This year, SXSW trades social media hype for actually cool shit

By Erin Griffith , written on March 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Amid mounting cries that SXSW sucks, this might actually be the year the festival turns that around. It can do that by eschewing the social media roots that got it here in favor of actual, real, hard technology. This year's void in overhyped social media apps means there is room for something totally different -- like 3D Printing, space exploration, or ride sharing -- to emerge as the "winner" of SXSW. And that's the best possible scenario for the festival.

Surely you've heard it 1,000 times by now. SXSW is so over.

It's hard to argue otherwise. The small music festival, started in 1987, has blossomed into an overwhelming, overhyped, multi-headed, 28,000-person beast that sounds like a nightmare to any normal person over the age of 23.


It is not all bad, either. I know, I know. Beyond echoing director Hugh Forrest's statement that "it is what you make of it," I don't care to play the role of SXSW Apologist. I will only argue that, this year, the interactive part of the festival has a chance to redeem itself. It can do that by moving away from the social media crap that got it here and focusing on stuff that is actually really freaking cool.

Thankfully, post-Facebook's IPO, the entire tech ecosystem is jaded by social media overload. That's why everyone you know is calling their product an enterprise app and why VCs are turning down consumer deals because they're scared of looking stupid if they invest.

The fatigue was apparent already at last year's SXSW, two months before Facebook's IPO, when the Hyped Ones wound up disappointing us. Despite months of predictions that Highlight would be the next Twitter, Foursquare, or Groupme, the app turned into a punchline after we realized we didn't like its function very much, and it drained our phone batteries. (Highlight is valiantly attempting to win us back this year, for what it's worth.)

So when I see stories pointing out that no category or app has created meaningful pre-SXSW hype, I'm not surprised. Nor do I disagree with that point, nor am I disappointed in that reality.

The reasons past social media winners (Twitter, Foursquare, Groupme) thrived at SXSW is because they were well-suited to the very unique situation -- crowded, chaotic party hopping, and networking among thousands of tech-savvy professionals. Fortunately for those past winners, their apps had utility and relevance after a one-time event. We continued using Twitter and Foursquare in our daily lives. They just stuck. We saw it slip a little bit two years ago, with Groupme, the big winner, where usage is still (for most people) mostly limited to special occasions. With Highlight, we barely even got through the special occasion.

The lack of a hot new app leaves space for actual hardcore technology and the people making it. I'm talking about 3D printing, space, and ride sharing. Even the snobbiest of tech snobs would be hard-pressed to argue that those three categories are so over.

I counted around 20 different panels and even more workshops on 3D printing. Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis will kick off the event with a keynote speech. One of the more over-the-top invites I got this year promised that something called a GE Barista-Bot would print an image of my face into the foam of a latte. Selfies + latte foam? I think Instagram just exploded.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk's keynote is likely to be the weekend's highest-profile event. Certainly much of it will focus on his other company, Tesla, but the space theme is prevalent beyond that. Around 10 other space-related events promise to explore topics from the Curiosity Rover, NASA's next great telescope, the Hacker's Guide to the Galaxy, the future of space tech after NASA, and interstellar travel. Sorry, haters – all of those sound incredibly cool.

The question is whether the crowd that attends SXSW cares about space and 3D Printing. One of the biggest criticisms leveled at the festival that it is now more marketers, PR people, and advertisers than technologists.

For them, there is another potential winner that isn't as hardcore as NASA, but is at least more functional than yet another photosharing app. I am placing my bet now: ride sharing apps will win the nightlife. That is, if they can get away with it. The Austin taxi situation is dismal during such a crowded event, and revelers staying at far-flung hotels often find themselves stuck at the end of the night. The festival is ripe for a sharing economy-style supplement.

That's why Uber is making UberX, its peer-to-peer ride service, available for free. (Increasing the Elon Musk-ification of SXSW, some UberX drivers will be driving the Musk-backed electric car, Tesla Model S.) The company is also offering pedicab rides sponsored by Samsung, and "UberLux," which offers insanely expensive rides in over-the-top luxury cars.

Sidecar, which acquired Austin-based HeyRide in February as a way to enter the Austin market, will offer free ride sharing to and from most of the big parties thrown by startups. The company has already received a cease-and-desist order from the city of Austin, but it plans to get around regulations for the festival by paying its drivers flat fees to act as "brand ambassadors" for the night rather than per-ride fees. The company is apparently determined to win SXSW at any cost, even briefing its drivers on how to handle police encounters. This could get interesting.

Lyft has bowed out. The ride sharing service will be there offering piggyback rides -- no really, a ride on another person's back -- as a ridiculous, albeit totally unhelpful, marketing ploy.

If, after five days of BBQ, beer, and loud music, we all retreat from Austin with no hot break-out social media app to speak of, that's probably fine. Better the event be remembered for hyping up 3D printing or space exploration. Founders Fund, famous for its slogan, "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters," would probably even approve.