The year was 2007. South by Southwest was mostly known as a film and music festival, but SXSW Interactive was attracting greater attendance and media coverage. It was there that early adopters first fell in love with Twitter. Just as SXSW helped establish Twitter, Twitter's fame in turn popularized the Interactive conference, and both would struggle to keep pace with consumer demand.
Thanks to Twitter, digital media pundits spend all year making predictions about what technology will break through at the following SXSW. In this echo chamber, it's a bigger deal than picking the winner of the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and the presidential election. It helped that Dennis Crowley debuted Foursquare at 2009's festival, giving SXSW even more clout for launching tech brands. In 2011, GroupMe popularized group messaging, while rival app Beluga, garnering somewhat less buzz, was subsequently acquired by Facebook. The parlor game remains as vibrant as ever in 2012.
This year, there won't be another Twitter. There will be technologies that attract some degree of fame, but Twitter was an anomaly. In 2007, it was fine for a technology as broad and undefined as Twitter to capture the imaginations of attendees. Now, there are four specific criteria that will determine what wins:
It must bring people together in person.
At SXSW, most digital interactions between people either lead to a real world exchange or stem from meeting in person. In 2007, Twitter helped people meet, but there are far more efficient ways to do so now, and even then this was an ancillary benefit rather than Twitter's raison d'être.
It must scale through individuals or small groups.
Look at Foursquare and GroupMe as perfect candidates, or Path, which was initially designed as a social network for only one's closest friends. Also consider Hashable, which was widely talked about last year but not as widely used. All of these apps were designed to facilitate sharing among close or select contacts. Twitter was somewhat like this in 2007 because only a highly interconnected group of early adopters used it. Today, however, Twitter is built more around broadcasting messages to far-flung followers, and mass media vehicles don't resonate as well with the SXSW community.
It must be mobile.
There's no middle ground, such as a service designed for tablets. It needs to be mobile in the truest sense of the word. Twitter fit in well here, as it was designed to work with test messaging from early on, well before mobile apps made the tweeting experience far better. SXSW attendees spend more time using their mobile devices than they spend doing anything else, including sleeping and eating Frito pie. In Austin, it's mobile or bust.
It must have utility, at SXSW.
Foursquare is so perfect for SXSW because people are constantly trying to figure out if they know people wherever they go. GroupMe makes it possible to selectively communicate with custom groups of people and coordinate plans. Twitter is too much of a blank canvas. That's fine with 2007's early adopter mindset of exploring the possibilities of new technologies, but SXSW isn't only the province of early adopters anymore. The fast followers are there too, so there must be a clear value proposition for users. An open-ended service like Twitter may find fans at SXSW, but those fans will gather on the event's fringes.
It's possible for a technology to meet these criteria and stumble or fail. It's also likely enough that the founders will follow SXSW also-rans like Gowalla, Whrrl, and Yobongo – all apps that got some buzz but never fully achieved their potential, so the companies were acquired and the services subsequently shut down.
It also means that many technologies won't have a chance at getting the most buzz in Austin. People will use Pinterest at SXSW, but not as part of their core experience, and Pinterest doesn't need SXSW to keep growing. Social television services like Viggle, ClipSync, and Trendrr are too confined to the living room to serve any purpose at SXSW. If This, Then That is a brilliant service that lets fairly novice internet users mash up digital services, but it doesn't meet any of the four criteria to capitalize on SXSW buzz.
What about SXSW 2012? This year, the app Highlight, used to locate friends and their connections when they're in the immediate vicinity, has been crowned the winner of the buzz bowl before SXSW even started. It is tailor made for SXSW, hitting all four criteria so perfectly that people might not even realize it's simply a reworked version of Foursquare.
March 2007 was a time for dreamers. Americans could dream the housing bubble wouldn't burst. Texas Gov. Rick Perry could dream of one day residing in the White House. SXSW Interactive attendees could dream that a quirky, scrappy, bewildering technology called Twitter would empower movements all around the world. That last dream even came true.
March 2012 is a time for deals. It's a time for plans. It's a time to calculate what works and execute on it. That's why Highlight will either achieve a self-fulfilling prophecy of its success, or a stinging disappointment of failure. Either way, there will be another Highlight next year. There just won't be another Twitter.