SXSW festival

SXSWissnex

Big Ideas

“I’m bad at caring about money. I’m good at caring about ideas and people with big ideas,” said Tim O’Reilly in a fireside chat at the 2011 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. It was his first time there.

The O’Reilly Media Founder and CEO, the guy who coined the term Web 2.0, must have had plenty to care about, then, at SXSW. After all, this conference launched Foursquare and popularized Twitter in previous years and an estimated 20,000 of the brightest minds in technology attended in 2011. No telling what big ideas lurked.

swissnex San Francisco team members joined the beehive that is SXSW Interactive, or “South By” to veterans, a five-day festival of keynote presentations, panel discussions, book readings, meetups, workshops, a tradeshow and game arcade, countless parties and receptions, and much more spread out over 10 campuses where the terms “geek” and “nerd” are worn as badges of honor.

Interactive runs in parallel with the equally edgy and notable film and music festivals that collectively take over the city of Austin. Here’s a taste of what we were able to absorb. We barely scratched the surface. For example, we didn’t even have time to ride the RV karaoke lounge.

Tech and Internet luminaries are synonymous with the festival. Beyond O’Reilly, Christopher Poole gave a keynote. Poole founded the meme-generating 4chan at just 15 years of age. About 12 million people visit the site monthly, and Poole attributes its popularity and creativity to something the site offers that few others do in the age of the person as brand: anonymity.

We spotted Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, in the hallway. Another Craig, biologist J. Craig Venter, told rapt audiences about the methodology and significance of constructing the first synthetic life. “This species’ parent is a computer in the digital world,” Venter said.

Actress, social media maven, creator of The Guild, and star of the new Dragon Age web series, Felicia Day, inspired and charmed. We even learned the story of the trendy TOMS shoes from its founder, who expounded the virtues of giving in another keynote: it’s good for business and for the world.

Panel Picker

The myriad panel discussions the swissnex team shuttled between by bus, foot, and even pedi cab were selected thanks to the SXSW community via the PanelPicker. Sessions debated, lauded, and sometimes slammed various topics related to apps, social media, journalism, and more: Who should curate the real-time web, humans or robots? Should brands ignore or embrace fake Twitter profiles? What is the role of social media in crisis communication at a university when a shooter appears on campus?

It seems like most tech headlines are declaring the death of television. But one panel at SXSW seemed to posit that social media, and social TV by extension, could save it. So are tools like Twitter really making real-time TV cool again?

The Travel Channel’s Fred Graver talked of boosting ratings for episode premiers of No Reservations by convincing the notoriously headstrong host, Anthony Bourdain, to live-tweet during the original broadcast. Same for the MTV Video Music Awards, according to Chloe Sladden, Director of Media Partnerships at Twitter. Gavin Purcell, Supervising Producer of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, showed how that show is embracing social media by creating new content for live TV that brings viewers into the fold.

In the segment, Late Night Hashtags, Fallon announces Twitter hashtag (#) topics like the famous “#awwhellno,” which became a worldwide trending topic, and users tweet their responses. The best are read live on the air.

We discovered new, heckling-friendly event platforms like BattleDecks, in which speakers give improvised presentations with slides they’ve never seen. We also had our minds blown with space data visualizations from NASA and projects from citizen scientists hacking space exploration.

Bright Minds of Tech

Some of the most meaningful connections we made at South by happened at laptop and smartphone charging stations or waiting in line for a grilled cheese. Truly, the quality of the participants is mind-boggling at SXSW, and we were thrilled to meet emerging Web and app developers, strategy leaders, and tech journalists —all while vying for an electrical outlet.

We also caught up with Swiss innovators. Webdoc, a new platform for multimedia rich online conversations, officially launched at the SXSW tradeshow and the company’s CEO gave us a preview of their novel technology.

CTI Start-up and US Market Entry CAMP participant Mirasense, represented by their CEO, Samuel Mueller, took advantage of the gathering to make powerful connections and promote the company.

Benjamin Wiederkehr, Managing Director of User Experience & Production Lead at the Swiss firm Interactive Things, moderated a panel on social media data visualization with speakers including Adam Bly, Founder of Seed and Visualizing.org. We learned a lot from Wiederkehr, lead author of Datavisualization.ch, about the red-hot field of “data viz” and he’s now on board to participate in an upcoming swissnex event on the subject (check back soon for details).

In the end, swissnex left SXSW with plenty to care about and plenty of impressions on what to care about going forward in our brave new wired, connected, curated, visualized, you name it, world. And we left with new ideas. Big ones, yes, but small ones, too. Like always talk to the person next to you while you’re charging your phone.