Amongst SXSW 2018’s parties, there’s serious work to be done

By Adam Tinworth

Today, one of the world's longest-running festivals of technology and digital culture kicks off - SXSW Interactive 2018.

SXSW has some similarities with NEXT - it's a digital festival tucked into the heart of a music and cultural festival. That said, its scale is larger, and its history longer. And, a while back now, it was perceived as being one of the central events in Silicon Valley's calendar. A little over a decade ago Twitter — not ever a year old then — was the talk of SXSW.

As Gawker reported back in 2007:

Twitter staffers Jack and Alex tell me that the site, which normally carries around 20 thousand messages a day, broke 60 thousand a day this weekend. This traffic boost should add a strong layer of new permanent users. In the next year, Twitter could make a Facebook-sized blowup among the general public.

20,000 messages a day seems laughably trivial by today's standards, but that was the big hit level then. For the next few years "what will be the breakout startup of SXSW" became the big question.

The digital hits of SXSW

SXSW had the reputation of being the place where apps got big. But maintaining the momentum has been hard for those hits. If you look at this list published by Mashable of the apps that had a SXSW moment, you'll certainly recognise Twitter, and you might remember Foursquare (and yes, it is still around) but the rest? Digital fame can be fleeting…

At the same time, the scale and prominence of SXSW has grown. Here's a taste of the speakers from this year, via Mashable again:

This year's keynote speakers touch on that breadth of technology's influence. Speakers include director Darren Aronofsky, philanthropist Melinda Gates, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who has been vocal about tech companies' responsibilities, will be appearing at two events. Separately, Sen. Bernie Sanders will be interviewed by CNN's Jake Tapper.

There's one inevitable conclusion: SXSW has got bigger - in the sense that players on the world stage of politics and art on participating on it now. That's exactly how it should be, because technology itself has got bigger. In 2007 Twitter was a fun way to find out which parties your friends were at. Within a few years it was a critical part of the Arab Spring, and now the role social networks play in distorting politics worldwide is a major point of discussion at the highest levels of politics.

In that context, the launch of an app is hardly likely to make the same kind of splash it did in the late 2000s.

Austin Skyline - 2017 SXSW Conference & Festivals | Photo By Cris DeWitt Austin Skyline | Photo By Cris DeWitt

A time for digital fixing, not digital launching

So, perhaps what we really need events like SXSW — and yes, like NEXT, too —  is to stop celebrating the new and disruptive for a little while, while we build a securer base for society, with the new tech that already exists integrated in more meaningful and sustainable ways. If we can fix the problems caused by the last wave of apps and service, we open the way for a new wave, which have learnt from the mistakes of the past.

So, I'm in no doubt that there's a hell of a lot of fun to be had at SXSW this year, as in every year. But there's also some hard work to do - the on-going, serious hard work of stabilizing  and consolidating everything we've done already. Yes, that's less sexy than the exciting new launch. But it needs to be done - and we'll all benefit.

Martin and Ina are in Austin, and will be bringing back their thoughts. I'll be monitoring what happens - and what's said — from this side of the Atlantic, and posting updates over the next week. 

Ryan Loughlin