How Cryptokitties Killed Grumpy Cat at SXSW

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Grumpy Cat appears during SXSW on March 13, 2016, in Austin, Texas.
Grumpy Cat appears during SXSW on March 13, 2016, in Austin, Texas. Credit: Amy E. Price/FilmMagic

"New Kids on the Blockchain." "Bad Crypto Meetup." "Initial Taco Offering."

These are real names of events about blockchain scheduled for South by Southwest 2018. But panels talk a big game without necessarily giving a tangible demonstration of what such technologies can do. In the past though, SXSW has been more about showing than telling.

About ten years ago, the technologies that broke out at SXSW were the ones that could connect people, and they were widely used at the event. Twitter made it easy to follow discussions about the conference and specific parties, and it gave people a chance to connect with each other face-to-face. Foursquare, well before it launched Swarm, helped show which places were "swarming" at SXSW. Attendees could discover where friends were and which events were popular (I often used it to see which events were too popular so I could find other quieter spots to meet friends). Hashable tried to reinvent business cards, and perhaps its rapid demise signaled the fading interest in such technologies during the festival.

Roughly five years ago, the focus shifted to visual social experiences. Instagram laggards and Snapchat early adopters would document every moment and add their favorite filters. As such apps were being used to create and propagate memes, Mashable and others invited digital celebrities like Grumpy Cat and Scumbag Steve to SXSW. The agency Allison & Partners brought chef Dominque Ansel to whip up cronuts. People would wait hours for their chance to meet Mr. Cat or Mr. Ansel—not to hold the cat or try the cronut, but to take a photo of themselves holding the cat and trying the cronut. This was the dawn of the FOMO (fear of missing out) era. Granted, there were limits; I can't recall anyone waiting hours to meet Scumbag Steve, which is a shame, as I did a panel with him, and he is far more charming than the kitten.

The SXSW innovation stakes rose further. Along came Leap Motion to debut its gestural computing interface—one of the last types of hardware to appear at SXSW that evoked a sense of wonder and magic. This would climax with the surge of virtual reality experiences in 2016 and 2017. Brands participated in this gauntlet, as festival-goers encountered 3D-printed Oreos, IBM's Watson-powered food truck and GE's brainwave-scanning brisket smoker.

At blockchain events, there's not as much to experience. Startups aren't accepting cryptocurrency payments to get into their events, and at the parties, no one is paying for drinks with Bitcoin or Ripple.

There are no parties I came across that verify attendee identities through blockchain. None of the food trucks seem to be tracing the source of their products through blockchain. The practical applications for such technologies may be surfacing, but even at SXSW, they're still at least a year away. A telling sign appeared in January, when Slate ran one of my favorite tech-related stories of all time: "The North American Bitcoin Conference is No Longer Accepting Bitcoin Payments for Tickets."

This year, every recap of this SXSW will talk a lot about blockchain and cryptocurrency. They might include some examples, perhaps such as how Burger King Russia announced its blockchain-based Whoppercoin loyalty program. In years to come, there will probably be practical SXSW examples of event organizers using blockchain applications such as payments, identity verification, supply chain management, and more. Maybe attendees will get to prove that they attended and sat through a certain number of panels, which will in turn reward attendees with tokens that can be redeemed at exclusive events—such as a photo opp with Grumpy Cat.

Instead, 2018 is a chance for the SXSW franchise to prepare to reinvent itself in 2019 and beyond. In the meantime, I'll hang on to what I've loved about the festival in the past—scanning Swarm to see which places aren't too popular in the event that I might run into Scumbag Steve and get a selfie with him. If he charges me a Ripple coin for it, it'll be the best thing I've ever bought with it—and the first.

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