Five Highlights from SXSW Interactive

Today is the last day of the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, TX, but it wrapped up for me last night, and while I’m still digesting everything I took in, a few highlights have already become clear.

Overall, the festival has been a chaotic mix of truly inspired presentations, thinly veiled sales pitches, over-the-top demagoguery and/or self-promotion, filtered through an incredibly diverse range of creative disciplines and strategic philosophies. The program was an eclectic buffet that wasn’t always easy to navigate with the Austin Convention Center’s awkward layout that makes it difficult to go between the 3rd to 4th floors, but Debbie Stier’s advice to “to fish in a different pond” was wise and I found myself in some very interesting discussions as a result.

The highlights:

Danah Boyd

Boyd delivered an inspiring call-to-arms in her “Privacy and Publicity” keynote, declaring that “Privacy is NOT dead… People still care, online and offline; it’s about control.” She exhorted techies to listen to users’ privacy concerns, and to apply the same level of innovation to privacy as they do towards Web 2.0 development. It’s an important message for publishers, too, as direct engagement and direct-to-consumer sales become the norm. She has posted the text of her presentation, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.

Jaron Lanier

Lanier is known as the “father of virtual reality”, and his book is an absolute must-read for anyone working in the digital space. His presentation was wonderfully loopy, filtering the fundamental themes of his book — that Web 2.0 technologies and open source culture have a dehumanizing dark-side that needs to be acknowledged and kept top of mind — through his quirky personality. At his book signing afterwards, he gave credit to his team at Knopf for helping shape the book, noting that there were certain elements of the traditional publishing process that were “indispensable”.

Social Gaming: Lessons from the Pioneers

Organized by Facebook, this panel included representatives from Playfish, Ubisoft, PopCap Games and Playdom and offered a fascinating glimpse into the world of social gaming. There were four key points that were particularly relevant for publishers, especially those serving niche audiences:

  1. Social gaming focuses on social interaction for non-gamers vs. immersive experience for gamers; a throwback to board games.
  2. Monetizing: it’s about self-expression and competition; make players care about the experience, they’ll spend more time and money.
  3. Social gaming evolution needs to be driven by creativity, not tech fetish. Same applies to publishing, print or digital.
  4. Major developers were slow to embrace Xbox Live Arcade, so small developers took advantage. Sounds a lot like Amazon’s experience with the Kindle.

Richard Nash’s social publishing initiative Cursor is attempting to tread similar ground as social gaming developers, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Community Management: Future Skills You’ll Need to Know

Saul Colt pulled together an energetic discussion about Community Management that attempted to define the role from a several angles, covering web startups to major corporate brands. While his panel mostly represented the former, many attendees were from the latter, including representatives from Disney, HP and Nike. The debate was spirited, and while the final answer was “it depends” — on goals, resources and strategy — there was  general consensus that community management is both a strategy and a tactic; it should be seen as part of everyone’s job; and that brands are not at the center of the “community”, it’s both internal and external.

New Publishing and Web Content Panel

This was one of the best discussions of the Festival, with Happy Cog‘s Jeffrey Zeldman moderating a well-balanced panel that didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but were extremely passionate about their topic. Fourth Story Media‘s Lisa Holton did an excellent job of representing the “new” while offering a nice counter to Etsy‘s Mandy Brown, who opted for the tiresome “traditional publishers are slow and stupid” meme. As Zeldman noted (and Lanier later confirmed), there is plenty to learn from traditional publishing, including content strategies, curation and editorial insight. Erin Kissane arguably made the most important point of the entire festival, though: “Content is very expensive to make. We need to start talking about that honestly.”

2 thoughts on “Five Highlights from SXSW Interactive

  1. I’ll also add here the panel I participated on, “Why Keep Blogging? Real Answers for Smart Tweeple”, which was both a lot of fun and by all accounts I’ve seen so far, very well received. The primary takeway was that passion and personal voice are critical elements of a successful blog, whether it’s a personal one or a corporate one.

    There’s a nice write-up of the panel here:

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