News & Views

SXSWi / Keeping Austin Weird

by Contagious Team

For the third year in a row, Contagious braved the swarms of tech kids, agency representatives and stray musicians crowding into Texas' coolest town. Here are some of the top trends and ideas we've encountered so far...

Greg Johnson, HP's global creative director,set the scene in an early panel on Friday, saying 'digital isn't a medium, it's the age we're in'. This thought was echoed by Dave Morin, co-founder and CEO of social network Path, who said: 'With mobile there is no online or offline anymore, you're just asleep or awake.'

With every industry touched by technology, and dozens of tracks and options for discussion in Austin, we couldn't do it all, but we sure tried. Here are a few of the biggest themes. 

Data and Metrics

As suspected, how to cope with data and metrics across managing consumers, personalising experiences and innovating has proved popular. 

How to manage brand consistency without coming across as repetitive was a key question covered in Friday's panel on Brands as Patterns (#SXpatterns). The panel, overseen by Marc Shillum, principal at design firm Method, discussed the paradox between making brand design definitive, while interaction design demands that we are iterative. If you think of the brand as an interface, Shillum explains, 'brand value becomes defined by relevance, not repetition'.

Greg Johnson, global creative director at HP, shared his belief that 'a brand is judged by and creates equity through what it does, not what it says.

In the interaction and design experience world, user experience designer Amber Case made a case for calm technology in 'Ambient Location and the Future of the Interface' (#sxambercase). Case encourages technology that just works, and 'invisible buttons', citing a group of projects where her company,, used existing data sets and triggered them with human activities, using actions as buttons. Human actions were reduced in the process, eliminating unnecessary queries.

The space layer, of human context around the data, makes it riches, Case contended. Geoloqi is partnering with three companies to help develop calmer technology, including AppceleratorFactual, a company that helps provide that data context with 60 million data points in 50 countries, and Locaid, the largest location-based service company.

Narratives and Transmedia

With the variety of options available to storytellers and content producers, Robin Lanahan, director of design and brand strategy at Microsoft, stressed the importance of focusing on 'The Story'. Lanahan believes that Facebook Timeline offers a challenge to brands to look backwards as well as forwards.

This thought was echoed by Nicola Hughes, Knight-Mozilla scholar at The Guardian, speaking at 'Maps of Time: Data as Narrative' (#SXTimeMap), who sees the collision of narrative context and data context, because computers understand probability, but try to reduce the amount of data to gain efficiencies, whereas humans need causality and a timeline to make sense of data. 

Tech for Good

Former Vice President Al Gore spoke with Napster founder Sean Parker about the potential of social media to reinvigorate the political process, also the subject of many other panels at the festival. Gore shared his belief that 'our democracy no longer works, in the main, to serve the interests of this country'. Parker shared initiatives that he is involved in such as Causes and Nationbuilder, and hopes that 'there is a window of opportunity to get something done.

Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone, spoke on content as a means for social change, saying: 'there is an opportunity to totally transform the definition of capitalism'. Stone urged start-ups to 'embrace failure, be creative and take time to develop empathy. He urged companies to install a culture of corporate social responsibility in their companies from the get go. 'I believe the future of marketing is philanthropy. This is going to actually help your business.'

Attention and Real Time

Path, the social network that limits connections to 150 people, has happiness as its primary goal, as CEO and co-founder Dave Morin explained at 'Why Happiness is the New Currency' (#SXhappy). 'We made the product delightful to interact with, and re-engineered the architecture of the site to get feedback to people in real time.'

With Nike splashing out for a massive sports lot near the convention center, FuelBands are the accessory of choice at SXSW, and Dave Morin spoke of the partnership between Path, the social network which has seen close to 100 million 'moments' shared, and Nike FuelBand. 'The wearable computing trend will allow you to get more data about your life. This is massively important to allow you to make better decisions about your life. FuelBand can start to influence a consumers behaviour based on a slight bit of data and Path brings in motivation. 

Breakout products or services

The simple narrative crutch around the conference is always 'what startup will blow up', with the media and the public looking for the Cinderella moment around many of the hundreds of companies represented at the festival. Successful launches from Twitter and Foursquare in years past reinforce this view, but we feel there were no real breakout performers this year; the big got slightly bigger, and the small stayed small. 

But one interesting development concerned services using the overwhelming confusion and chaos in and around the Austin area during the conference to highlight what they do. Taskrabbit, a service designed to match small jobs with personal assistants, offered $25 gift cards for errands and miscellaneous help during the conference. One attendee used the service to wait for him in the overwhelming badge line. Another had someone deliver a case of wine to his hotel. 

Similarly, Sidetour, which helps users discover experiences, created various paths where people could get better acquainted with influential startup founders or various 'net personages. 

One gets the sense a cottage industry of startups has emerged which is most useful at the festival, and though the small technoutopia that converges in Austin every March is unique and ideal, it's indeed nothing like a perfect model of the universe. It's pleasing to see many presenters looking outside the bubble to things that will impact a broader group. 

Pace of Change

The festival itself could have done with running fewer panels on the Pace of Change, and actually addressed the situation for itself. The queues to register made a mockery of advanced thinking on show at the interactive event, while the panel selection process, which sees ideas submitted nine months in advance, before being voted on by an audience, thanks to the rapid pace of change that was so widely discussed at the festival, ensured that many of the panels felt dated and the ideas somewhat lacklustre.

Illustration from you can find illustrations of all the panels.