Report From Austin: The Social Fragmentation of SXSW
Austin’s annual South By Southwest Interactive conference is bigger and glitzier than ever. Physically and virtually–even though it seems more fragmented this year.
But that’s not to say that it’s not full of lines and crowds as usual at SXSW.
Organizers of event, which started Friday and runs through Tuesday, said they expect a 30 to 40 percent increase in attendance from 2010’s 14,000 attendees.
SXSW has in recent years acquired a reputation as an ideal environment for launching social technology products, because it’s such a concentrated hotbed of socializing by people with smartphones.
But, honestly, it’s such a concentrated hotbed of socializing, these apps seem barely necessary.
Just walk around the streets and you’ll find relevant people and friends. In fact, schedule planning and friend finding are so fragmented across all these different apps, they’re almost superfluous.
On the plus side for attendees (and opportunistic locals), the various check-in and group messaging apps are so eager to get brand recognition that they’re offering free rides to downtown Austin from the airport (Fast Society), free grilled cheese sandwiches (GroupMe), free tickets to see Big Boi (Foursquare) and free beer (everyone).
This could just be me trying to rationalizing a Zen attitude for my own personal aimless wandering, but I think there’s a larger theme about the fragmentation of SXSW as both a business and social event.
Physically, this year there are more conference locations than ever, with panels and speeches across the river and down at a conference center near University of Texas Austin. (Plus the regenerating line around the block at Apple’s pop-up iPad 2 store, which is a sort of satellite event of its own.)
There’s also no one 2011 focal point that everyone’s buzzing about, like last year’s interview with Twitter’s then-CEO Evan Williams. The introductory keynote on Saturday by SCVNGR’s Seth Priebatsch about how a game layer can improve the world was entertaining, but hardly filled the room.
This sort of destabilization has unintended benefits. For instance, this morning a panel on social TV with participants from Twitter, Next New Networks and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” attracted an audience far beyond the capacity of its allotted room. Would-be audience members–including experts on the topic from NBC and the New York Times–who had trekked way across town first thing in the morning set up their own ad-hoc panel next door. (Here’s a write-up and the #rebeltv hashtag conversation.)
Embedded below is a gallery of some moments from the first days of SXSW Interactive 2011, including a mobile photobooth for Instagram pictures called Instaprint, Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley playing an actual game of Foursquare and Ditto CEO Jyri EngestrÃ¶m at the rocking steampunk/burlesque launch party co-hosted by his venture firm.