SXSW Interactive 2012: The Big Ideas


Insights and Observations

From UX designers to intellectual property lawyers, VCs, mobile developers, politicians and more, this year’s SXSWi convened an array of the technology world’s professionals to discuss how major trends will impact the future of the industry. No stone—conceptual or tactical—was left unturned in this conference, which featured thousands of activities and events. Now that the event has wrapped, here is a sampling of key themes and questions that emerged.


  • Future of the Internet economy
  • Individuals matter
  • Social media, social good – hacking democracy
  • SoLoMo
  • The role and future of digital journalism
  • Simpler, smarter tech
  • Visualizing big data
  • Simplicity Versus Complexity
  • Hit me on my Twitter

Future of the Internet economy

The Internet has definitely “arrived,” but the business models that sustain it continue to be subject to fluctuations in market dynamics and consumer behaviors. Speakers at the event debated whether advertising will continue to be the backbone of free Internet services or whether other models can create more sustainable revenue streams. 

  • A week after Google’s new cross-account privacy policy went into effect, serial entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki quizzed his friend Vic Gundotra, senior vice president, engineering at Google, on the future of Google+. Six months in, the service is still seeing massive user growth—their analytics suggest that once-a-month users of Google's relatively new social platform number about 100 million, with once-a-day users coming in at about 50 million. What Google wants? To use knowledge of social user behavior to create more relevant experiences. While Google+ “does not today” affect advertising, Gundotra noted that Google’s vision is to “make ads into content.” One thing that isn't immediately on the horizon, to the disappointment of developers, is opening up the API for Google+ because Gundotra "doesn't want to pollute the stream."
  • With Google+ as a “social layer” across all of Google’s services, those insights from social behaviors could  be used to improve user’s search experiences at what Google calls “the moment of commercial intent” (i.e. entering a search keyword) rather than “injecting” ads into intimate experiences, such as photo albums. But this is a paradox—according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project report released just as the event kicked off, many Internet users “do not like the idea of personalized search results or targeted advertising,” though they “report very positive outcomes when it comes to the quality of information search provides, and more positive than negative experiences using search.”
  • Speaking with the New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson, leading computer scientist and virtual reality visionary Jaron Lanier noted that major technological shifts create enormous social ramifications, usually reducing traditional financial opportunities—because innovation stems from startups whose products commandeer, even as they shrink, markets. How do we create economic opportunity when even established tech work is being “optimized away”?  Lanier’s ideas included the adoption of universal commerce (using an Apple ID at to bring down walled gardens and compensating users for contributing data to companies (such as Facebook) whose advertising models depend on user insights.

Individuals matter

  • Biz Stone relived the origins of Twitter, which had its SXSW “bump” five years ago in March 2007. In the early days, the main critique Stone and his partners received was that it was not useful—as some have joked, Twitter was “the Seinfeld of the Internet: a service about nothing.” But between then and now, millions of people have used the service not only for interpersonal communications, but to advance citizen journalism and engage in political activism. Twitter became a platform for social transformation not because of an inherent quality, but because of what people did with it. For Stone, the lesson is that “Change is not a triumph of technology, it’s a triumph of humanity.”
  • During a panel on social media’s “coming of age,” Altimeter Group partner and analyst Jeremiah Owyang considered the benefits of social intelligence for companies. He noted that marketing communications have always been based on audience research—but social media offers a unique research opportunity to listen to customers when they’re speaking in an “unfiltered” voice—a kind of open ethnographic research. Ultimately, successful companies will marry social conversations to behavioral insights—did the customer act on the intent expressed?  Fellow panelist Katie Paine of KDPaine and partners, wearing a tiara of measuring tape to mark her the “Queen of Measurement,” agreed. In the future, the challenge will be for companies to use social to treat their customers as individuals, because “no one likes to be a marketing segment.”  

Social media, social good – hacking democracy

  • Many sessions focused on how social media, from networking sites to video sharing, can be used for the benefit of society. In a special afternoon session on Monday, former Vice President Al Gore and serial entrepreneur Sean Parker discussed the role of media in an engaged democracy. Mr. Gore noted that “the real power of the people in a democracy is the power of reason”—the ability to leverage truth—and social media has a true potential to bring this to bear. Both speakers agreed that while technology’s ability to easily mobilize citizens is meaningful, the next step is to bring citizens beyond “one-click” engagement to higher-stakes forms of engagement, such as community organizing.
  • Throughout sessions, speakers noted that two of the biggest political movements in recent history—Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party—owe their success to technology tools. “Slacktivists” are becoming full-fledged activists and changing the way people are organized. Political parties are changing to adapt to the way people are engaging and learning about politics.


  • Social, local and mobile convergence continues. Location-based applications were in full force at SXSW, from established check-in companies like foursquare to up-and-comers focused on ambient social discovery, like BanjoGlancee and Highlight that promise to connect users to like-minded individuals nearby based on compatibilities in their social profiles. The services were highly visible – but some noted that active social discovery will open up new issues with regard to user privacy.
  • The integration of real-time analytics into Facebook Insights is eagerly anticipated. Combined with the Featured Posts functionality on Facebook pages for companies, it means you will be able to assess reaction to a post in real-time, adjust content accordingly, and match the timing  of future posts to peak interest times.

The role and future of digital journalism

  • The New York Times’ digital access wall seems to be working. Jill Abramson, executive editor, said in a panel session hosted by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, that digital has become a significant revenue stream for the paper without having cannibalized daily circulation. She also made the point that journalists themselves are recommending and finding visual and graphic content to support and enrich their stories. To a question posed by Mother Jones' editor, Clara Jeffery, Abramson said that the paper intends to include link-outs in more of their stories in the future.
  • In a panel titled “SOPA Media Coverage Dissected,” Brian Stelter of The New York TimesKim Hart of POLITICO,Stacey Higginbotham of GigaOM and Jake Bialer of the Huffington Post discussed how print and online coverage impacted the public’s understanding of the Stop Online Piracy Act and may have ultimately contributed to the ground swell of technology industry activism opposing the bill. Of note, online media outfits referred to their analytics and noticed that SOPA articles were wildly popular with audiences--contributing to editorial decisions to expand their coverage, and thus awareness of the issue.

Simpler, smarter tech

  • Interfaces are getting simpler and technology is getting smarter. This trend allows technology to get out of the way and become invisible even as it improves our lives. Cyborg anthropologist and UX designer Amber Case presented a keynote on the evolution of user interfaces and how it can change humans’ physical experiences of the world around them. If the first computers were “solid” interfaces and the touchscreen on your smartphone is a “liquid” interface, what might an “air” interface look like? How could we create seamless digital experiences that transform the way we interact with the world—from exploring to gathering information?

Visualizing big data

  • Data visualization is hot. Infographics are only the ground floor, with dynamic graphics and imaging being the next stage. There is also recognition that graphics need to be framed within the context of a cohesive narrative. Good magazine (and its website as a whole) is a model for this type of story orchestration. The main lessons for effective data visualization are be smart about the color impact of bars in charts, choose the data you are presenting  based on the end goal of the visualization, and keep the graphic message simple.

Simplicity Versus Complexity

While many marketers have attempted to simplify against the proliferation of media across digital, several speakers suggested harnessing strategies to create more complex stories and individualized approaches to targeting.

  • In data: After collecting data on how men and women used a dating site to elevate their profiles’ popularity, Amy Webb, CEO of Webbmedia Group, applied her own algorithm in order to find the man she who would later become her husband. Developing data points and constructing an analytical framework to get what is needed, she argues, is the only way companies can filter through the noise and precisely target and cultivate customer relationships. “Quantitative analysis is heavy legwork, but you should be doing it.” Specificity, Amy concluded, is more of what companies need. “Be honest about what matters,” and then go after it. Casting too broad a net does not guarantee interest in a product or brand, but pairing preferences to a tee secures individualized matches and relevance.
  • In media optimization: Jeremy Sanchez, CEO of Global Strategies and Robert John Davis, Executive Director at Ogilvy participated in a dual speaker session that explored the myth of the “viral” video and resurfaced the lesson of the long tail. Among various practical video optimization tactics, the speakers reminded the audience that successful viewership depends on the strategy behind it. Ultimately, success as defined by a client’s KPIs, as well as distribution plans, impact the production and creative direction of a branded marketing video. Opportunities to engage audiences around video should be extracted from the long tail, said the speakers. “You can’t be everything to everybody.” Specificity matters, and specificity is also where brands can find momentum in a less competitive arena.
  • In storytelling: David Womack, Creative Director at Interaction Design, described how added depth and emotional complexity in a product’s story can have an impact on the customer experience. By making products and their stories more complicated, brands can add life by making products more interesting. Successful brands know that this is what keeps people coming back; the puppet master adds a unique take to the story each time its, carefully adding more complexity and color. As an example, David posed foursquare. The company started out with a simple technology that later layered complexity, shifting it’s dialogue with the audience from “Where are you?” to “How do you feel about this place?” and “Do you like this place more than others like this place?”

Hit me on my Twitter

  • It’s notoriously difficult to break through the noise at SXSW—and giving away swag isn’t always enough with hundreds of companies vying for attendees’ attention. To get around this, hordes of marketers granted access to parties and other freebies in exchange for social amplification.  Eyewear company Warby Parker entered conference-goers into a contest to win a free pair of glasses and a Republic Bike for tweeting photos at them. Local design group Bohemian Innovation biked around with a vending machine on a trailer, giving away its “Bohemian Almanacs” in exchange for a follow on Twitter. And in an interesting tactic, some companies simply hired representatives in branded t-shirts to make the rounds shouting …their hashtag.


Boyd Neil, Rick Foote, Laura Pelech and Rachel de Jong contributed to this article.