A Super Swarm in Austin

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Among the reported 13,000 people who attended SXSW Interactive March 12 to 16 were a seemingly growing number of ad industry types who flocked to the Austin event in search of insight into an ever changing digital landscape and good times in equal measure.

The event, which has been called Spring Break for Nerds and Cannes for the cool kids (is it unseemly to quote oneself?) drew a large contingent of digital agency and production company players, from all levels, with full service agencies represented in a seemingly smaller proportion. They mixed, day and night, with the people behind every tech and social/digital media company you've ever heard of and many you haven't.

With so many geeks, (and geek wannabes and groupies) in one place, Foursquare had to create a new badge, one that you simply had to attend a headline panel or a packed party to unlock: the SuperSwarm. Users who unlocked the special prize received this message: "Know what you call a 50-person swarm at SXSW? The Hilton Lobby. So we upped the ante to 250 and you still nailed it. Well played!"

SXSW Interactive provided a staggering volume of programmingon a broad range of topics that those working in the brand creativity space would - or should—consider relevant. A quick eyeball of the schedule indicated well over 120 panels and talks per day, with anywhere from five to 13 panels taking place concurrently during any given one-hour time slot. Keynote speakers included Daniel Ek, founder of music service darling Spotify, Twitter CEO Evan Williams, in an ill-fated interview with Havas Media Lab Director Umair Haque, Designers Accord founder Valerie Casey, who called on the digital community to sack up on sustainability, and Danah Boyd, a Microsoft Research Social Media Researcher and fellow at Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who shared some thoughts about privacy in the world of social media over sharing.

While a who's who of the digital world was represented among the many other speakers, panels were often somewhat rudderless and opportunities to explore deeper issues missed. The need for focused moderation and speaker wrangling came into sharp relief as Monday's keynote talk with Williams provoked a Tweet-lash and an exodus of attendees from the room. To put the Twitter commentary on the topic mildly, the much-anticipated speech from the head of one of the most talked about companies of the last several years was a disappointment. While Williams dropped some big news about Twitter's new @Anywhere platform in the first part of the talk, the style and substance of questioning by William's interviewer, Haque, left many Twitter patrons cold.

In the end, as with many conferences, the real strength of SXSWI was in the shoulder rubbing, with each day offering a range of packed parties and smaller events where one could scarcely drop a pork rib without hitting an interesting creative, tech or marketing lead from the "emerging media" or development world.

Things like curation, location and privacy formed the thematic thread that wound through some of the talks onstage, and in the many, many off-stage conversations with tech smarties at the show. Foursquare and Gowalla were, of course, the dominant tech names at the event (aside from Apple: during several panels, speakers did impromptu surveys of the audience to determine which mobile devices were being used. In each case, iPhone was the near unanimous answer, with Android a very distant second). Before SXSW got underway, fans were anticipating a location-appropriate gunfight between the competing location apps, both launched a year ago in Austin. Pre-SXSW, both players added design and functionality upgrades - Foursquare gaining much attention and praise in the run-up for its rethink of its Check-in History page, among other things. Foursquare emerged the winner, at least among ad-inclined digital types and at least according to the numbers—the company had its biggest volume day ever on March 13, with a record 347,000 check-ins. Even on those panels not dealing specifically with either app often came around to a discussion of how location-aware data and behavior would affect what people and brands were doing in the social space.

All of which brings yet more attention to the issue of privacy. Keynote speaker Boyd held a capacity crowd rapt with a discussion of the finer points of privacy and the degrees of publicity in the online world. She made pointed reference to Google Buzz and to Facebook and its sometimes confusing dance of privacy settings. "Making something more public that is public is a violation of privacy," said Boyd. She asserted that "privacy isn't dead," but that it's about control and context, pointing to the different privacy preferences and social goals of demographics and individuals. She made an interesting point about privacy by using the example of a school teacher – someone who is perhaps held to different societal standards and for whom privacy has added implications.

In her address, Valerie Casey suggested a systems-based way to look at the issue of sustainability and called the interactive community out on what she said was its "conspicuous absence" from the sustainability movement. Casey, a designer and design consultant who founded The Designers Accord to mobilize the design and business communities to effect environmental and social change through their work, pointedly asked the digitally-oriented audience to get involved, not by starting another organization like her own, or like LEED, but by being the "connective tissue" that could bind all the players – designers, architects, corporations – together and creating the systems that could bring sustainable efforts to fruition.

In what should have perhaps been a keynote, Here Comes Everybody author and ITP professor Clay Shirky delivered a hugely entertaining talk called Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data that provided some behavioral and contextual underpinnings to much of the other content at the event. Shirky asserted that "abundance breaks more things than scarcity," talked about the three kinds of sharing, one of which – sharing of information – being something that human beings are hard wired to actively like doing. He talked about the difference between commercial and civic value and the world-changing ways people can create the latter through sharing. He also noted, in a response to a question from the audience that "the minute everyone understands something is important all progress stops; you want to be working where no one is looking."

Something to bear in mind for people attending what will undoubtedly be an even bigger event next year.

We'll post more on Shirky's talk later.
For now, check out some of the other chatter about SXSWI here.
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