South by South West (SXSW) is an annual event that celebrates the convergence of tech, film, and music industries. It takes place in Austin, Texas, and this year was held from 11 – 20 March. Louis Alfieri of Raven Sun Creative sums up some key points from SXSW 2022.
Ideas vs. products
SXSW is a multi-disciplinary idea-based event placed at the crossroads of creativity, design, technology, music, marketing, politics, gaming, human behaviour, environment, social issues, health, and wellness. It is community-engineered to initiate discussion, enhance inspiration, and foster opportunities beyond traditional industry siloes.
As a hybrid event, SXSW is focused on ideas and intellectual exchange. Yet it also includes aspects of branding, marketing, and product services. The event is a combination of public and private events, following multiple tracks of interest, such as film, interactive, and music. It spans 10 days and takes place over several hundred sites in downtown Austin.
It includes hundreds of speaking sessions and workshops, a small trade show, numerous brand activations, live events, art installations, theatrical performances, film and sports. There are also other adjacent shows, such as an XR experience trade show, not directly related to the SXSW event.
I found the content to be more elevated than the more product-driven events I attend around the world. At SXSW brands are most certainly present. Yet they are adjacent, and in complement to, the concept of the event, as opposed to the event itself.
Key topics at SXSW 2022
The 2022 event was dominated by several key topics including Web 3.0, Blockchain technology, DAOs, NFTs, and the Metaverse. I will cover all of these in greater detail below.
SXSW 2022 was a very interesting cross current of people and topics, and there was no shortage of marketing hype. I thoroughly enjoyed the exchange of ideas and the assemblage of multi-disciplinary intelligent people.
No case studies
Finally – a show with no case studies. Instead, the focus was entirely on meaningful conversation, interesting and thought-provoking interviews, and ideas that challenge the status quo.
There were very substantive conversations taking place on hot button topics. For instance, race, wealth, sexuality, urban decay, crime, drug use, mental health, the environment, climate change, biomechanics, human augmentation, AI, ethics, and of course, music.
This year, much of the subject matter was around the ascent of the metaverse, blockchain, and NFTs in media, finance, technology, and pop culture.
Considering the massive scale of the event, there is very little organized self-promotion, compared with other ticketed events. Even in sponsored locations, such as the day-long event I contributed to at Canada/Quebec House and sponsored by Quebec’s Ministry of Investment, the commercial spotlight was limited, with more focus concentrated on offering valuable content to the audience.
The collaborative spirit of SXSW 2022
I found the entire event’s atmosphere was considerably more collaborative than other global events I’ve experienced. Too many of the events I attend are revenue driven and give commercial-like recaps of what they are doing. It feels “safe”.
Here there were deeper questions that explored discomfort, change, and problematic topics. What’s more, people attempted to provide authentic answers. These were not the same conversations had over and over in trade magazines.
However, I found the application of the experiential medium via brand activations and events disappointing. It did not live up to the expectation that previous events, such as 2018’s Westworld, hosted by HBO and created by Great Big Spoon, Mycotoo, and others, have built. But I do gather in retrospect that, when it comes to this, the 2022 event may have been an outlier.
SXSW is easily the best-run urban event I have ever attended. The scale of the event, integration with local hotels, community, police, pedestrian districts, transportation, communication, and integration over what amounts to several hundred sites is incredible. It is impressive, and a lesson other large-scale urban-centred events should observe and learn from.
Located in the heart of downtown, the event has the support of the entire community. It certainly helps to have a convention centre in a thriving active downtown versus the perimeter of a suburban location. It adds so much to the vibe and energy of the event. Plus, it’s excellent to be within walking distance of most things.
I left this event inspired with many ideas to pursue including those noted below.
Big Questions, Trends and Opportunities
How can we make a difference with this medium? And where do we fit in this rapidly advancing technical world?
These questions are ones I have been thinking, writing, and speaking on often lately. Where do humans fit in the digital world? How do we balance this vast ever-expanding universe with the world that we live in today?
Before us lies an opportunity to use a medium to elevate humanity. There was a lot of utopian enthusiasm at the birth of the internet, smartphone, and social media. Yet it is hard to say that optimism has been fully realized.
Framing this query today, we hold in our hands and pockets a portal to all human knowledge. We have the ability of instantaneous communication with every connected being and enterprise on the planet.
On one hand, people are using this technology to share cat pictures, human appendages, dubious medical knowledge, and conspiracy theories. On the other, it is driving global emotion, offering new modes of community, creativity, and commerce. All of us for the last two years have run our lives and businesses through phones, computers and digital portals.
After spending the last few years in this digital world, people want to be present together in person. It seems that, after attempting to replace it with screens, we learned that our planet had no substitute.
So, why are we in such a rush to put people back into this isolated and lonely digital universe?
Has the metaverse already started?
Yes, the groundwork exists in several states already.
Sensors from our smartphones, social media, digital devices, and data-driven companies are creating new spaces for humanity. These technologies are the onset of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.
From a gaming perspective, open-world environments, community-based engagements, trade ecosystems, and in-game purchases already exist. They also permeate the physical world, pioneering design, commerce, and communication between the physical and digital world.
Today, we are interacting and eliciting reactions in each other’s brains, bodies, and lives with multiple experiences and feelings that are an extension of the “real” physical world. This is happening across Facebook, TikTok, Tinder, YouTube, crypto-empowering NFTs, Fortnite, Second Life, Decentraland, Minecraft, and countless other online and social media platforms.
If our IRL memories are electromagnetic impulses stored in our brains as energy and patterns, what is to say that there is a difference between this existence and that of the digital one in the metaverse?
Maybe we are already living in the matrix.
Business opportunities & networking at SXSW 2022
I see a hugely significant and interesting business opportunity coming out of the metaverse. As I observed conversations at SXSW 2022 across subjects and sectors, I saw numerous business opportunities for this space to skyrocket. I envision entire business sectors emerging. For instance, law firms dedicated to virtual human rights, ILR / URL identity law, digital corporate affairs, etc.
It was also wonderful to meet many of the people that I had become friends with virtually over the pandemic. From a business environment perspective, networking was either top shelf at the targeted group meetups, or somewhat elusive in the general public setting. What it was not was a lot of people selling things and looking for jobs!
Discussions at every event were extremely high quality, thought-provoking, and insightful. Conversations at sessions and networking events crossed every gamut ranging from new modalities of thinking, to DEI, to podcasting, how to build revenue streams on live streaming, to brand, team, culture, gaming, sexuality, interpersonal relationships, film, music, art, politics, cyber security, investment, web 3.0, NFT’s, startups, etc.
Key phrases, ideas and takeaways from SXSW 2022
Session after session I kept hearing the word “human” as though it’s something totally new to us. Through the digital world, phones, the web, and continuously increasing automation, we seem to have lost touch with what it means to be human. Marketers all over are trying to rediscover that and tell brands that they want to feel human, be human, and talk to humans again. What a novel concept.
Through the digital world, phones, the web, and continuously increasing automation, we seem to have lost touch with what it means to be human
According to HubSpot and Rock content Human 2 Human (H2H), this is a human-centred approach to marketing. In this model, relationships between companies and customers develop based on long-term trust.
This kind of approach gives special attention to clients. The main purpose of this kind of marketing is to ensure that the relationship has a face, an owner, and a voice that captures the brand’s essence.
Decentralized/DES (Decentralized Economic Systems)
In blockchain, decentralization refers to the transfer of control and decision-making from a centralized entity (individual, organization, or group thereof) to a distributed network.
Decentralized networks strive to reduce the level of trust that participants must place in one another. They deter participants’ ability to exert authority or control over one another in ways that degrade the network’s functionality.
Decentralization is not a new concept. When building a technology solution, three primary network architectures are typically considered: centralized, distributed, and decentralized.
Blockchain technologies often make use of decentralized networks. However, a blockchain application itself cannot be categorized simply as being decentralized or not. Rather, decentralization is a sliding scale. It should be applied to all aspects of a blockchain application.
By decentralizing the management of and access to resources in an application, we can achieve greater and fairer service.
Decentralization typically has some tradeoffs such as lower transaction throughput. But ideally, the tradeoffs are worth the improved stability and service levels they produce.
Brands (are dead)
There was a strange dichotomy and contradiction of constant talk that brands are dead. Yet all of the presentations were B2C based on using creators to sustain a brand.
I think this is a vast oversimplification. What is (temporarily) dead is the idea of constantly spouting anything narrative-driven to consumers via pretty pictures and sexy models. What is flourishing is the idea of building a community brand narrative that is driven by influencers, co-created user-generated content, and a brand-driven vertically integrated ecosystem.
Web 3.0 represents the next iteration or phase of the evolution of the web/internet. Potentially it could be as disruptive and represent as big a paradigm shift as Web 2.0 did. It builds upon the core concepts of decentralization, openness, and greater user utility.
Tim Berners-Lee had expounded upon some of these key concepts back in the 1990s, as outlined below:
- Decentralization: “No permission is needed from a central authority to post anything on the web, there is no central controlling node, and so no single point of failure…and no ‘kill switch’! This also implies freedom from indiscriminate censorship and surveillance.”
- Bottom-up design: “Instead of code being written and controlled by a small group of experts, it was developed in full view of everyone, encouraging maximum participation and experimentation.”
First and foremost – a lot of people don’t understand that an NFT is not a piece of art. An NFT is essentially proof of authenticity. A piece of art exists with, or without, a token assigned to it.
Are we at the beginning of a new age in digital art? Or are we seeing lemmings about to jump off the edge of a cliff?
I believe the ship has pretty much sailed here for anyone who is just getting in on this space. I believe that 10% of these NFT brands will attain gravity, credibility, and enough of a business model ecosystem to still be around in 10 years. The other 90% will be cereal box tops.
Clearly, the hype curve is in full swing. Yet I believe it is already too late to get into this space as an early adopter/unicorn.
At SXSW 2022, there must have been at least 500 different interpretations of what the Metaverse is.
It’s very subjective. Are we talking phygital (which I strongly believe in), high fidelity open-world environments (like new versions of GTA/Assassins Creed)? Or do we mean the enhanced realities depicted in Ready Player 1, Inception, or Total Recall?
I believe there is an opportunity in this space to enhance and extend our expertise into new forms of storytelling with potentially unlimited spatial narratives, co-creation with the audience, enhanced business models, and new forms of engagement. In all cases, we have design, code, commerce, community, and human behaviour as fundamental parts of whatever it is or becomes.
DAO – Decentralized Autonomous Organization
Put in layman’s terms, this is the basic enterprise structure of Web 3.0. It is a new way to form a corporation or owner class outside of the existing corporate hierarchy and wealth structure. This concept builds on the decentralized economy referenced above. It assumes that every person in the organization will have equal input, autonomy, and financial gain across the organization.
My takeaways on DAOs: they are an exciting opportunity to build a new ownership and wealth class. They are prime for early adopters, and also overly optimistic that they will upend all previous business structures.
Experiential brand activations and art installations
One of my highlights of SXSW 2022 was Spatial Holodeck. This is a nicely done software and design interface that allows surround sound to be controlled in real-time via a game engine-based guest interface, gesture tracking, or infrared mocap (motion capture) array.
I also enjoyed Framerate, an interesting media-based installation that captured a changing planet in time-lapse. As this project evolves it could be very interesting for future generations to see the evolution and degradation of environments, knowledge, and societies over time.
Then there was the NFT Gallery Marcel. I want to emphasize that I am not euphoric about the NFT craze. Most of the artwork I have seen generated has not been meaningful, insightful, or even well crafted.
However, along comes Marcel, an NFT gallery and marketplace. I think this is a wonderful step toward creating an app-based marketplace and interface for digital artists, the purchasing community, and blockchain tracking and authentication for these created assets. It’s like Etsy for NFT art.
I think this app will be a huge success. It is likely to help stabilize this market to extend well beyond the craze and the success of the single NFT brand of notoriety.
Other things of note at SXSW 2022
Carey Davidson workshop
This was a great workshop session on ancient wisdom and relationships.
I am generally not a fan of interactive workshops that immediately put you on the spot. Instead, I am the type of person who has a keen interest in what is happening, preferring to soak up the content and process it. Then I am happy to return to interact after I have had a chance to digest new information.
I chose this session because it was intentionally outside of my comfort range. I’m glad I did, as I found it quite interesting. Take the quiz and see what you are.
This is a digital doppelganger you can create, film, and ask questions of to have a kind of semi-organic conversation.
Sean Lee the CEO of d’Strict Holdings, gave a powerful presentation on his entrepreneurial and creative journey. This covered his team’s evolution through experiential design, technology, advertising, and art installations.
As an entrepreneur in the same space, the evolution, challenges, and victories Sean alluded to were particularly inspiring. If you are in our business and can access his insights and experience, I would highly recommend you check him out.
A potentially new and exciting way to advertise, hold meetings and communicate through a transparent LED screen backed by a lightbox. This has the benefit of creating a rather deep looking and almost dimensional human presence. I see this being great in conference rooms, as well as retirement homes, museums, retail, and even the attraction space.
Canada House/Quebec Day
I also have to give our session at Canada House / Quebec Day a plug. I was so fortunate to work with Catherine Binette, Rachel Parent, and Tracy Balz on a great panel called The Metaverse: How to keep the human condition at the center of this new world.
Panelists Samuel Tetreault of Les 7 doigts de la main, Caroline Vanderoost of CINCO, Thibault Duverneix of Gentilhomme, Philip Rather of Musical and I (the moderator) spoke to a very special guest Pierre Fitzgibbon, Minister Of Innovation and Economic Development for Quebec.
We had a great conversation about the Metaverse, its implications and possibilities for story, creativity, and commerce. At the heart of all of these is exploring how we can work to place emphasis on the human condition.
Merci again for this excellent day of events and discussions organized by Investissement Québec and Ville de Montréal!
SXSW 2022: the bottom line
In 2023, when you have to pick between shows you have been going to for years with the same people, same exhibits, same companies paying to play on the same stage, with the same advertisers, where nothing changed in 2022 – do yourself a favour. Change one of them to go to SXSW. It will be worth it.