4 SXSWi themes reveal the story within the story

Constant connectivity, mobile's next act, the rise of data science, and privacy's implications were dominant trends at SXSWi 2011.

For those who went to Austin, Texas this month in search of the next big thing in technology, the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) Festival may have proved disappointing. There was no single breakout company, platform or technology to be found, no matter how hard the hundreds of tech journalists and bloggers sized up the wares, apps and presentations of the startups and tech titans vying for attention. For those who went in search of connections to the tech community, it was a goldmine. After the dust from nearly 20,000 attendees rambling around Austin’s streets settled, MG Siegler declared advertising and the iPad 2 the “winners” of SXSWi 2011.

Based upon my experiences there, it’s hard to call him wrong, given how plastered with advertising the city had become. Big brands moved in for the week, from Apple’s popup store to CNN, whose cafe sign was one of the iconic images of the event.

CNN Grill at SXSW

That said, there were technologies to be found that are clearly gathering steam. QR codes were everywhere, from Mashable’s party to bar napkins to fundraising for Japan. “Gamification,” where entrepreneurs, nonprofits or even governments try to add a game layer to commerce, learning or, really, anything, was also hot.

But those are just the technologies that caught my eye. Below I outline the larger trends that continue to resonate with me as the excitement of SXSWi naturally dissipates.

Offline is online

Angry Birds being played via a projector
Angry Birds being played via projector

While there were literally hundreds of companies vying to grab some of the hyperkinetic attendees’ attention, the perspective that matters most is what their behavior can tell us about where our relationship to technology and one another is headed. The social behavior, omnipresent mobile devices and technologies embraced at SXSWi point to something more interesting: the dissolution of the boundaries between the offline and online world.

The Pew Internet and LIfe Project estimates Internet penetration in the United States at around 79%. A few countries are more wired. The majority are less so, although that’s changing. At SXSWi, however, nearly everyone was connected to the Internet from waking to sleeping. The early adopters at the festival can offer some insight into what’s coming down the pike for the rest of society, as more of us are constantly connected by a mobile device with a pervasive Internet connection.

At an impromptu panel on social media and the Middle East held at Twitter’s SXSWi retreat, NPR’s Andy Carvin reflected that for many of the young people whose struggles he’s been chronicling in real-time, the question of “offline vs online” wouldn’t register as meaningful: they’ve already merged in their lives.

The collective behavior of those networked masses was at the crux of Oliver Burkema’s dispatch on SXSWi at the Guardian. He observed that the festival heralded:

… the final disappearance of the boundary between ‘life online’ and ‘real life’, between the physical and the virtual. It thus requires only a small (and hopefully permissible) amount of journalistic hyperbole to suggest that the days of ‘the internet’ as an identifiably separate thing may be behind us.

If that all sounds a bit familiar to Radar readers, it should: Clay Shirky, in discussing the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action heralded the “death of cyberspace” and the end of geek culture back in January. This isn’t a new idea, but the research and observation are finally aligning with reality.

Shirky’s SXSWi talk about social media, the so-called “dictator’s dilemma” and Egypt, drew hundreds in the audience to think about what the impact of these trends means for millions of people in the Middle East and beyond. The insight that Shirky shared again is that connecting citizens to one another has been historically undervalued. As more connection technologies enter countries where information has been tightly controlled, expect the Internet to continue to act as a disruptor.

In watching the ebb and flow of the hordes experiencing idea
of SXSWi, Edward Boches noticed the same melding of online and offline lives. If the behavior of these early adopters is a precursor to mainstream adoption, expect this trend to continue.

This also means that civil society will continue to need great teachers and thoughtful guides to information gathering and digital literacy. Based upon those demands, Phoebe Connelly’s choice to call SXSW 2011 the “year of the librarian” looks spot on.

Mobile, location, and social

In his analysis of 2011 tech trends at the beginning of the year, my colleague Mike Loukides observed that “you don’t get any points for predicting that ‘Mobile is going to be big in 2011’.” If you’re looking for what was big at SXSWi, any reasonable observer had to acknowledge that mobile devices, maps, websites, services, experiences, marketing and data were profoundly relevant.

Stowe Boyd, who had written that he wasn’t going to SXSWi, found something of great value in the “thriving petri dish for a social, mobile future.” As Boyd observed in his post on SXSWi:

Over 50% of the world’s population is now urban, and that is expected to rise to over 60% by 2030. The cities will not only be bigger, but increasingly dense, so what we learn from SxSW today could shape the social, mobile, urban landscape of the near future, since many of the architects of the future were there, taking notes.

With tablets in abundance, Caroline McCarthy’s noted that SXSWi offered a peek at what a post-PC society might look like. By year’s end, more Xooms, Galaxy Tabs and BlackBerry Playbooks will likely joins the millions of iPads already in consumers’ hands. Augmented reality apps that bridge the gap between online and offline life, like Sensierge, may be on many of them.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD

You can put location and social media in the same category of trend: impossible to omit but obvious to report. Location-based applications like Foursquare and Gowalla were visible everywhere, with a host of other startups looking to pick up some screen real estate and new users.

There was one clear winner in the social space: POPVOX, which took home an award for the best social networking site at the SXSWi Accelerator competition. Making social media in politics meaningful has been a tough nut to crack, but trying to use the Internet to make Congress smarter may be an idea whose time has come. [Disclosure: Tim O’Reilly was an early investor in POPVOX.]

California-based Votizen, which powered a social media campaign for the Startup Visa bill during SXSWi, is focusing on this space as well. Look for an in-depth report on their efforts here on Radar soon.

Mastering social media saturation at SXSWi, however, as Daniel Terdiman pointed out at CNET, required developing better filters and tuners for signals. Jeremiah Owyang found SXSWi great for networking but only if people remembered to detach from their mobile devices.

Last year, Clive Thompson wrote about about the death of the phone call. In 2011, SXSWi may have “socially” written its obituary. Making a phone call was superseded by texts, checkins, email, tweets and instant messages. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of people on the phone there, just that the cornucopia of other communication options means synchronous voice communication wasn’t always the first or even third option. Social media overload on Twitter, Facebook and location-based networks created an opportunity for group messaging apps like Group.me, Fast Society or Beluga to connect people without sharing the information with everyone.

Part of the impulse to check and recheck social media is deep-seated in biochemical pathways, as Caterina Fake described in her analysis of FOMO and social media. “FOMO,” or the “Fear of Missing Out,” has been used by savvy entrepreneurs to drive use of their apps to find out what’s happening, where and with whom. As Katherine Rossman reported for the Wall Street Journal, at SXSWi 2011, “looking down was the new looking up.”

For some geeks who have been in the industry for a long time, however, being more substantively human in person was a greater attraction. As Gina Trapani may have said it best:

The best kind of social networking: one face talking to another face within 3 feet of each other.

Big data, open data and your data

Reid Hoffman’s keynote talk was one of the highlights, due in no small part to the founder of LinkedIn’s focus on data. Hoffman’s big idea is the importance of big data, which in many ways is leading us into the next stage of the Internet. In 5 years, he posited “a product designer may need to have the characteristics of a data scientist.” As we look ahead, “the future is sooner and stranger than we think.”

Hoffman provided 10 rules of entrepreneurship gleaned from his time as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. “The way we make human progress is how we collaborate together,” he said.

New digital platforms and analytics will offer unexpected opportunities. “Airbnb gives us the market of eBay for [physical] space,” said Hoffman, enabling people to shift how things are priced or offered. They also bring new risks. “Trying to make data trails invisible to people is nearly a Sisyphean task,” he said, highlighting a key flashpoint that lurks amidst the growing petabytes of data: privacy and security.

“I would like a data dashboard with the information that the government has about me,” said Hoffman, perhaps akin to the Google dashboard that provides insight into data on that service. What concerned him is that we might end up in a state akin to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Awash in data, how do we discern truth in vast amounts of data?

While some will balk at the versioning of calling this “Web 3.0,” the coming age of data science looks too big and too fundamental a shift to ignore.

Privacy and digital rights

Nestled amidst the hype and potential of the technologies on display were concerns about what this explosion of location and mobile will mean for unwary consumers. “Tucked modestly into the corner, an American Civil Liberties Union table offers white papers and postcards warning of the privacy dangers of all this data mining,” reported Jessica Clark for PBS Mediashift.

I moderated a panel on a “social networking bill of rights,” which has continued to receive attention in the days since the festival from MSNBC, Mainstreet.com, Identity Blog, Liminal States, and PC World.

At MemeBurn.com, Alistair Fairweather highlighted key questions for the technology industry to consider in the months ahead:

Why is user data always vested within the networks themselves? Why don’t we host our own data as independent “nodes,” and then allow networks access to it?

On that count, a briefing with a startup emerging from stealth mode at SXSWi suggested how an emerging ecosystem of trust frameworks could offer a trust layer for new class of personal data stores like the Locker Project. More on trust frameworks and that startup in a future post.

SXSWi grows up

SXSW at night

The SXSWi festival itself may be the biggest winner — or loser, depending on the critic taking stock. McCarthy called it out: SXSWi has changed — “so deal with it.”

SXSWi 2011 was less a conference than a much-needed test bed for new promotions like the partnership between Foursquare and American Express, edgy marketing initiatives, and fresh habits of mobile behavior like the much-hyped showdown between a handful of similar “group messaging” applications, which permitted attendees to communicate and travel in packs as Twitter has grown too overwhelmingly popular to use as a fine-tuned way to navigate the festival.

Fair warning: 2011 was my first SXSWi. I harbor no kind, warm memories of when the festival was smaller, gentler or allowed for different kinds of community building in the technology world. In many respects, the expansion of SXSWi into an immense tech trade show / geek spring break / sprawling conference reflects the vastly expanded role for interactive technologies in modern society. Whether we do something meaningful with them beyond finding a better party is in our hands.

Coming soon: A report on SXSWi for the Gov 2.0 crowd. As Patrick Ruffini observed, SXSWi 2011 “was the year that open government made its first huge splash” at the festival.

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