Why Curtis Hougland Sees a Bit of Himself in the SXSW of Today
I spoke at SXSW this week. On stage I wore a grey t-shirt adorned with the now-iconic blue Twitter bird. I poached the shirt from a guerilla marketing team on the Dirty Sixth near The Jackalope in 2006. No one offered me a Meerkat Beefy-T this week. Typical.
Perhaps, it has never made sense to host an Interactive Festival at SXSW. Music is a vertical industry. Film is a vertical industry. Interactive is a horizontal behavior. Interactivity permeates everything, especially film and music. This seepage is evident in the growing number of films and bands dominating the Interactive Festival each year. As a result, SXSW Interactive craves purpose or rather lacks soul, especially at a time when genuine invention floats less palpably in the Austin air.
Today’s SXSW merits only first-cousin status in relation to the festival at which Twitter launched in ’06. SXSW is mature; the most hotly debated technologies across SXSW panels were birthed in the hair-band era of the 1980’s: Virtual Reality, 3-D Printing and Artificial Intelligence.
SXSW is global; I couldn’t watch my beloved Chelsea FC play Southampton at B.D. Riley’s at 8:30 am in the morning, because the bloody Irish PM was speaking at the bar.
SXSW is branded; on the first day of the festival, I grabbed free coffee at the super-cool Samsung Studio, scarfed some tasty chicken verde tacos courtesy of the Fast Company Grill and dined gratis at the Spredfast Social Suite. 512 IPAs and Shiner Bocks flowed plentifully everywhere courtesy of your friendly neighborhood multi-national corporation. SXSW is Spring Break for geeks like me.
In many ways SXSW is emblematic of the entire techno-cultural landscape. In 1996 social media smelled like a new car. Bloggers studied changes to Wordpress and Typepad like Kabbalists. Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace uproariously burst at the seams. Google’s upgraded algorithm elevated the value of and helped create the demand for social media. Twitter arrived on the heels of the iPhone, which ushered in the market for applications. Geek-tech culture reached its apogee.
In 2015 SXSW resembles, well, me. We have been around. Been in better shape. But still look alright under the right lightning. We are both looking a bit too hard for what’s next. The issue is not really SXSW (or me), though. The pace of invention has slackened.
Technology entered a period of relative stagnation compared to the emergence of personal computers in the early 80s; the web in the early 90s and social media in the early 00s. As a society, we have eaten all the low hanging fruit from energy to medicine to technology. Technology over the recent thirty years actually worked. It unlocked the efficient transfer of knowledge. It created efficiencies in productivity that depressed wages. SXSW deserves its share of credit.
As a result, every market quickly becomes a mature market amid ever-accelerating competition. Speakers at SXSW today are innovators; people putting existing processes together in interesting ways. Speaking with Malcolm Gladwell during a keynote, Bill Gurley is innovation’s patron saint in his adaptation of existing business models in funding Snapchat, Uber and Open Table. SXSW comprises not inventors (people creating new processes today); but innovators who make smart businesses that make real money. Meerkat already boasts a half-dozen competitors, and most people only heard about it this month.
SXSW strikes the pose of a mainstream event now – albeit more WWE than UFC. Like Austin, SXSW is fighting to stay weird. This point of view is not nostalgiac, nor is it altogether bad. Money abounds. Twitter’s decision to meet with executives at SXSW reflects the type of executives who attend SXSW now. The business of SXSW is not in the trade of knowledge. It is in the exchange of deal points written on napkins in bars and lounges at the Four Seasons and W. Attendees now include the establishment of media buyers, venture capitalists, brand marketers and publishers. Of course, most attendees are drunk, which represents the old way of doing business, along with golf, of getting deals done.
Will I return next year?
Will I wear my Twitter tee again?
The times are changing.
Curtis Hougland is CEO/Founder at Attention Global