Digital Privacy Among Top Issues Discussed at SXSWi Conference

Creativity's Teressa Iezzi Explains Why Foursquare Was a Winner and Why Facebook, Google Took Knocks

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AUSTIN ( -- SXSWi: spring break for nerds and Cannes for the cool kids.

A growing number of ad-industry types were among the 13,000 people who flocked to Austin, Texas, last week to attend SXSW Interactive in search of insight into an ever-changing digital landscape and good times in equal measure.

PRIVACY: Key developments in the digital space are coming from location-based tech. But will making this stuff more useful and lucrative come with-out a big reckoning over privacy issues?

LOCATION: Even for those not unlocking the Super Swarm badge on Foursquare, expect to be more aware of where everyone and everything is in your life this year.

Topics like curation, location and privacy formed the thematic thread of the discussions, both onstage and off. And as with many conferences, the real strength of SXSWi was in the shoulder rubbing -- you could scarcely toss a pork rib without hitting an interesting creative, tech or marketing lead from the "emerging media" or development world.

It was at SXSWi two years ago that Twitter got its big start and, this year, two location-based mobile games, Foursquare and Gowalla, were the tech names on all the geeks' tongues. Both launched a year ago in Austin and require users to "check in" from certain venues via their phones -- and broadcast those check-ins to a circle of designated friends. Doing so earns points and badges, part of a vast, never-ending game play. Pre-SXSW, both players added design and functionality upgrades -- Foursquare rethought its Check-In History page, which earned it much praise.

Foursquare emerged the winner among ad-inclined digital types and by the numbers -- the company had its biggest-volume day ever on March 13, with a record 347,000 check-ins. (Another winner? 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.) Even those panels not dealing specifically with either Foursquare or Gowalla 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 more attention to the issue of privacy. Danah Boyd, a Microsoft social-media researcher and fellow at Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society, held a capacity crowd rapt with her dissection of the subject. She specifically called out social tools like Google Buzz and Facebook for their sometimes confusing dance of privacy settings. "Making something more public that is public is a violation of privacy," said Ms. Boyd. "Privacy isn't dead" but it's about control and context. Ms. Boyd said that while people can easily tune their behavior in the physical world, the digital world isn't so stable. There is a difference between publicly available data and data that is publicized, she said, and currently it's easy for people to be victimized by that difference.

Meanwhile, Designers Accord founder Valerie Casey called on the interactive community to sack up when it comes to sustainability, pointing to its "conspicuous absence" from the movement. Ms. Casey, a designer who founded The Designers Accord, asked the audience to get involved, not by starting another organization like her own, or like LEED, but by helping to bind all the players -- designers, architects, corporations -- together and creating the systems that could bring sustainable efforts to fruition.

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