SXSW Interactive ’14: A Pilgrim’s Progress

March 20, 2014 | John Berndt & Michelle Geczy

SXSW Interactive 2014

As the wild and wooly beast known as SXSW Interactive scratches its seven year itch, armed with a handful of SXSW experiences under our belts, TBG (The Berndt Group) shares our observations of this living breathing, ever morphing bedazzled and at times bedeviling extravaganza.

We’re here to help you wade through the images of endless hipsters with monocles and tiny cocked hats holding microbrews, carrying on conversations and attending “thought leadership” sessions that read like the very worst excesses of the .COM bubble of 2001 (as if it had never happened). Did we mention, multiply that image by 10,000?

Yes, yes, it’s all true, and we can’t help but wonder if it’s also boorish to Austinites to lose their downtown for the 10 day Spectacular Spectacular that is SXSW—but to those who want a macro view with their microbrew and to do a deep dive into the realities of interactive business and development, SXSW is still the best game going. It may be turning into its own cliché and meta-meme at a breakneck pace, but at the end of the day, SXSW still DELIVERS.

That’s why we at TBG make it a point to attend every year, and increasingly we view it as the bonified spiritual pilgrimage of our industry—rather like going to the Black Stone at Mecca, taking in the Waters at Lourdes, or riding all night to try to dig up John Franklin Bardin’s (look it up) grave. One doesn’t simply ATTEND SXSW, one… DESCENDS INTO IT.

That’s why this year, we didn’t just fly in, we drove four hours from Dallas in a jet black Ford Mustang muscle car that we rented just to give atmosphere to the journey and so we could get into the proper mood of distracted attention. Rolling Texas hills and a lot of construction gave way to the city of Austin brimming not just with its own formidable hipster population, but also with the greatest uber-nerds of a whole country (and a surprisingly supersized number of Northern Europeans to boot). Parking was hard to find, with pedicabs swarming everywhere like locusts, and food trucks outnumbering the citizens 3-to-1.

Checking into our wildly well-appointed modernist loft and noshing on some tasty hummus, we paused for a calm fifteen before the storm. We said to ourselves, “Self, think about how best to approach this. Think. Is there a methodology that actually works?” This was our fourth SXSW and we knew that entering the maelstrom is a deadly serious business which can lead to throbbing headaches, and a condition known as “collapse at the center.” For pilgrims such as us, no matter how seasoned, we needed a strategy.

Ready, set… go! Next thing we know, we are jostling with the teeming hundreds with lanyards around our necks, and cell phones in hand looking for that perfect session that will increase our perspective tenfold. The Responsive Web Design Holy Grail. We know it’s there. As we surged with the crowds, we noted with awe the amazingness of how a very demographically varied group of people can, with common purpose, move in multiple directions through one another without ever looking up from their cell phones or stopping their conversations. Now that’s multi-tasking! They didn’t even need an app (for that!) Maybe they were tweeting about Grumpy Cat.

Day one sessions disappointed (no “there there” to quote Gertrude Stein) but we were still inspired by the sheer sense of possibility on display. After a night out with friends (incredible Mexican food with our “spirit guide” for Austin, autodidact Josh Ronsen, a composer-author-bon-vivant who is also (really) the founder of something called the “Garnishes off our plates” party), we went back to the loft and fell into a deep dreamless sleep and awoke with a start at 4AM. Day two had arrived. SXSW was calling. Back into the beast!

Days 2-4 did not disappoint.

Trolling through a huge amount of useful and useless information, eating amazing food at nearly every turn, getting soaked in sudden rainstorms and reheated in 70-degree heat, we met a lot of amazing people—SXSW14 proved to be worth every hour and cent, and deeply action-packed.

What was most different from previous years? We limited ourselves to the convention center (one of maybe 10-12 sites)—which seemed to reduce the potential for impending head explosions, given the sheer volume of session choices and logistics involved to frantically change locations with the surging masses during short timeframes.

There were some great speakers and moments of levity. Half way through, we witnessed brilliant fashion brand entrepreneur Sophia Amoroso (#girlboss) give an interview that transcended the genre and made us laugh out loud at points—in a much needed break from grinding on more niche and technical topics. It was also an antidote to some other entrepreneurs who seemed to have sold their humanity before they were thirty.

All in all, did we, did SXSW, achieve a sort of digital industry Nirvana? In a word: yes.

Here, in brief, are our impressions of the most compelling content we experienced at SXSW. It doesn’t capture the flavor of everything (and how hard it was mentally at times to get into the good stuff and to physically get into the most compelling sessions) but it does give a sense of what we found valuable in the whole experience. Here goes:

1. Validation of the Big Problems for Digital Agencies.
Some of the “core” intellectual problems we are trying to solve at TBG were very much in the air:

  • Speed, efficiency and quality of Responsive design process

  • More Agile / fast development of larger projects (and related contradictions)

  • Multi-platform channel strategies , their usability, and development logistics

  • Content personalization platforms and their operational implications for large, Responsive web sites.

It was interesting to say that outside a few points, no one seemed much farther along in solving these problems than we are. Usually they had just defaulted to one side of the problem or the other.

This was both reaffirming of what we already knew— these are the very hard, legitimate problems of our industry—and the areas where we simultaneously have risk and have great potential to innovate. We also think even today, we could probably articulate the problems and theoretical issues as well as most speakers—which bodes well for our presenting next year.

When you get these expert people into Q & A they basically admit that all of the issues we struggle with are the issues of the day that they haven’t resolved either.

2. HTML Prototyping
That being said, we did get more visibility into tools, HTML-as-wireframes, and how Agile can be applied to parts of larger projects. This was all very valuable. We also had a look at the evolving (flawed) toolsets, especially Adobe Edge.

3. Scary Stuff
Talk of the coming Cyber-wars was everywhere, and those sessions were fairly terrifying. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange’s discourses were an interesting counterpoint, presented by very broken up video streaming. (Apparently Snowden was going through 8 proxy servers to speak to us). Whichever side of the fence you’re on in relation to these guys, both came across as incredibly articulate.

4. Love for Sitecore
Our longtime partner Sitecore was the only real CMS at SXSW and they were in full effect and giving tons of love to TBG. They continue to be a great and highly approachable company. Sitecore has just rebranded to blue.

5. Why is Social Media Uptake So Extreme?
We attended some very good sessions about the neurology of digital that made interesting arguments about why Twitter, et al have had such crazy popularity. (Of course, no irony was lost that we were frantically Tweeting the whole time

The ideas of “joygasms” (receiving gifts or achievement) and altruism (giving gifts and helping) were familiar to us, but the neurological idea of “commas” (experiences than never end, but endlessly pause) were entirely new and thought provoking. Social Media was seen as a confluence of these three factors—and an almost accidental new paradigm emerging from their fire.

6. LAMP is from Mars; ASP.NET is from Venus
There is still an immense cultural divide between the LAMP Stack/rapid development world and the ASP.NET and Java worlds. People in either world seem totally oblivious and uniformed of the innovations and products in the other—which may be an obvious point, but we think this vast divide has huge and potentially destabilizing implications for our industry in both directions. In general, we would like us to *not be that way,* even if we primarily specialize in .NET.

7. Disrupted Job Descriptions
Everyone’s digital job descriptions are changing everywhere, usually broadening; in the industry very few “pure IAs” or “pure designers” are left standing. (This is more true on the UX / strategy side than the programmer side, we would say).

8. Our Industry Works Crazy Hard
Work hours in the tech world are rather long and intense. Constant discussion of 12-hour days, regular work on weekends, etc. as the norm, was randomly discussed in sessions and also when we talked to people while networking. This reinforces our existing sense, but in more detail, because people were much more open in this non-competitive environment to talk about this aspect.

9. Earthquakes in Healthcare
There are a huge amount of destabilizing digital healthcare / real-time sensor / genetic diagnosis trends on the horizon. Very few of them relate to the kinds of web sites we develop, but they will likely be a part of what we do in one way or another—even if it is only marketing/positioning.

10. A New Theory for “Branding?”
The received theory of brands is all very sprawling and self-congratulatory, but seems to be stuck 5-15 years ago; the concepts and buzzwords haven’t changed much. It perhaps gets creepier, but not much more profound.

Getting into “the soul of the brand” etc. gets a fair amount of play, sometimes with interesting examples, but is mainly useful in terms of understanding the introspection of large organizations. We wonder if years from now, this discourse of “branding” will seem hopelessly out of focus, rather like Augustinian Theology does today.

In the meantime, there is a growing alternative “materialist/empiricist” discourse on brand experience which we would call NATURAL SELECTION: a/b testing, crowdsourcing, radical brand participation (C.F. recent Monopoly contest), user testing, big data targeting, granular sub-segmenting, which is all relevant to brand experience and has gotten very advanced.

Fragmented brand experiences were also a growing trend: Big brand ads that are, for instance, contextual, specific jokes about the YouTube video you are about to watch—shot individually for the 100 most popular videos of the moment.

This quick “top ten” barely scratches the surface—and the endless stream of examples, data and details are what make SXSW great. It will take some time for us to digest everything we saw, discussed, and passionately argued—but we have left SXSW inspired, humbled, and slightly chastened. We closed up the loft, had one last very rushed but awesome meal, and prepared to leave. The black Ford Mustang is now parked somewhere in downtown Austin and the keys are in the ignition, ready for a road trip for some intrepid taker. Very tired but buzzing and energized, as we boarded the plane, we were thinking: see you next year SXSW, we’ll be back.

About the Authors

John Berndt

I'm CEO of TBG and I've been thinking about the Web in creative ways since the year it began.

Michelle Geczy

I'm the Chief Operating Officer at TBG. I live by the details. Field hockey and Swedish Fish make me happy too.

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