The Blog

by Nat Duffy

Notes from SXSWi

Last year South by Southwest Interactive outgrew the music festival that spawned it, and this year expanded to 11 “campuses” spread throughout downtown Austin. It has rapidly evolved into the biggest event of its kind. Some old-time conference-goers grouse about the increasing crowds, expanding footprint and incursion of big brands into their hallowed ground. I was a SXSW newbie this year and wouldn’t be able to tell you if the conference has jumped the shark. I was simply excited at the concentration of smart people all discussing the issues I am most interested in. Here are some of the themes I picked up over five days.

Serendipity
Lots of people are concerned about the loss of serendipity in our lives now that we have the ability to get exactly what we want whenever we want it. Referral engines like those behind Netflix and Apple’s iTunes Genius mine our preferences and figure out exactly what we are going to want next. Search engines are seeking to capture as much of our data as they can in order to better refine searches based on our preferences, proclivities and current state of mind. With all this computational power figuring things out for us, are we losing the opportunity to stumble upon random new things? Is it possible to change our perspective when outside news and views come in a pre-selected feed? This concept of serendipity is occupying computer scientists as well as marketers and came up repeatedly through the weekend.

Content vs. Journalism
There seem to be two poles when it comes to the current failing state of the newspaper business model. On one side are people who worry that failure on the business side threatens the future of original, sourced, fact-checked journalism. On the other side you see a bit more ambivalence. Builders of ad-blocking and text-parsing apps blame online publishers for creating layouts that are unfriendly to readers. They provide tools to strip out the ads and links that form the basis of the publishers’ business model. Though this seems vampiric, you can hardly blame them. One anecdotal review of an LA Times article page found that just 12% of the page was dedicated to the article itself. Of the rest of the page, 12% was ads, 8% was core navigation and 68% was cross-links and noisy junk dedicated to driving additional page views. The current system isn’t working very well for publishers, their readers or their advertisers. Better page layouts and stronger advertising are needed in online publishing, and soon.

A Third Era
Someone has yet to come up with a dumb name like Web 3.0, but it is clear that the surge of smartphone adoption combined with the potential of location services has brought us to a third era of creative potential on the web. In one speaker’s formulation, creativity in Web 1.0 was characterized by the swoosh logo and a clever domain name, in Web 2.0 it was rounded corners and dropped vowels. Today’s great creative web work is going to be all about giving people the ability to do stuff. It is less about aesthetics and more about granting wishes. Having a smartphone in hand gives a person a powerful form of extra-sensory perception. Brands that can find a way to tap into that power are going to win.

Free Tacos
Free tacos were huge at SXSWi. Whether it was a branded taco truck or a company using social media to direct their fans to a taco-fueled promotion, tacos are very hot right now.