Notes from SXSW, Simplicity rules


A SXSW session on the social media bubble hosted by NYC agency Attention neatly summarised what the conference is all about.   One panellist called it a gathering of influencers who come here to be influenced.   And that’s a good way of putting it.

We arrive with the expectation that on our return we will be able to talk about the one amazing ‘thing.’  A shrink-wrapped ready made answer for our clients, “this year it’s all about X.”

Last year it was all about group messaging services such as GroupMe.   Previous year’s featured Foursquare and Twitter.  This year, already ordained by the tech press pre conference, it was all about ‘Highlight’ and another similar service Glancee.   Both tap into your social media profiles and the location based settings of your phone to tell you who is around you with similar interests.   Reactions to it have varied from creepy to awesome.

Highlight is part of a greater trend of socially discovery and predictive check-in apps, that was the subject of a final session I want to called #timebandits .  This featured applications such as Forecast (tell your friends where you are going to be, not where you are now) and redrover , an app for parents that essentially allows you to spot child friendly places on the go and arrange impromptu meet-ups with other parents.

Speaking as a parent, it looks both good and very useful.  That was the take out from the session, these services fulfill a need.   To take location based services such as Foursquare for example, surely you want to know where your friends are going to be rather than have been.   Hence the need for something like Forecast.

Forecast’s designer Rene Pinnell felt that these applications could truly be revolutionary in changing how people react in the real world.   They can, but I think the key is not so much utility as simplicity, a point Rene acknowledged.   In fact, the Forecast team was involved in another venture a year ago called Hurricane Party, allowing you to create spontaneous parties on the fly.

Hurricane Party failed because, as Rene Pinnell admitted, it asked people to do and share too much.   By contrast, Rene pointed out that Instagram was a run-away success because it asked you to do one simple thing: Take a photo.  And that thing was something people do all the time anyway.

It might change behaviour (share your filtered photos through a mobile app), but it doesn’t created new behaviour as such.   Instagram boss Kevin Systrom for example admitted that he had problems getting his Dad to tweet, yet he found that a photo sharing service like his was both generation and language neutral.  Anyone could get it and take part.

I have both a professional and personal interest in wanting these services to succeed.   But I am realistic enough to know that their success or failure will be judged on how they work a month from now…and outside of Austin or San Francisco.   I’m about to fly to Florida.  Will I still get constant notifications about people on Highlight who share my interests and who I can connect with?   It will be interesting to see.

Finally, as a SXSW antidote, it is worth turning our attention to the other (alongside Instagram) social media service of the moment, Pinterest.  As this NY Times article points out , Pinterest did not go down the Foursquare, Highlight route of launching to the influencers in Austin.   It instead built its business organically by getting ordinary users to actually adopt and share.

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  1. Fairly ironic article — a story about a ‘low-key’ start-up featured in the New York Times…? Not so low-key anymore. And not so much about start-ups (plural) at SXSW.

  2. Having never been to SXSW, I always find it fascinating to see what will be ordained as the next hot social media service. More often than not, the new belle of the ball fails to live up to the hype and buzz. Sure, they get time in the spotlight but once people leave Austin, many of them move on to the next new shiny thing.

    cheers, Mark

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