Shattering the SXSW Petri Dish

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You see all kinds of weird stuff in Austin, like the Xtranormal mascots

Shattering the SXSW Petri Dish
originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider 

Some time between an earthquake rattling Japan and Operation Odyssey Dawn launching to protect Libya from itself, my world was consumed by a mere four letters: SXSW. In the metaphysical sense, it seems so remote now that I wonder if South by Southwest actually occurred. In the more practical sense, this marks the start of a yearlong process to determine how much it mattered.

It's hard to describe how much of a bubble Austin is during SXSW. One day, I visited the Meebo lounge and viewed a demonstration that had Yahoo News running in the background. I was so distracted by the idea that there was news happening somewhere beyond downtown Austin that I momentarily lost track of the demo.

SXSW is a Petri dish. All of us attendees were microbes colliding in close proximity, reacting to each other in unpredictable ways as outside forces — marketers, app developers, conference organizers, food trucks, friends — manipulated our environment. Then there was the meta-Petri dish, the collective attention focused on Austin by outside observers who at times could interact with the microbes.

The experiments now take their most interesting shape as the Petri dish is destroyed and the microbes fly back to their native environments around the world. Will the microbes act the same way in their native environments as they did in the dish? Will the native environments allow the experiments to keep taking shape? Have the microbes themselves changed in any way?

These aren't mere philosophical puzzles. The answers determine what, if anything, becomes the next Twitter or Foursquare, or what becomes any of the other thousands of technologies that appeared at SXSW one year only to fade into oblivion. Here are some practical examples of Petri dish effects to monitor:

Foursquare: With its relaunch timed for SXSW, the emphasis returned to racking up points for bragging rights. When I checked in at Austin Bergstrom International Airport, I got points for returning to Texas, traveling 1,000 miles, and checking in with various friends. Now I'm back to my typical schedule of home-work-lunch-work-maybe do something remotely interesting at night. How can I care about points again when the only way to top my inflated SXSW total is by going to SXSW 2012? Will people who weren't at SXSW care about points more because they didn't rage on point steroids in Austin?

Plancast: Should SXSW just acquire this site? This is the second straight SXSW where it seems like everyone I know used it, but I barely heard about it for eleven and a half months in between conferences. The Google Trends graph tells enough of the story. Note that when you try to view the trend for plancast.com under Websites, there's not enough data.

Hashable: For a few days, Hashable inspired some people to go without business cards and exchange information via the site and app. That was a great idea, until I came back, tried following up with people, and realized that I couldn't easily access some of their contact information; often the most I'd get is a Twitter ID. Does Hashable even work if you're not in the Petri dish? It didn't work well enough in the dish, so it will need to find a way to complement analog but user-friendly business cards without trying to replace them.

GroupMe: This group texting app stands a chance at surviving during the 360 non-SXSW days a year as teenage girls figure out how much fun it is to form private cliques, excommunicate former friends, and make their peers cry. Then, come March 9, 2012, every technology enthusiast will care about this again.

There are plenty of other technologies that got a lot of buzz but won't matter for a while, if ever. Most of the social check-in apps fall into this bucket. Beyond Facebook Places, which has scale, and SCVNGR, which is more about gaming, Foursquare's enhancements have made most of the other such apps irrelevant.

Then there are the technologies that get their share of buzz for meeting needs that safely no one has. Exhibit A: Bump.com, which allows you to register your license plate and communicate with other drivers. As a Manhattanite, I don't drive much, but when I do, most of the things I wish I could say to other drivers would make George Carlin blush in heaven. Yes, there are marketing applications of this technology. No, that's not a reason for marketers to use it.

What's far more common, away from all the hype and contests that bribe people to try an app, is to encounter people toiling away at making their great ideas better and using SXSW as an academy rather than a megaphone. A personal favorite of this breed is Skweal, which allows consumers to directly contact business owners and potentially keep negative feedback off public social sites. Personally, I think the focus now is too negative, as consumers can also share positive feedback, but it does fill a need for business owners and consumers, and it may well take off.

It's jarring coming back from Austin and adjusting to the real world of alarm clocks and conference rooms and hours of responding to email. Now that the Petri dish is shattered, though, there's a chance to discover what really mattered, how big an impact SXSW has made, and how many more dreams a few days in Austin will inspire.