Held between 11-15 March, SXSW Interactive features five days of presentations on emerging technologies, new digital works, video games and innovative ideas, and has made Austin, Texas, something of a destination for the UK’s media and creative industries.
"The only things that matter are social networks, games and phones," announced Dogbert, Dilbert’s megalomaniacal anthropomorphic dog in the seminal, eponymous comic strip.
Dogbert appears to have exerted considerable influence over the line-up at SXSW Interactive.
Yes, you can seek out talks on government data visualisation, open source architecture and the politics behind HTML5.
But give in to the flow of ‘South By’ and the Holy Trinity will embrace you as quickly as the young hippy in the convention centre offering ‘free hugs’ on a hand drawn cardboard sign.
Hugs are "awesome", by the way. A lot of things here are deemed "awesome". So many, in fact, that I might find it irresistibly awesome to chin the next person who says "awesome".
Fortunately Marissa Mayer, vice president of consumer products at Google, presented on the first day before my awesomophobia really kicked in.
She gave an awesome presentation on a location-based fast, fun future (see ‘#phones’ with a twist of ‘#social’ and ‘#games’ above).
You can read a concise account of the talk here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/pda/2011/mar/12/google-maps-marisa-mayer
For me, the most fascinating, and yet disturbing part of the talk, was the Q&A that followed it.
A procession of simpering young Google fanboys practically threw their pants at her in some bizarre Tom Jones-inspired sexual role reversal... "I’m you’re biggest fan", "All I want to ask is, are you hiring?"
Equal rights all the way, but have some goddamn self-respect lads.
Prior to this, Tim O’Reilly, founder and chief executive of O'Reilly Media - believed by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world - made the case for government being run as a platform, rather than as a vending machine where you put cash in and get services out.
The idea is that government should build the essential but costly infrastructure and then let smart people invent clever solutions for society’s needs.
He went on to give the quote of the festival, naming Ronald Reagan as the father of Foursquare [#social, #mobile and #games – boom!].
Reagan, having handled a Cold War crisis when a Korean Airliner was shot down for straying into Soviet airspace, ensured the military GPS system under development at the time - and on which Foursquare now depends - was made open for civilian use.
O’Reilly is pretty old, a rarity on stage at SXSW, although the line-up did feature another wise old goat, and a much funnier one to boot: Bob Garfield of Ad Age.
He presided over a panel debate on Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising.
The guy is a silver-bearded hero, but even he couldn’t pull together a coherent discussion on the subject.
The gist was to imagine a world in which brands tell the truth, advertisers act like publishers and all communication is in real time - brought to you by JWT.
The room was packed, as most ad-related sessions have been.
The panellists, presented by Bob Garfield and Brian Clark Partner, were high-fliers, and included David Eastman, chief executive of JWT, and Shiv Singh, the former Avenue A/Razorfish social media lead and now head of digital for PepsiCo in North America. He is also the author of ‘Social Media Marketing for Dummies’. And yet...
I doubt anyone left feeling convinced. After the Reagan reference, I couldn’t help thinking about the Soviet brand and its journalists writing for Pravda. We’ve got a long way to go before The Cluetrain Manifesto truly arrives.
Eastman did offer up a wonderful slice of commercial zen: "All media becomes digital, all digital become media, and all media is marketed."
Other than that, the best bit of the session was the story about a hired gun from a social media firm tweeting the following via a Chrysler (HQ Detroit) corporate account: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive."
Barely old enough to drive is an apt description of the first day’s keynote speaker, 22-year-old Seth Priebatch.
Seth is the self-styled ‘chief Ninja’ of SCVNGR. His vision is that if the past 10 years of the web were all about the social layer (the framework for which is Facebook), the next 10 will be about the game layer.
The principle is that game dynamics can solve all the world’s problems, from customer loyalty to global warming, by influencing behaviour.
Happy hour is an appointment game dynamic, gold and platinum credit cards are a status game dynamic, etc.
There are parallels with behavioural economics - and like behavioural economics, to me the crucial question is one of ethics, are you influencing behaviour or manipulating it?
I haven’t got time to tell you about the Social TV panel session I couldn’t get into, or the one I could. Needless to say, if anyone asks just tell them "it’s all about the second screen". No one really has much of a clue beyond that...
Nigel Gwilliam, digital consultant at the IPA and founder of Wingman Consulting
This article was first published on brandrepublic.com