Originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider
If you want to experience a petri dish of thousands of educated, media savvy professionals and content producers actively using social technologies as part of their daily life, come to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi). This is the festival that essentially launched Twitter in 2007 and Foursquare in 2009, and the expectations are always high for what will break out here.
If some technology or tool breaks out in Austin, it has a chance at mainstream adoption. If it doesn't, that's a bad sign if it's designed for early adopters. Then again, if the tech is targeted toward a more mainstream audience or different demographics than who's here, it still could be a major hit (i.e., this isn't the place to launch the next Farmville). So what did the festivalgoers use, and how did they use it?
Twitter: Not surprisingly, this was the favorite communication channel here. Since 2007, it has remained a powerful way for people to share their thoughts on sessions, say where they're going, and see where their friends are. What it's not great for is discovering relevant trending topics; who or what can top Justin Bieber? Twitter's local breakouts are still too nascent to be useful, though that should change by SXSW 2011.
Foursquare: If you want to know where friends are, this is a good place to start. Trending places nearby tended to really show where people were. With the swarm mentality here, it changed consumer behavior, driving people from one venue to the next based on where everyone's friends were. And it only took one person in a group checking Foursquare to herd their social circle.
Gowalla: A SXSW award winner and an alternative to Foursquare, Gowalla only lets you check in somewhere in your vicinity. If you're at a bar across town you can't go back and say where you were an hour ago. This also makes it inherently more useful at an event like this; you want to know where your friends are, not where they were. With its headquarters in Austin, it's a favorite of locals. It has some great new features too, like sharing photos from your location, though Whrrl has had that feature for a while.
Plancast: Plancast is built around where you're going and what you're doing later, rather than what you're doing now. This has the best shot at being the SXSW breakthrough, as early adopters first checked it out in the weeks leading up to the event. I'm not sold on Plancast yet, but it might take some time to appreciate its utility and value. Between Facebook events and Twitter and Facebook status updates, I'm not sure what void it's filling, but keep an eye on it, and I'll keep an open mind.
iPhone battery packs: Spare battery backs and instant chargers have been critical. At every party there have been a few people hovering around electrical outlets, and people here often have multiple devices to use a spare when one dies. Some also make use of the iPod Touch given the accessible WiFi. You'll also often hear the mantra, "ABC: Always Be Charging" (a phrase I can hardly take credit for; geeks say it a lot here). Power cords are the new cigarette lighters, though you can still make friends with the latter.
QR codes: These 2D barcodes are on every badge, but I've seen hundreds more instances of business card exchanges than mobile barcode scans. That doesn't bode well for the near future of the codes in the U.S., though you can't judge too much from this one failure. The deciding factor may have been the application; business cards in particular remain efficient communication vehicles.
Bump: This is a popular business-card- sharing application for the iPhone where you bump phones together and share information. But it's another I never saw anyone use. A friend said it's too buggy. Business cards are also perfectly interoperable, compatible with every phone, operating system, and contact organizer.
MyTown: While it's one of the biggest, most pioneering applications combining social media, location, and gaming, it may be a little too cute for this crowd. The SXSW audience is also more focused on using tools rather than playing games, especially since the gaming element of MyTown isn't quite as social.
That's just a start. I love what Whrrl (noted earlier) is doing, and you should try them out if you haven't yet. Hot Potato helps people organize around live events, which Plancast can do too, but it's not fully baked yet. Stickybits earned some raves (including from Kate Miltner, who reminded me of it) for attaching content to barcode stickers, but it has many more hurdles than I can list here. Lastly, I have to give a personal hat tip to video platform Kyte, which powered the video interviews I ran on 360i's blog, all recorded and broadcast from my iPhone.
There may not have been some technological revolution this year, but many of these tools did help people get from place to place, connect with each other, and express themselves. That's exactly how they'll stay relevant.