SXSW final wrap up: My big five from SXSW22
By Dan Monheit 21.3.22
That’s it. We’re done. Another SXSW in the books and dear me, it was a goodie. After two years of nothing, 2022 felt like a well deserved cheat year for those of us that made the pilgrimage back to Austin. With attendee numbers somewhere between 20% and 40% down on 2019, we got to enjoy the same high quality content, Texas BBQ and party vibes, just with nowhere near the lines (and accompanying anxiety) of previous years.
With over 1,000 sessions, activations and events spread out across a week, it’s tricky to confidently say you’ve got the key trends nailed. So I won’t. What I will say is that the following themes seemed to underpin almost every experience I had, from watching guys like Mark Cuban and Scott Gallaway on the big stage, through to TikTok parties, crypto themed activations and even random conversations with strangers.
So here they are. Not THE big themes of SXSW22, just MY big themes of SXSW22.
Man this feels like a great place to start. Following two long years of looking down and in, it was truly magical to look up and out again. It wasn’t until I was packing up on the last day that I realised nobody had mentioned Covid all week. We were all too busy getting inspired in our heaving, buzzy (maskless) mess to give 2020 or 2021 a moment’s notice.
The desire of attendees to ‘just move on’ was only heightened by so many big picture, awe-inspiring ideas that were shared. Lizzo, the singer, rapper, songwriter and flutist is single handedly changing the definition of beauty in mainstream culture.
Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourta talked about the end of Covid as the start of the next golden age of medicine, where technology and biology come together to solve many problems that have previously been unsolvable.
There was talk of the unlimited possibilities brought about by gene editing technology and synthetic biology, the promise of psychedelics as a way of treating addiction and other mental health issues, new ways for users to wrestle back control of their data from tech giants, diversity and inclusion as table stakes for any new technology platform and on and on and on.
Spending a week hearing incredible talks, surrounded by smart people, in a city as progressive as Austin can’t help but leave you thinking that anything really is possible again.
Creators are the new black. Any person presenting from any tech company (TikTok, WeTransfer, Meta, Tribe et al) had something to say about the power of creators. It seems that every platform has realised (or remembered) that content creators are key to a healthy ecosystem.
Creators bring fans. Fans bring advertisers. Advertisers bring dollars. It’s why so many of these businesses have set up significant war chests specifically to attract, promote and grow creators on their platform. Instagram/Facebook have set up a $1 billion dollar program while TikTok and YouTube have set up $200 million and $100 million programs respectively.
TikTok, more than any other platform, has become synonymous with the rapid ascent of creators. At Southby this year we saw TikTok stars (eg Tinx) take center stage in place of career journalists, interviewing other TikTok stars about the unfathomable rise and commercial success of their D2C businesses (eg Bala bangles).
We heard about creators selling content franchises to traditional media businesses for tens of millions of dollars. Creators getting paid like ‘real celebrities’ for endorsing products. Creators setting their own terms for how content would be produced and funded with major TV networks.
After a decade of talk about the fall of traditional gatekeepers, this year it felt like it was truly becoming a reality. Perhaps it was the pandemic, the lockdowns, the power of TikTok’s recommendation engine, or a combination of all this and more, but creators are definitely finding their time to shine (and cash in).
3. The holy trinity (content, community, commerce)
Every big tech player is converging around the same three c’s. While content and community have long been contested, commerce has become the new battleground. From Facebook marketplace to Instagram checkout and TikTok’s experimental Shopping function, everyone’s looking for ways to turn attention into transactions — especially while eCommerce (and in particular D2C eCommerce) continues to boom.
From big presentations to even bigger parties, TikTok was undoubtedly the golden child this year. People waxed lyrical about the caliber of its content and the power of its commerce, igniting trends (‘Euphoria’ inspired makeup transitions), brands (Contour Cube, Bala Bangles) and hashtags (#TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, #foryoupage). It’s worth noting, however, that TikTok isn’t really a social media platform — at least not as we know it. While people are happy to consume hours of short video content there (often in one sitting), there’s very little conversation or community happening around it.
Will this be a gap in their armour, an opportunity for Instagram to strike back, or does it put them on a collision course with Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime?
4. The metaverse
You knew it had to get on the list, but what’s it all about? To be honest, until the last day of Southby, I still had no idea. Sure, it had found its way into many presentations, but seemingly as an afterthought. It was almost like presenters had finished making their presentation slides, and then realised that being 2022, they should probably have included something about the metaverse, but weren’t sure exactly what.
This resulted in some interesting, but still half baked ideas about identity authentication, the potential need for multiple ‘metaverse’ personalities and something about tokenisation (digital tokens or coins that represent real-world assets), but nothing that left me any clearer on what this metaverse might be and why I or anyone else should be excited about it.
That was before I sat in on Zuckerberg’s first major interview since the Meta announcement in October 2021, and while I was all ready to hate him, I found myself quickly under his spell.
“The metaverse” he began “isn’t something a company builds. It’s the next chapter of the internet.”
Zuckerberg’s observation was that since starting Facebook in 2004, he’s seen people constantly looking for ways to share their experiences, and share other people’s experiences, in as rich a way as possible. Facebook started primarily as a text based website. As people got cell phones with decent cameras, it became visual. As networks and bandwidth increased, video became the dominant format.
Zuck (he said I could call him that) refuses to believe that this is the end of the line. His hypothesis is that if we continue to offer people the tools and services to create deeper, richer, more ‘present’ experiences, they’ll continue to take them up.
‘So, what will be the daily drive for people to join the metaverse?’ I hear you ask. Zuckerberg likens it to general computing. Some people get on daily for games, others for meetings, others still for productivity tools or community. All of this will exist in the metaverse in one way or another (yes, even Excel).
In truth, we’re still in the embryonic stages and there are a litany of very difficult tech problems to solve across AR, VR, hardware, security, protocols and more for the metaverse to become a daily reality for most (which Zuck estimates as up to ten years away).
4. The future sounds strangely familiar
Within every talk about crypto, blockchain, AI, NFTs, Web3, DAOs and a range of other acronyms, was a voice proclaiming the importance of traditional values; trust, authenticity, human-like connections.
As much as we’ve learnt to work remotely and attend conferences via Zoom, there’s nothing like your first day at a massive, IRL event to remind you just how incredible an experience it can be.
While the pandemic has been hugely disruptive for all of us, it’s worth remembering that the core drivers of our behaviour are hundreds of millions of years in the making. Yes, it’s exciting to talk about how much has changed, but we’d also be wise to consider all of the things that have stayed the same, Our core desire for things like safety, status, community and healthy offspring are deeply entrenched and highly resistant to change — even in the face of two years in sweatpants.
If the technorati at Southby are calling for ‘more human’, surely that’s a sign for the rest of us too.
Technically, SXSW22 only finished up yesterday (with the crazy music and film kids rolling on long after us advertising types had left), but I’m already looking forward to the next one, as well as the return of in person conferences back in Aus. While the first five minutes will invariably be awkward, trust me when I say that everything will feel just like it’s 2019 in the blink of an eye.