For 2012, the South by Southwest Interactive festival continued its trend of growing larger, more influential and attracting ever-more-recognizable names and well-moneyed events associated with it to Austin.
In terms of attendance, the festival grew almost 27 percent from 2011's 19,364 to 24,569 for 2012. That includes Gold and Platinum badgeholders who had access to the Interactive fest. It started soggy and crowded, with rain at the start of the festival forcing attendees indoors to face long badge lines and crowded Convention Center hallways.
But by the midpoint, the sun arrived and festgoers fell in love with gorgeous downtown weather and the mind-boggling number of official and unofficial SXSWi events.
The mix of digital creatives — including Web designers, app developers, marketers, social media gurus and bloggers — attracts an ever-growing number of companies that want to get their apps, services or more mainstream products in front of them. Scrappy start-up companies hoped to get a jump-start at the fest the way previous hits like Twitter and Foursquare did, and established companies like Nike, HP and American Express used the fest to get face time with the geeks.
As fest director Hugh Forrest said in an introduction of presenter Al Gore on Monday, "Geeks are the new rock stars of the pop culture landscape."
In the case of American Express and Nike, their gigantic, well-funded pushes at the festival drew lots of attention beyond the panels and happy hours happening in downtown venues. Amex introduced a new service called Sync allowing its customers to receive discounts by posting through Twitter. It brought rapper Jay-Z to town for a Monday show at ACL Live to promote Sync, becoming the hottest ticket of Interactive.
Nike took over the corner of Fourth and Colorado streets with giant screens and an athletic park and transformed the inside of the Spaghetti Warehouse building into an architectural advertisement for its new FuelBand, a $150 digital wristband that measures activity and syncs that data with smartphones and with the Nike+ online service. The company also brought in TV host Jimmy Fallon to moderate a panel on health technology at Interactive. Israeli-based startup Mobli attracted its most famous investor, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, to a private party March 10 at Kenichi along with DiCaprio's buddies Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas.
The festival itself boasted official programming featuring food celebrity Anthony Bourdain, filmmakers Kevin Smith and Morgan Spurlock and Gore, who did a Q&A with Napster founder Sean Parker.
In past years, the festival wouldn't have had the clout to attract the kind of star power typically drawn to the SXSW Film and Music festivals, but times have changed, and so has Interactive. Forrest said after the festival's conclusion that its organizers are struggling to maintain a balance between the hype and money surrounding the fest and making sure programming still reflects the larger tech community, especially in featured and keynote presentations.
But outside the walls of the Austin Convention Center, companies took over restaurants, threw lavish private parties and marketed as hard as they could to the crowds. "All these companies want to be here because they heard that these are the most cutting-edge thinkers and the leaders of tomorrow," he said. "Nobody wants overcommercialization of the fest. But I think we'll see more and more of this until this particular boom busts."
Ah, the bust. Throughout the fest, especially among veterans of the fest and the tech industry, there was free-floating anxiety about a potential "bubble" in the social media industry.
On a panel called "Social Media is a Bubble and SXSW is a Fad," panelists and audience members complained about the fest's rapid growth, calling it a symptom of a larger problem of start-up companies with weak business plans built on hype and a social media industry that has become oversaturated with bad ideas.
"It feels a lot like it did in 2000," said panelist Curtis Hougland, of the ad firm Attention, referring to the dot-com boom whose bust ended much of the irrational exuberance of the late '90s.
Still, companies including Paypal, Turntable.fm, Instagram, Hulu and even Marvel Comics used the festival to announce revamped products or new services, taking their messages straight to the geeks.
But proving that money and attention-getting tech aren't everything, one of the biggest controversies (and most blogged-about things at SXSW Interactive) was "Homeless Hotspots," a street campaign by New York ad agency BBH. Employing homeless Austinites for $20 a day, plus donations, the company had the individuals offer Wi-Fi access to attendees on the street. The company worked with the nonprofit Front Steps, which approved of the effort to raise awareness of homelessness, but the campaign received withering criticism from tech blogs as being insensitive and perhaps dehumanizing. A second wave of blog posts argued that this might be a knee-jerk reaction, and thus was born an official Internet controversy that the fest couldn't possibly have planned for.
Panel discussion, as usual, was wide ranging, from talks about the future of tech in government, trends in health gadgets, the problematic future of online privacy, 3-D printing and the challenges of copyright in a wired world. Futurist keynote speaker Ray Kurzweil laid out a vision of sentient robots that we'll come to accept, blood-cell-sized devices that'll be mainstream in 20 years and the potential threat of bioterrorism.
As for actual technology at the festival (yes, there was some), apps like Highlight, Glancee and Kismet forced the issue of festival serendipity by putting users in touch with friends of friends or people with similar interests in their proximity.
Whether these apps, which were tested out by attendees at the fest, will go mainstream is anyone's guess. Five-year fest veteran Jeremiah Owyang, a widely read tech analyst, posted after the fest on his blog that Interactive is "A Petri dish of social and interactive behaviors, a bellwether of what could be a trend for the year. It also has a downside from overhype, fanboyism, and an overinflated view of behaviors that may not persist as people return to work."
Contact Omar L. Gallaga at 445-3672.