SXSW 2019 Highlights

It’s been twelve years since I last was at SXSW – time flies – I wrote about it then so for continuity’s sake I might as well share some highlights from this year.

What I learned

Following the success of the New York Times’ The Daily podcast, the Grey Lady will dip its toe into broadcast TV with a weekly show called, you guessed it, The Weekly. Following the same formula, The Weekly will go deep on one story and, in 30 minutes, bring viewers the broader picture of how a news article comes together and convey things via video that cannot be expressed in print. The Weekly will air sometime in June on FX.

I saw Senator Amy Klobuchar expertly deflect a pointed question about her comb/salad incident, brushing it off as, a mom thing and moving on to a broader point about expecting the best from herself and her staff.

I saw the intersection of two writing cultures in the The New Yorker but Make it Internet panel. I learned that while you “post” something online, you “close” it in print. The young writers who post regularly online shared their experiencing getting edited for longer pieces in print where they still use words such as “teen-ager” and “web site” is written with two words.

Lots of talk about Artificial Intelligence and how it will impact journalism and storytelling (film). Sony demonstrated software that can write music. Many media outlets admitted to deploying AI to write summaries of high school sports or financial earnings reports and some are using AI to look for anomalies in large datasets for primary investigation. Several funny stories shared of flat-footed AI recommendation systems, “You’re here for the parenting, stay for Iraq!” and how one-dimensional AI can be (intense interest in how to raise a baby does not evolve into how to raise a child).

This reminds me of what Kathy Sierra said about apps in 2007 at my first SXSW,

All apps have a Asperger’s Syndrome.  They cannot pick up on visual queues from their users such as when someone is angry, frustrated, or confused. If a user has these reactions to software, they quickly fall below the suck threshold.

Kathy Sierra, SXSW Keynote, 2007

We must always remember that any Artificial Intelligence was born in the mind of someone, somewhere and has the biases of that person or team of people baked right into it and remains static, not taking in the inexplicit contexts of its environment,

What I experienced

SXSW is much bigger than it was 12 years ago. While I was last in Austin for the annual Online News Association meeting which took over the JW Marriott, SXSW sprawled over not only the JW Marriott but also the Austin Convention Center and Fairmont Hotels with pavilion and bar takeovers all across town. I don’t think Rainy Street was a thing back in 2007. It is not only the Interactive festival but also gathering for music and new film releases which I was somehow oblivious of the last time. I thought I could plan ahead and pick and chose what I wanted to see but soon realized that would be an exercise in frustration and that it was better to just have a rough idea of a few things you wanted to seek out and then let the winds of chance take you from one thing to the next.

Using Foursquare in Austin during SXSW unlocked a preview of their Hypertrending map

I wandered into the Japan pavilion where the Japanese comedian, Yuriyan Retriever (ゆりやんレトリィバァ) narrated a guy who was creating a stop-motion video on his iPad in front of the most-patient audience I had ever seen. I’ve written about her before, she’s got a great bit on the Oscar’s acceptance speech.

Framed “covefefe” tweet at The Daily Show’s Presidential Twitter Library
Late-night on Congress Street

SXSW with your son

Tyler had the week off from college so I suggested he come down from Boston to Austin and take advantage of the hotel room and get to know the city and take in the festival. Unfortunately he came down with a nasty cold for the first two days but we did get a chance to walk (and scooter) around a bit on Monday and Tuesday. I loved just walking around and experiencing things through his eyes.

SXSW Hacks

While Twitter and Foursquare famously launched at SXSW – this year was the coming out party for electric scooters. The grab-and-go rentals were everywhere with competing pods from Uber/Jump, Lyft, Bird, Lime, and others. In my unofficial survey, the late-model Lyft scooters had the most “umph” to them.

The Interactive badge got me into all the media sessions that I wanted to attend and they had this new SXXPress system that, like a Disneyland FastPass, let you jump the line and grab a guaranteed seat. Also discovered a hack to get into the more popular talks was to attend the talk in the time slot prior and squat in a seat and make small talk with your neighbors. This hack probably won’t work next year as many were catching on to this as the festival went on.

Be sure to check out a film or band in the evenings. While the Interactive lanyard will not give you first dibs or get you into the big name premiers, it will get you in for free if space is available. I caught the premier of the excellent documentary, Mr. Jimmy and the Welsh band Novo Amor.

I booked my hotel very late but was able to score a room at the Marriott Residence Inn at The Domain which has a Costco-sized Whole Foods which is a wonder to behold. The Domain is way out of town and costs $20+ in a Lyft but discovered a tram station 10-minute’s walk away that only costs $3 and takes you right into town, next to the Convention Center. Riding the tram I learned:

  • West Austin is where rich housewives gather for yoga sessions an Kombucha exchange parties,
  • People in Austin get discounted passes to SXSW, many also volunteer which gives them access to events when they’re not working,
  • The Domain is a soulless retail development and signaled to many locals the end of Austin

Yeah the BBQ is awesome. Iron Works, Coopers and all the other places – there are tons of places to eat. If you’re looking for something else, Gus’s Chicken (it’s world famous ya know) is good for lunch and the Texas Chili Parlor is a must do when finishing out a night on the town.

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