Commentary

Politics And BBQ in Austin

Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer, SXSW, opens the conference.
Photo Credit: Steve Rosenbaum / MagnifyMedia


I only go to Texas once a year. 

Lucky for me, my trip to Austin coincides with thousand of other people all traipsing through the Austin-Bergstrom Airport. They’re arriving at an annual gathering known as South By Southwest -- or SXSW, for the folks who know the acronym.

Every year SXSW is different. Historically, some of the internet's biggest apps were launched here, among them Twitter and FourSquare. 

So, I go to Austin to do some on-the-ground trend-spotting. This year the trends were notable both for who’s here, and who’s not. 

The international vibe of the conference is undeniable. At the panel I participated in, the audience questions came almost entirely from Latin American voices -- two of them from Brazil. And doing my reporter thing, I found languages in the elevator and on the streets more diverse than ever. This is a welcome change, a diversity of ideas and questions that was much appreciated.

Missing this year were the big brand activations -- that’s industryspeak for any time a brand does a real-world physical event to reach out to customers.  In years past, SXSW has seen big expensive brand events from Fedex, McDonald's, HBO, Gatorade, Oreo and more. This year, most of the big brands stayed home. 

It's hard to know if this is a trend, or just a year to dial back. 

At the same time, Austin is growing, with gleaming new hotels opening, and more on the way. 

The big noticeable trend this year was a focus on issues, both practical and political. With the 2020 presidential race now on the horizon, SXSW was on the calendar of an all-star list of Democratic hopefuls.

In attendance: Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.); former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro;  and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Then there was Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.  All but Schultz have declared they will be running in next year's presidential election.  And if Schultz used Austin to test his message, he got a stiff cold breeze back. The crowd stayed silent during what he hoped would be an applause line.

Also attending: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who sold out a massive convention hall with a passionate and appreciative audience.

On the internet side of the convention, SXSW Interactive, it was a year of pensive navel-gazing. Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti told the crowd, “We need to keep fighting to make the internet great” -- without any sense of irony.  "We can’t just police bad content, we have to produce good content,” said Peretti.

The point illustrates the challenge facing platforms like Facebook and Twitter: It’s not just about banning Alex Jones, it’s about promoting the media companies that produce quality journalism, so more people are seeing thoroughly verified information.

No doubt, the questions being raised in Austin are relevant and timely.

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