where the bleak skies and drizzly weather are all anyone’s talking about, it doesn’t seem so implausible after all! — Jenna Wortham