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Friday, March 9, 2012

SXSW: Annual Tech Start-Up Indie Expo A Boon For Job Growth: SXSW 2012

5 things to watch for at SXSW

South by Southwest, the tech-music-movie conference getting under way here Friday, isn't typically a place for big newsy announcements.

The indie ethos of SXSW is more about discovering the hot emerging thing -- a new mobile app, a bold filmmaker, a brilliant set by an undiscovered band.

It's hard to predict what everyone here will be talking about by the time SXSW wraps on March 18. The festival is too huge and fractured for that, and tastemakers often disagree.

But based on early chatter, here are some guesses about what will make headlines at SXSW 2012:


Each year, the tech press at SXSW anoints an emerging digital-communications trend as the Next Big Thing. In 2010 it was location-based social networking, led by Foursquare and Gowalla. Last year it was group-messaging services such as GroupMe or Beluga.

This year everyone is buzzing about something called "ambient location" and "social discovery," terms for mobile, GPS-based apps that run in the background on your phone and scour Facebook or other networks to alert you when friends, or even strangers with similar interests, are nearby. Among them: Sonar, Banjo, Highlight, Gauss and Glancee.

The early favorite in this space appears to be Highlight, which will detect other Highlight users near you and show you what you have in common, such as favorite movies, TV shows, bands or mutual friends. (Hey, you like "Dexter" and Bon Iver -- me too! Let's hang out!)

Despite some obvious privacy concerns, expect to hear a lot more about these apps in the coming weeks.


At its best, SXSW Interactive (the tech part of the conference) is about lofty ideas: how the Internet has changed us; how game mechanics can make our lives better; can social networking bring meaningful social change? And so on.

The conference hosts hundreds of talks and panels on almost every conceivable digital subject. Among this year's meatier topics: the failure of news sites' commenting systems, why happiness is the new online currency and whether photo-sharing apps such as Instagram are creating magic or filter-laden mediocrity.

We'll also hear from Sohaib Athar, the Pakistani man who unwittingly live-tweeted about the raid last spring that killed Osama bin Laden, in a talk that should shed new light on the expanding role of citizen journalism.

And then there's former Vice President Al Gore interviewing former Facebook President Sean Parker on Monday. It's not clear yet what they'll be talking about, but we're not going to miss it.


Last year's SXSW saw the launch of the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller "Source Code" and Jodie Foster's drama "The Beaver," which marked Mel Gibson's uneasy return to movies.

This week's slate of premieres looks more promising. "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon is here with a new horror film, "The Cabin in the Woods," that's gotten early buzz.

Austin native Richard Linklater is back with "Bernie," a dark comedy about a small-town Texas mortician starring Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey.

And several of Bob Marley's children are in Austin to promote "Marley," a documentary by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") about their late, legendary father.


Every club, concert hall and courtyard in town will be booked wall-to-wall next week with gigs by hundreds, if not thousands, of artists in every musical genre.

Which ones will break out is anyone's guess, although pre-festival buzz is building around indie popsters Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Montreal singer-songwriter Grimes, disco-punk outfit Eyes Lips Eyes and College, the French composer behind the music in the film "Drive." Just to name a few.

Plenty of bigger names will be on hand, too: Fiona Apple, singing songs from her long-delayed album; indie darlings the Shins, whose new record hits stores this month; electro-dance artist Skrillex; Brooklyn trash-pop duo Sleigh Bells; and of course, rock grandaddy Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen will give a talk Thursday afternoon and then play a gig that night at an as-yet-undisclosed Austin club. Admission is by lottery only and may become SXSW's toughest ticket.


SXSW is getting serious about being funny. The SXSW Interactive keynote is being given by comedian Baratunde Thurston, Web editor of The Onion.

The creators of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" talk about making political jokes on the Internet, while "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane will explain his upcoming movie about a man whose teddy bear comes to life.

And "The Office's" Rainn Wilson has been given a slot on the conference schedule for an event titled "The View From Inside Rainn Wilson's Brainstem." There he will riff for an hour on, well, whatever he wants.

A first-timers' guide to South by Southwest

For first-timers, South by Southwest Interactive can be a little intimidating.
The Austin technology festival, which kicks off Friday, swelled to nearly 20,000 participants last year. This year, there'll be more than 1,000 panels and presentations spread across 15 campuses in an increasingly crowded downtown.

Surviving is one thing, but really experiencing and enjoying the fest often depends on what you bring, and just as importantly, don't bring.
Here's some advice on what to equip yourself with and what to ditch before you hit SXSW.

Bring: A game plan. The Interactive schedule is daunting, and that's not even counting nighttime parties and unofficial gatherings. It pays to go through the schedule on the official site and also to skim it on sites such as and, or, a new paid site that for $5 rounds up RSVP info for SXSW-adjacent parties.

Make a tentative plan for what you want to see and have it handy in a phone or online calendar you can access at any time during the fest. The official app of the fest, "SXSW Go," is available for iOS, Android and soon Windows and BlackBerry phones.

I find the iPad version is the easiest to browse through, more so even than the SXSW website itself. It doesn't hurt to double- or triple-book your calendar for panel slots or parties in case a room fills up or if a line is too long. Always leave yourself some extra options.

Don't bring: Inflexibility. Once you have a set plan, be prepared to abandon whole chunks of it. You'll meet new people, perhaps find old friends, hear about a great party that's happening or discover that the panel you were dying to attend has been canceled or has reached capacity.

Be flexible, go with the flow and have no regrets about missing something; there's plenty to see and do. You'll wear yourself out and miss potentially serendipitous moments if you hold too firmly to your schedule.

Bring: Extra battery packs and your own Internet. A good day at SXSW Interactive is at least 12 hours long, and you might be using your smartphone, tablet or laptop a lot to look up information or try new apps. Your batteries will get depleted, and it's not always easy to find a free power outlet in packed panel rooms.

Bring charging cables and power supplies for your gear. You can also find cheap, portable backup battery chargers for most smartphones on Amazon for as little as $6 to $10. Buy at least one, maybe two. A portable power strip wouldn't hurt either if you want to share power outlets with your fellow attendees.

Some years, wireless phone networks haven't held up under the strain of all the tech-centric attendees. Outside the Convention Center in the downtown wilds, there aren't as many free Wi-Fi locations as you'd hope. If what you're doing at the fest requires a constant Internet connection, consider bringing your own Wi-Fi hotspot device.

Don't bring: Expensive tech gear or cameras that haven't been backed up. Every year, I hear about someone who had a laptop stolen or lost a camera containing a memory card full of precious photos that were never transferred to a computer. Keep your stuff safe and don't bring anything irreplaceable.

Bring: A giant smile. Texans are very friendly. We want nothing more than for you to go home after your trip and rave about how delicious our barbecue tastes and how we're all as soulful and attractive as the characters on "Friday Night Lights." But it only works if you're humble and attitude-free.

Which brings us to ...

Don't bring:

Attitude. In recent years, the influx of social media gurus and marketing mavens has changed the vibe at some parts of SXSW Interactive from a spring break for nerds to a focus group for startups aimed at Twitterholics.

Leave behind the smarmy business networking and condescending attitude toward those who aren't online rock stars. Don't be That Guy (or Gal).


Comfy shoes, light clothes and an umbrella. March and October are our best weather months in Austin, but it can turn on a dime. Dress lightly, but bring a jacket for the colder evenings and have an umbrella handy in case a thunderstorm rolls through. And wear comfortable, broken-in shoes -- you'll be on your feet a lot.

Don't bring: Ostentatious cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat you only wear when you're visiting Texas. We Texans see right through that crap.

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Sources: CNN, GoKit, Wikipedia, Youtube, Google Maps

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