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The SXSW Experience: Interactive, Day 1

M. Luke McDonell is a writer, artist, and photographer living in San Francisco. A veteran of South by Southwest, she is contributing daily bulletins from the 2014 show. The following report emanates from Day 1 of SXSW Interactive.


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6th Street in Austin, TX, home of South by Southwest

You don’t so much attend South by Southwest as get sucked into the current. I spend the weeks meticulously planning my schedule and almost immediately discard it. It’s physically impossible to do everything I want to do–the venues the panels are held in are literally miles apart, sessions reach capacity, or a bright, shiny object catches my eye and I run to it.

When I arrived Thursday night the town was already buzzing — literally buzzing with skill saws as contractors hurried to transform restaurants/businesses/empty storefronts into “blogger lounges” or temporary music venues or showcases for some new product.

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On Thursday night, the town was (literally) buzzing … with SXSW construction

Cherry pickers replaced signs on restaurants, tents spouted like spring flowers on empty lots, and security guards watched over the schwag that I’ll be offered if I agree to download the app, tweet a certain hashtag, or like the company on Facebook.

I’m amazed at the great lengths companies go to to have a physical presence here at South By, transforming derelict buildings into swanky lounges for a week or two then hauling everything away. Everything everywhere is branded, and smaller companies roam the streets in funny costumes, handing out flyers.

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Companies go to great lengths to have a physical presence

First stop for me on Friday was the Fast Company Grill. They set up a sit down restaurant, with a menu, and everything on it was free. I’m not a broke college student anymore but part of me still jumps up and down with glee when I stumble onto something like this. Free? All of it? Yes thank you! No cocktail though, it’s only 11:30am.

Then, a rush to get to the first panel which was a mile away. The shuttle buses this year a huge–

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The shuttle buses are huge, for a huge conference

–but the traffic also seems to have doubled.

A few SXSW Interactive panels

The panel, Big Data Inverted: The Best Candy from Strangers? with panelists Chris Colborn, Dinkar Jain, Maria Bezaitis, Oren Michels, wasn’t so much critical about big data, as I’d expected, but was more an overview of the state of the discipline, if you can call it that.

Some key points: Big Data has been around for 30 years; schools are creating Big Data programs; people will be more comfortable sharing information if they understand what it will be used for.

My takeaway? I worry that big companies will collect data and share — with each other — leaving small companies and startups at a real disadvantage, especially since there is a shortage of people who know how to analyze and visualize this data.

Next, Taking the Collaborative Economy to Space, with panelists Andrew Barton, Anousheh Ansari, Bob Richards, and Ruben Nunez.

The talk should have been called, An Overview of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, (in which 18 teams compete to safely land of a private craft on the surface of the Moon). Small teams can now do what superpowers did before, and most teams spend more than the prize money they’re trying to win.

Finally, The Future of Making, with Joi Ito and Tim Brown, a fascinating, all-over-the-place panel that touched on 3D printers and the importance of learning by making, not thinking.

Time to play

Work done, time to play. Waiting in line for parties usually turns out to be a lot of fun. The networking that can’t possibly happen inside happens naturally when you are stuck with the same people for half an hour.

The Umbel + VOX Media party at Austin City Limits was huge and slightly confusing. As usual, the sponsoring company names were everywhere but accompanied by zero information about what they actually do. A vague tagline, photo of a person in a pool, a dude running around dressed like a Mexican wrestler. That’s great, and thanks for the drinks, but give me your elevator pitch. I can take it. I’m not that drunk yet.

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The Umbel – Vox Media part at Austin City Limits: huge and confusing

We emerged from there to find the RVIP RV parked right out front, so of course we jumped on. The RVIP is a mobile karaoke van/bar that drives around Austin, picking up people.

Next stop, the Interactive After Party hosted by mobi. This was held in their actual offices and I felt guilty about how we were all trashing the place. Thirty of my friends can ruin my house; these people invited hundreds of strangers. I raise my glass to you mobi!

Finally, a chili cheese dog at Franks at midnight, then bed! I can’t believe I’m going to do this all again tomorrow.

M. Luke McDonell

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