Mar 17, 2018

How SXSW is evolving beyond apps and web startups

Austin Skyline at night taken from The Austonian building. Austin, Texas. Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro/Corbis via Getty Images

This year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin underscored the continued shift towards entertainment, big personalities, and big topics, and away from the apps and startups that defined its earlier years.

Why it matters: South by Southwest has long been an annual fixture for tech companies, leaders and enthusiasts, but its participants and audience are evolving as the industry grapples with new challenges.

#MeToo, inclusion
  • Discussions at several panels and talks included everything from achieving gender parity in the workplace, to Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign against sexual harassment.
  • But there were also some hiccups, like a sexist panel title participants had to change last month, and a blockchain and cryptocurrency meetup (not officially affiliated with the festival) with separate tickets for men and women.
  • Our take: SXSW has come a long way in making its festival more diverse and tackling tough topic discussions, in contrast to its handling of panels about online harassment in 2015. But it’s also clear that it’s not perfect and still has room to improve.
  • There were numerous panels and talks on the subject, including an on-stage interview with Ethereum co-founder Joseph Lubin, along with a variety of social events.
  • One of them, a taco-themed afternoon of panel discussions hosted by The Founders Organization, took place at Bob’s Steak and Chop House where VC firm Andreessen Horowitz held its private party on Saturday night. The irony is too obvious.
  • Our take: Overall, the “crypto” showing at SXSW largely mirrored the current state of the industry: a lot of marketing, buzz, and claims, and very few legitimate experts and success.
  • Policy makers and experts have been coming to SXSW for a while, but there was a noticeable uptick in their presence and interest in them this year.
  • Politicians from all levels were featured in talks (Rep. Darrell Issa even showed up to one in his spare time just to listen to the discussion), and even the European Union hosted a slew of panels on policy topics.
  • Our take: It’s no surprise that there’s a bigger political presence this year, as the country seems to be more engaged with civics and politics since the 2016 election.
Facebook and media
  • News organizations and social media are no strangers to SXSW, but this year the tone and themes were more somber.
  • For example, a panel hosted by Axios’s Sara Fischer about Facebook and news publishers turned into a session of tough questions about the social network’s relationship with journalism.
  • During a different talk, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki discussed the company’s plans to combat hoaxes and conspiracy theories on its platform, including adding Wikipedia content, which was news to the online encyclopedia itself and drew immediate skepticism from the press.
  • Our take: SXSW used to be the launchpad for new social apps, including Twitter in 2007, but this year it was all about tough questions about reckoning with this form of media.

The story has been updated to clarify that panel organizers changed its title, and that the blockchain meetup with separate tickets was not officially affiliated with the festival.

Go deeper

1 hour ago - World

Putin sets referendum that could allow him to rule until 2036 for July 1

Putin has not seemed to enjoy governing by video conference. Photo: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has set July 1 as the new date for a constitutional referendum that could allow him to remain in power through 2036.

Why it matters: Putin was forced to delay the referendum from April due to the coronavirus pandemic, and has set the date despite Russia's continued struggles to contain its outbreak. Putin's popularity has fallen in recent weeks amid his response to the pandemic and its economic repercussions.

A busy week for IPOs despite upheaval from protests and pandemic

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

This week is expected to be the busiest for U.S. IPOs since February, with Warner Music leading a group of four companies that could raise over $3 billion.

Why it matters: This shouldn't be happening, under any traditional rubric for how markets work.

How Big Tech has responded to the protests

A protester holds a sign in downtown Minneapolis to protest the death of George Floyd on May 31. Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

An explosive weekend in America sent Silicon Valley grasping for moral clarity. While many companies and executives spoke out against racial inequities, critics and even some of the rank-and-file found some of the companies' responses lacking.

Why it matters: Tech companies have giant platforms, and their leaders have become public figures, many of them household names. History will record their words and actions — which, in the case of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, directly shape the bounds of public discourse.