The South by Southwest festival — SXSW as it’s better known — has been a thing for four decades, starting in the 1980s.
Music, film and interactive components have been the driving themes behind SXSW. That last one in particular, combined with the flocks of influential attendees, has led to SXSW gaining a reputation for being ground zero for many emerging technologies that soon hit the mainstream.
In recent years, the tech-embracing crowds at SXSW have proved to be the perfect match for the increasingly popular social media market, with Twitter (TWTR), FourSquare and perhaps the ultimate in taking in and sharing spectacle with others — Google (GOOG) Glass — hitting the big time in public.
But at SXSW 2014, no new social media breakout or tech superstar is making waves.
Sure, people are making the most of the current crop of hot social media apps and technology to take in the conference, share the news of new bands and hot movies and talk shop. Facebook’s (FB) Instagram is packed with artistically filtered photos, Google announced a developer API for Google Glass, and wearers of this VR technology — and their behavioral missteps — were the subject of a SXSW panel on “Glassholes.”
Despite the fact that tech startups have flocked to SXSW to demonstrate, pitch and otherwise make their case for being the next big thing, there has been a distinct lack of a must-have, must-use technology.
Contrast this with previous years. Way back in 1994, CD-ROMs were front and center at SXSW, helping to usher in an era of multimedia content on computers. More recently, Twitter, struggling to gain traction after a tepid launch, leveraged SXSW 2007 and the fact that so many of its early adopters were going to be at the conference to become an undisputed social media breakout.
In fact, SXSW 2007 was so big for TWTR — and the company was so invisible to the masses in the months prior — that many people incorrectly assumed SXSW was Twitter’s debut. It wasn’t, but the conference, tweets and headlines were definitely Twitter’s coming out party and launchpad to primetime.
And Twitter isn’t the only social media breakout from SXSW.
Foursquare hit the tech industry radar screen in a big way in 2009, with its SXSW launch. An interactive campaign of awarding badges to attendees for using the app to check in at various locations while inviting friends to join — with a leader board on display to drive competition — helped Foursquare to make a media splash and hit the ground running.
Social texting app GroupMe was the social media darling of SXSW 2011, leveraging that exposure (just months after its founding) to build to 100 million messages a month and an $80 million buyout by Skype — just as Skype was in the process of being acquired by Microsoft (MSFT).
Nike (NKE) introduced its Fuel Band, an early entry into the soon-to-explode fitness band market at SXSW in 2012, complete with Jimmy Fallon, “I’m With the Band” shirts and VIP entry to music events for those who bought a Fuel Band at the SXSW pre-sale.
Google had previously shown its Project Glass augmented reality glasses to developers, but at SXSW 2013, the general public got an official glimpse at what Glass was all about.
This year, there simply hasn’t been an app that caught fire the way Twitter or Foursquare did. There’s been no real hardware star either. Instead, we’re hearing a lot of doom and gloom about online privacy, government surveillance and data security. Featured SXSW presenters include Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Cory Doctorow.
What’s the deal?
NPR interviewed SXSW’s Director of Interactive prior to the start of this year’s event, and he offered up a few observations that hit home, foreshadowing the relative lack of buzz around social media apps and hardware this year.
Among his predictions was the idea that a lot of what’s currently hot this year in technology — wearables, 3D printers and connected devices — is at the point where they’ve made their splashy debut and now they’re undergoing a process of improvement, simplification and preparation for mainstream adoption.
As for the lack of a social media breakout this year:
“You know, social media has been responsible for a lot of the growth in this ecosystem, and a lot of the growth of the economy over the last 5 or 6 years. We are certainly realizing more and more some of the downsides of that growth or downsides of that social media.”
In this context — and with the NSA scandal still playing out — it makes sense that SXSW is taking a bit of a breather to consider the consequences of sharing rather than rallying behind yet another must-have social media app.
Not every SXSW year sees a clear technology rising star, so the lack of a social media breakout or a must-have device this year shouldn’t be taken as a sign that innovation has stumbled. Instead, it’s probably better to think of it as a pause year, where attendees reflected on how social media fits in a world where online privacy is becoming a flashpoint issue, while hardware manufacturers tinker with their connected and wearable devices to get them to the next level.
After 12 months of regrouping — and a year that’s expected to see the likes of an Apple (AAPL) smartwatch, an Amazon (AMZN) set-top box in the living room and the consumer release of Google Glass — SXSW should have plenty of buzz-worthy technology on display in 2015.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.