SXSW 2012 Review

For the second year in a row, I was lucky enough to attend South by Southwest in Austin Texas.  Just like last year, I wanted to review my adventures there and take notes on some of the coolest things I heard while I was there.  Below are some of my summaries and notes of the conference this year, followed by some general details and observations from my time in Austin this year.

Panels

Learn to Code and Make the Software You Want

I knew ahead of time that this was the panel that I stood to learn the most from.  The speakers at this session were formerly the “idea guys” behind their respective start ups.  They spoke about how they found out early on that they’d need to learn to code in order to make their ideas for products a reality.  They had great suggestions for a crash course on learning coding, including a weeklong cram session.  They said that the first few days, you would still have no idea what you’re doing, but by the end of the last day you would have a grasp enough to be confident in your work.

They also had great suggestions for learning platforms, including sites like railstutorial.com and railscasts.com.

Google: Why Didn’t I Think of That

This was actually an unofficial panel held off campus at one of the houses that Google had rented out for the week.  In addition to the best breakfast I’ve had in a long time, they also put together a fantastic panel where investors and developers talked about the best products they had seen launch at SXSW.  The consensus was definately that Highlight was the winner of the conference, but they also brought into question why that was.  If it weren’t for the high usage rate that Highlight found at SXSW, it was entirely possible that it was only talked about so much because sites like Mashable and TechCrunch said so.

I was also very impressed with how Google used the Hangout feature of Google+ to facilitate this panel.  They had four panelists live on the patio it was held, but also brought in four others via their Hangout software.  Hangout still looks like a beta product, but this was the best use case I’ve seen of it so far.  I think there’s a ton of potential in putting it into more use in the classroom and in other settings at UAHuntsville where I work.

Design, Build, Transform

This was probably the most inspirational session that I sat in on.  The speaker at this session had designed a mobile classroom initiative called “Project H.”  This one really hit home with me because the rural southern town that she brought it to reminded me so much of my hometown in Franklin County, Alabama.  She uses the web as an inspirational tool to have low income and underprivileged middle school kids come up with their own designs for chicken coops.

They were able to spark their own creativity, but it was also the best use case for why it’s imperative for rural areas like this to have equal and fair broadband web access.  Her solution was to bring about the results so that lawmakers could see the benefits of that web access before they spent the first dime on it.

Social Media for Nonprofits

This was probably the most applicable panel that I went to over the whole conference.  The speakers of this session had recently written a book detailing some of the best methods for encouraging community engagement for non-profits through social media, and they had an excellent summary of some of the best ideas in this session.

One of the best ideas they mentioned was that of holding more meet ups with the people you’ve already engaged online.  Online interaction is great, but can quickly fade and become lost in the crowd unless you’re able to meet people and put faces and voices with names.  Other ideas included creating what they called a “listening board.”  The way they showed how to do this was by creating an iGoogle page that included applets and RSS feeds from all of the social networks that focused on mentions and things like Google Alerts.  In this way, it’s easy to become very time efficient and effective in keeping on top of the conversation surrounding your organisation.  Another tip I wouldn’t have thought of was using Pinterest as an interest board.  Using it to showcase items you would like to add to a public collection can be a great way to solicit donations for a non-profit.

Evolution of the New York Times

This panel hit on some of my personal interests, but I was also interested in hearing it in the context of how I post university news stories online.  The editor of the Times talked about how social really is the new newspaper of the web, to the extent that the New York Times has a policy to break news on Twitter fist.  They’re still formulating that, as they don’t have a policy on whether or not a tweet breaking news should have a link to the full story or not.  There was a lot to get out of this panel, but it made me recognize more and more that users and the public that we connect with will look to social outlets first before looking to more traditional news sources when something breaks.

Other Fun and the Trade Show

I also hit up a few panels for fun, the most noteworthy of which was one of Kevin Smith’s Q&A’s.  Say what you want about him and his movies, but he’s a master storyteller and can captivate audiences with tales of even the most mundane details of his life.

On Sunday afternoon, I also attended the SXSW Screenburn show.  This was unlike anything else at the conference.  It’s a video game showcase that I attended in hopes of making a lot of new connections for the UAH LAN Party that we hold twice a year.  I’m glad to report that I hit a grand slam in this area, making awesome connections with companies like Intel and Alienware.  Our gaming community has grown tremendously in the past year, it was extremely gratifying to hear some of the top companies in this industry get excited about what we’re doing.

Also while I was at SXSW, I got to see the trade show.  I didn’t get to do this last year, and I really felt like I missed out.  It turns out, I did.  The trade show was immensely vast, with tons of different companies and organisations showcasing.  I was able to meet people from a film co-operative in Oklahoma, to music promoters in Memphis, the creators of WordPress, the editor of Make Magazine, and a few other universities.  I still have a pile of business cards I’m working on replying to.

The Hot App of SXSW 2012

Clearly, the winner this year is Highlight.  Last year, group messaging seemed to be all the rage, but I could never quite understand the hype.  This time around, Highlight was a uniquely wonderful discovery.  I was able to make a ton of connections just by nature of being physically close to someone.

Proximity based apps like this are exciting because you’re able to actually make a real life connection with someone by letting the software do the work of matching you with someone that you share interests with.  I was able to meet people at other universities and people working in video games just because we were all using Highlight.  Since I’ve returned home, I’ve only been able to match up with one person in Alabama, but I’m really excited to see this app catch on and gain traction.

I was also really impressed with a web app that Google was showcasing called Schemer.  This is a great way to make plans with your peers, and I think that it could be really useful on college campuses as sort of an “inverse Foursquare” if that makes any sense.

The rain tried to really put a damper on things in the first few days of SXSW this year, but things really kicked into gear late Saturday.  By that time, everyone was back out on the closed streets and the air in Austin started to smell of BBQ again.  In the same way that the weather improved, the quality of the panels got significantly better this year.  Not only that, but the trade show and an insanely great killer app made this an even better SXSW for me than last year.  These things are always a big productivity boost for me, as I’m so pumped to help people connect and build better things when I get home.

Here’s looking forward to SXSW 2013!

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