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South by Southwest: Suspended Reality

| March 17, 2011
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KQED News Interactive Producer Amanda Stupi spent much of the last week in Austin, Texas at the South by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSWi). Though she was primarily there as a participant, she sent along this dispatch:

SXSWi: A Professional Playland for Adults

A bouncer for a wordpress party at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

A bouncer for the WordPress party at SXSW. Photo: Amanda Stupi/KQED

The South by Southwest Interactive conference is a bit like Las Vegas — a playland for adults, with lots of toys, free drinks and an altered reality that even a major disaster can barely penetrate.

But unlike Las Vegas, what happens at SXSW is definitely not supposed to stay at SXSW. From what I can tell, most people at the interactive portion are there to make professional connections, build buzz for their brand, and learn some new tricks for staying relevant in the ever-changing and ever-growing media landscape.

As soon as you arrive at SXSWi, it becomes obvious there’s a good chance whatever you do or say will be tweeted, hashtagged, livestreamed and Facebooked. Unnerving as that can be, the constant archiving comes in handy while you try to be in three places at once. Indeed, how else are you supposed to learn, simultaneously, about location-based game design, the latest from public media and design improvement for tablets?

Over my four days at SXSWi I met and caught up with lots of  journalism colleagues, listened to sessions on everything from APIs to infotainment, attended more industry events than this homebody is used to, and even test drove a Chevy Volt.

Highlights… and Not-So Highlights

A few award categories:

Most unexpected marketing campaign: This one goes to the llamas.

Two llamas under a tent at SXSW Interactive.

Companies get very creative with their marketing at SXSW. Photo: Amanda Stupi/KQED

As folks walked down the street they were encouraged to stop and “pet a llama.” (Not to be confused with Petaluma.) While folks petted, representatives from deviantART explained the company’s services.

Lest you think this was a slam dunk, the llamas had competition from roller-derby girls, xtranorml characters, a Tron-themed lounge, a solar-powered carousel and every type of schwag you can think of.

Since we’re on the topic of schwag — best t-shirt goes to San Francisco-based Plancast, whose t-shirt features a penquin stating he has big plans. Very cute.

The award for worst marketing or rather worst marketer goes to my in-car host during my Volt test drive. Telling me that a sunroof is not an option because it uses too much energy does not instill a lot of confidence.  Though it was a smooth ride. Who knows — if the tax-subsidy is right, I just might be in.

Most inspirational presentation goes to Larry Smith, editor of SMITH Magazine of six-word-memoir fame.  His “How to Create an Internet Phenomenon for Peanuts” didn’t necessarily offer groundbreaking ideas but it was humorous, on-point, and empowering. I think many of us left that room with renewed commitment to our ideas.

In the “that’s just creepy” category, the fans walking around with imitation Mike Tyson tattoos painted on their faces win by a landslide.

In the “creepy but funny” category: A fan addressing keynote speaker Felicia Day with a “Hellloow Felicia” that went on a tad too long in a voice that was a bit too low. It was SXSWi’s “That’s just gross”  Cate Blanchett moment.

It’s impossible to hit all of the parties, meet ups and lounges at SXSWi but of the ones I attended, I thought the best party was the Google sponsored “League of Extraordinary Hackers” where teams built remote controlled robots with Legos and then battled one another. My other favorite was the Mashable SXSWi House party, which went old-school with free play on arcade games like shuffle board, air hockey and foosball. Like 2001 all over again.

Most prepared start-up pitch goes to the Junto Box Films. Many of the start-ups I talked too at SXSWi seem to be marketing an improvement on an existing technology or service. When pressed to explain how their version is better than what’s on the market, frankly, a lot of the reps fell short. But the guys at Junto Box Films were totally prepared. I challenged them on how their service differs from Kickstart. Junto Box’s answer was well thought out and well delivered. In case you’re wondering what the difference is, Kickstart basically crowdsources the funding of projects where as Junto Box crowdsources the slush pile.

The Tim Gunn award (told you I made these up on the plane) goes to Six Items or Less. Six Items founder Heidi Hackemer spoke on a panel about better crowdsourcing, which is where I learned about the project that challenges participants to wear the same six articles of clothing for 30 days (underwear doesn’t count). That comes down to two outfits composed of  a pair of pants, a shirt and a sweater or jacket. Makes you want to try, doesn’t it?

The Tradeshow

The tradeshow featured an impressive (if not puzzling) assortment of organizations ranging from the Fulbright Program to MapQuest to Google. Space Camp even had a booth there. And self-proclaimed geek-humor was on full display. Banners exclaimed everything from “Back that NAS Up” to “Web Designers are Sexy.”

Here was a demonstration that caught my eye:

Back home now — where reality is no longer suspended.

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Category: Arts and Culture, Economy, Technology

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About the Author ()

Amanda Stupi is the Engagement Producer for KQED’s daily public affairs program Forum. In that role she turns the information shared during the hour-long call-in show into web-friendly content. Her writing has been featured throughout KQED.org, including on KQED Arts and News Fix as well as on MLB.com, Hyphen Magazine and the San Francisco Examiner. Her radio work has aired on The California Report and Talk of the Nation. Stupi runs the @KQEDForum Twitter account and Forum Facebook account. Her personal Twitter account is @FiftyCentHotdog. She believes that Hostess products get a bad rap and that cereal can save the world. Reach Amanda Stupi at astupi@kqed.org.

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