SXSW festival reaffirms new media influence

While the concept of disintermediation is not novel, rarely does it play out as overtly as it did at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival.

While the concept of disintermediation is not novel, rarely does it play out as overtly as it did at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival.

Consisting of three separate components – film, interactive, and media – attendees interacted as the attendant individuals, corporations, and media outlets put heads together to try to figure out where the space is going. It neither had the bunker mentality of conferences where citizen journalism and professional journalism advocates meet, nor the super techie feel of web design and application conferences. It was simply about how to better communicate, listen, and interact in a world that becomes more interconnected daily.

There were few revelations at panels and only one glaring product launch: Spout.com, a social network and e-commerce site for movie enthusiasts. But the diversity of attendees who all, some way or another, had an investment in new media, served as a revelation of sorts in terms of how far new media has come from a discussion tool of the tech-obsessed set. Any notions of blogging and new-media geekiness being limited to young males were obliterated by the sheer number of middle-aged women who provided a sizable component to each panel. There was no particular demographic that populated the interactive festival, which perhaps is a testament to the pervasiveness of the web 2.0 on American culture.

While a large part of the SXSW film festival, like any other festival, was to shepherd the debuting movies into the public conscience, the panel content mirrored that of the interactive festival. An especially interactive panel focused on how the Motion Picture Association of America and file-sharing enthusiasts could transcend their historic differences and work together in a symbiotic relationship.

The press room, which included professional blogs, never seemed packed, but it was impossible to turn a corner in the Austin Convention Center without running into a member of the extended media (ie, the more amateur bloggers), hunched over their laptops, furiously posting away.

Amy Kugali, SXSW PR director, says that while the internal PR department and SXSW interactive AOR Porter Novelli were setting up interviews between speakers and the media, in some instances, the media were speakers and vice versa. And, Kugali adds, audience members were comfortable approaching speakers afterwards to interview for their blogs.

In fact, Kugali says that the various permutations of Technorati tags for the festival (SXSW, SXSW2006, SXSWi) have served as the most populated media outlet for the festival.

There's no telling how this nebulous communications environment will settle, but, if SXSW is any indication, we're past the discussion phase. The tenor and subject matter of the event veered beyond the tired debate of what delineates media from consumers. The assumption was that everything was media, and the dialogue instead focused on how individuals could continue to wield that media power.

"Word of mouth is far more influential than any other information source," Max Kalehoff, VP of marketing at BuzzMetrics, said at a Monday night panel.

And, SXSW is, in effect, its own word-of-mouth campaign. Previous attendees were used in the marketing brochures. And one could argue that the summation of movie reviews passed from attendees could threaten the impact of a favorable review in a distinguished traditional outlet. While press badges determined those who could use the press room, it did not determine who was posting photos, text, and mp3s.

Filmmakers and their promotional teams realized this influence, while still acknowledging the importance of traditional media.

David Magdael, of David Magdael & Associates, which represented documentaries Jam and Air Guitar Nation, says he was getting people in the theater by any means necessary. But he beamed about getting a favorable placement in an Austin Chronicle preview piece.

Another publicist for a film, who wished not to be named, fretted over getting an Austin Chronicle writer showing up to the screening.

But while the "actual media" were given access to the filmmakers of OilCrash in the press room, few showed up.

PR was very much alive at the festival, if only shifting its focus. One PR professional admitted looking for talent. Giovanni Rodriguez, partner at Eastwick Communications; and Michael Krempasky, Edelman VP; were panelists. And not one of those panels focused on pitching bloggers.

The interactive festival wraps up today, as its attendees swap places with music enthusiasts. However, an initial glance at those queuing up for music badges shows very little difference in appearance, save for different slogans on t-shirts and a slightly younger demographic. But with music blogs sponsoring music showcases, the music organizers making one mp3 from every participating band available, and press consisting of anyone with a computer, the festival will remain very much interactive.

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