SXSW Reflections Part 1 – Andrew Glenn, GC CTO19 Mar. 2012
TL;DR : SXSW Interactive was informative and inspiring. #like.
The list of talks for SXSW was so long that I spent the first session hunched over the SXSW guide book, trying to plot out a strategy. I ended up seeing some absolutely incredible talks, which will make up the majority of this post.
To begin though, lots of SXSW happens outside of the official talks. Exhibition booths, hallway networking, and parties hosted by startups present plenty of opportunities to learn about new startups and mutually pitch your companies to each other. Retailmenot tested out using card-linked offers to put offers directly onto credit cards. Highlight (and its competitors) showed off their “social discovery” apps. GroupMe showed off their grilled cheese skills (and they were formidable!). Even outside of the conference itself, getting to spend some time in downtown Austin was a pleasure. And I suppose getting to see Jay-z perform live in concert was not too bad either.
But on to the talks! I tried to select a healthy mix of Group Commerce-specific talks and others that were of personal interest to me. Here is the full list of talks I attended at SXSW 2012: A mobile payments panel discussion, a keynote speech by Baratunde Thurston of The Onion, Dennis Crowley discussing Foursquare, Rainn Wilson discussing SoulPancake, Nick Denton on Gawker, Stephen Wolfram on Computation and Its Impact on the Future, a panel discussion on Single Sign-on and “why it sucks” with engineers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter, Al Gore and Sean Parker on #Occupying Democracy, and Social Shopping with Caroline Waxler of Lucky Magazine.
Best talk of the Conference Award: Stephen Wolfram on Computation and Its Impact on the Future
In the meantime, I suggest you read these two blog posts by Wolfram to get a sense of his recent work. The first post is on Wolfram Alpha Pro, which has the ability to take in arbitrary data and display meaningful analysis. The second post covers how he used Wolfram Alpha Pro to analyze a ton of data he kept on the last 20 years of his life. Wolfram knows every keystroke he’s made in the last 20 years and the time of day he sent every email he’s ever written.
I knew that Stephen Wolfram invented Mathematica, a powerful symbolic mathematics language. I also knew that he runs Wolfram Alpha, a symbolic knowledge inference engine that powers Apple’s Siri. But I did not really expect just how intelligent and articulate Wolfram would be. He aims to tackle some of humanity’s most difficult problems via automatic data computation and analysis. Incredible.
For me at least, it was the most thrilling hour of the whole conference. Wolfram received a standing ovation from the audience of hundreds at the end of his talk and it was entirely well-deserved.
Runner up: Al Gore and Sean Parker on #occupy democracy
What was billed as “Al Gore interviews Sean Parker” actually turned out to be Al Gore doing most of the talking. Probably not a bad thing. (Sean Parker, it turns out, is no Justin Timberlake.) Gore spoke passionately about the ways he believes our democracy is broken and how we can change it. He and Sean both believe in the power of social media to effect change in favor of democracy.
Parker has a number of startups that are trying to help in these efforts, including causes, nationbuilder, and votizen. They cited the SOPA/PIPA defeat and the Susan G. Komen vs. Planned Parenthood controversy as ways the tech-elites have already influenced the dialogue, but Parker said that’s just the beginning.
Gore spoke passionately about climate change (naturally), about how we need to organize online for the causes in which we believe, and about how the Citizen’s United decision was an outrage and our political system should not be controlled by money and lobbyists. Gore also got a good laugh from the audience when he said of the Citizen’s United decision, “I haven’t always exactly agreed with the Supreme Court.”
Honorary Mention: Dennis Crowley on Foursquare
Moving from the inspirational to the more practical, it was great to see Dennis Crowley interviewed again at SXSW this year. We got to hear about some new things Foursquare is working on, including plans to expand their Radar and Explore features to aid in social discovery.
Crowley’s focus is impressive. He cares about creating the perfect city guide. That’s it. Nothing more. Every answer he gave came back to that central theme. His focus and passion for solving this single problem is why Foursquare beat out Facebook Places, Gowalla, Loopt and others to win the “check-in” wars.
In a segment particularly close to home for Group Commerce, Crowley talked about Foursquare’s check-in deals. Crowley said they’re working very well, but didn’t offer any specific numbers. He said that much more is planned around Foursquare deals, and it’s just a matter of prioritizing when it gets worked on (sound familiar, anyone?)
Honorary Mention: Nick Denton on Gawker and the Failure of Comments on the Internet
Nick Denton is the founder of Gawker Media, most famous for the media news and gossip site gawker.com. Denton summed up why people love Gawker like this: “Gossip is just the news that you actually want.” I agree! In addition to gawker.com, Gawker Media runs many niche sites, including Lifehacker, Deadspin, Gizmodo, and io9, among others.
The discussion of comment systems turned out to be a surprisingly meaty topic. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but content websites actually have many options here: show all comments in reverse chronological order (e.g. cnn.com), use facebook comments (techcrunch recently switched to this), add in an up/down ranking system, use trusted moderators, etc. Denton said that some systems work better for some cases, and some systems simply do not work at all. When Denton asked the audience, “who hear finds the comments on youtube useful?” the crowd actually laughed out loud at even the idea that anyone would think that.
Denton said that using Facebook comments can make sense for some websites, but the problem is that when commenters have to use their real identities, some of the more candid discussions get lost. Reddit comments work well for Reddit, but they’re probably too complicated for mass adoption. The rules for Gawker’s current moderator-based system are online here.
When asked why using an open comment board with up/down votes doesn’t always work, Denton pointed to the example of Dov Charney, the now infamous CEO of American Apparel. Denton argued that if any commenter tried to defend Charney, even if it was a reasoned and thoughtful argument, it would get immediately down-voted. In cases like this, up/down voting doesn’t foster a healthy debate, and in Denton’s words, “Who wants a discussion where everyone agrees? How boring!”
How nice would it be if sites like cnn or youtube could put the same amount of thought into their commenting systems as Gawker does?
Summary: I loved seeing all the new startups, from the 1 million mobile-payments startups to the 5 million social discovery apps, and everything in between. Within the context of SXSW, it was interesting to discuss Group Commerce’s role in the ever-evolving e-commerce and tech echosystems. It was an honor to hear passionate speakers discuss the future of computing and the opportunities that are developing for technologists everywhere to change the world.
And finally, thank you to Caroline Waxler, the director of digital content at Lucky Mag. Caroline led an informative discussion on fashion and shopping behaviors online. She also let me pretend to be her co-panelist just long enough to snap this photo.
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