The 3 Best Things I Saw at SXSW

The “location wars” between rival mobile check-in services, the unmet expectations of the Twitter keynote and the hordes of newbies crowding out regulars (as they do every year) were some of the leading threads at SXSW this year. And — rightfully so — everyone was talking about them. Meanwhile, from the outside, skeptics pooh-poohed geeks getting drunk on promo budgets while pretending that changing the world had anything to do with why they were there. Also fair. But somewhere in between those two takeaways fall my three highlights from SXSW, which I think showed us the way social technology will work in the near future:

Foursquare tattoos seemed as ubiquitous at SXSW as people staring down at their phones when they walked into a room.

* While the competition among location-based services will hopefully result in a winner, loser or combination thereof sooner than later (because honestly, who cares), using either Foursquare or Gowalla in Austin this past week was a really cool experience. Rather than seeing scattered updates from the few friends you have who happen to avidly use social media, at SXSW location-based services were able to take a larger-scale pulse of where people were moving. So as you walked down the hall, the wisdom of crowds would tell you that 300 people were listening to a session in Ballroom D, or that 200 were already drinking over at Six Lounge. Sure, that just pushes hordes towards hordes, but it also reveals a vibrant ecosystem — and felt completely different than using mobile social sites at home.
* It was totally awesome to have reliable and quick AT&T (s T) phone service and mobile Internet. As I tweeted on my first day in town, “My breakout stars of #sxsw so far: excellent, ubiquitous Wi-Fi and great AT&T service. No joke.” And trying to use my iPhone (s AAPL) upon returning to San Francisco has made it all the more obvious how awful we have it by comparison. It’s no fun to be a second-class mobile citizen after you’ve gotten a taste of what could be. I completely support MG at TechCrunch’s take: “Dear AT&T, Whatever You’re Doing At SXSW, Please Do It In San Francisco.”

A snapshot of Austin check-ins from SimpleGeo's mashup

* You’ve undoubtedly heard horror stories about exposing the backchannel of audience conversation during conference panels and how that detracts and distracts from the core content. But I had a really excellent experience engaging with tweets during the panel I moderated. First of all, the crowd helped direct us to choose a less unwieldy hashtag than the one assigned — #contentme instead of #contentrelevanttome. Then I kept a Twitter search page open to see what people were saying. When the tweetstream was drowned out by fun facts about coincidences on Hunch given by panelist Hugo Liu, the company’s chief scientist (for instance, if you tell Hunch you like to dance, there’s a very high correlation that you’ll also say you like using Macs), it got harder for me to pick out audience questions. So I asked them to direct the questions to me by mentioning @lizgannes in a tweet. When I got too many questions to process, I was able to choose the ones that had been retweeted by other people on Twitter (who may have not even been in the room).
That’s kind of a long story, but the point is that I hadn’t actually planned to do any of it. But because so many people in the room were using Twitter at the same time, we were able to use it to better tweak the panel on the fly in order to address their needs. (Though I did feel afterwards that I should watch a video of the panel; multitasking is damn hard!)
Top photo courtesy of Flickr user schatz.