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South by Southwest Interactive gathers creative minds together, lets sparks fly

Brian Gaar, Plugged In

Staff Writer
Austin 360

At first blush, South by Southwest Interactive seemed like a dog park where people socialize their Apple products.

That was my first impression as I sloshed into the Austin Convention Center on Saturday morning.

The cavernous space was awash in multitasking; people clacked away on laptops, checked iPads and shot video (mostly of the massive crowd). For attendees, it seemed that simply broadcasting their presence trumped any of the events.

But my curmudgeonly attitude might have been affected by my wet feet. Both slowly recovered from the morning downpour, and I found myself swept up in the carnival-like atmosphere.

Bad weather or no, the conference attracts scads of tuned-in, tech-literate people — and when they come together, interesting things can happen.

That fact reared its head right away, when a speaker didn't show up for a morning panel on design. Not wanting to waste the packed room, a moderator invited anyone from the crowd to give a talk.

Dane Sanders answered the call and clambered onstage.

The photographer and writer from Southern California compared the conference to "the ultimate magazine rack."

"It's this weird coming together of both corporate (entities) wanting to come in and ... get access to people like you, and you people coming here and wanting to influence as many people with good ideas," he told the crowd.

Afterward, Sanders tweeted a photo of his impromptu speech.

Promoting was a big part of day — everyone seemed to be marketing to everyone else.

There was a man bedecked in a green mohawk and matching tights, posing for pictures and promoting the Web-based chat application Zopim.

In Dell's booth, people wrote messages on a glasslike wall — a tie-in with the computer-maker's current slogan, "The power to do more."

Cooper Neill, a University of Texas journalism student who was handing out pens, pointed to some of his favorites.

"I'm partial to the humor people," Neill said. "Take ‘Two and a Half Men' off of TV" is a good one.

"Since it's South By Southwest, a lot of people are talking about sleep and being able to get more of it," he added.

Other promotion attempts were less creative.

At a panel of "Top Chef" cast members and Bravo TV employees, an Austin woman was booed after she plugged her cocktail brand during the Q&A session.

Another questioner smartphone-filmed the panelists, who included Bravo host Andy Cohen and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio.

"My wife sent me here to ask you a question from Florida — and she told me I had to tape it," the man explained. "It's very embarrassing."

Across the convention center, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman told audience members how to plan a career in the 21st century.

The old way of doing things — going to college, getting a degree and working for a company for 30 years — is finished, he said.

Everyone is now an entrepreneur, he said. And to adapt, workers must be in a "permanent beta" phase, constantly learning and gaining new skills.

"You're never finished," Hoffman said.

Of course, that's why people go to conferences like South by Southwest — to stay on the cutting edge and adapt to these ever-changing times.

James Royer, director of digital media for the National Hockey League's Tampa Bay Lightning, came to Austin to "try to learn what people are doing on the forefront, so we can build that innovation into our brand."

The sports industry, he said, tends to be a couple of years behind.

"The culture (at SXSW) is different than sports, because sports people ... have bought into the digital and social media, but they're not fully there yet," Royer said. "Whereas everybody here is living it on a day-to-day basis and transforming brands by using it."

Socializing, both online and off, soaked the entire day. Celebrities spoke alongside regular folks. People tweeted. Attendees reveled in the satisfaction of being among their own.

Local artist Austin Kleon, in his "Everything is a Remix" panel, discussed how every artistic work draws inspiration from its predecessors.

To illustrate, he showed clips from the first "Star Wars" movie alongside various westerns and World War II films.

Then Kleon stopped, realizing that he was sitting on hallowed ground.

"Did you know (writer) Joss Whedon was just sitting in one of these chairs?" he said. "Like, the guy who did ‘Firefly?' "

And that's the ultimate attraction of South by Southwest, Sanders said. It's a great collection of creative minds in one space.

"I was talking to some guys last night," he said. "The bigwigs who aren't as hungry, they don't need to be here. But everyone who's hungry, everyone who's wanting to make a mark – you can't get around South by."

Contact Brian Gaar at 912-5932