SXSW has become infamous for being the place where startups try to get attention for new apps. Famously, it’s where Twitter took off in 2006 and where, in 2010, Foursquare and Gowalla squared up to each other in a battle for SoLoMo dominance. Startups and apps based around social media are always popular at SXSW because the sheer volume of people amassing on the city means that if you can get the crowds to adopt your service (and it’s a big 'if'), you may just get the attention needed to lift it out of obscurity.
Roll on SXSW 2013 and something interesting seems to have happened. All was largely quiet on the social front, well, relatively speaking. Either startups have realised that it’s too difficult to get noticed in the SXSW scrum (after all there’s a limit to how many branded T-shirts, sunglasses, USB sticks or badges a person can pay attention to), or it’s a reflection of a collective maturing in our use of social media. Have we finally reached a point where we're less concerned with finding the next Facebook/Twitter/Foursquare and more interested in how we can make what we have better or more useful?
Location-based social media was still a hot topic but it was more about improving the existing services than introducing new ones. Dennis Crowley, CEO at Foursquare, discussed how the app had changed from a tool to help you find friends, with the added gaming element, badges, mayors and so on, into a tool to help you find out useful information about the place you’re in. Foursquare’s focus, he said, was to improve the local search experience since the large amount of different data sources from which they were now collecting, contributed to creating much more informative maps. He likened them to the Marauders Map in Harry Potter, which could tell you where people were and where you should go.
The team behind one of the standout apps from 2012, social discovery app Highlight, were back at SXSW. The CEO, Paul Davison, spoke to me about how they had made some significant improvements over the last 12 months. New features include a location-based photo-sharing feature. Highlight will automatically share that photo with anyone else nearby that uses the service. There is also a new Events feature through which people can create an event on the go. Again this is all about location, so rather than inviting others to join the event, nearby users would be notified that something was happening. Once people stop posting about the event or leave, the event automatically ends.
Social video also generated some interesting discussions. Compared to the success of YouTube, no other app has yet managed to capture the high ground when it comes to creating and sharing video on the go. Apps like Socialcam and Viddy have tried but have yet to gain significant traction. One argument as to why this might be is that video is much harder to do well than a single photo. The current interest in Vine could be because it only allows a user to capture six seconds worth of video.
On a lively panel chaired by TechCrunch co-editor Alexis Tsotsis, there was a discussion as to whether social video will ever catch on in the same way that photo-sharing has. One of the panelists was Oren Boiman, CEO of video app Magisto. Where Magisto could have the upper hand is in the way it automatically edits videos. You add video and images to the app and it uses “artificial intelligence” to pick out the most interesting parts of the footage. On the website it also states that the app “stabilises the video footage and removes excess noise to make user footage look as good as possible.” And so, as Instagram filters made photographers of us all, could Magisto yet turn us all into filmmakers.
Despite the fact that there wasn't a single stand out app, there were still plenty of launches and new technologies on display. UK-based duo Chris Bradley and Anastasia Emmanuel chose Austin as the place to launch their online portfolio service, Publicate. The service is aimed at professionals who want an online CV with more a bit more punch than LinkedIn. The platform combines functionality from Pinterest, Tumblr and Evernote, to enable individuals to upload or collect content from anywhere on the web, which can then be organised and shared visually in one place.
The SXSW Accelerator competition is always a good place to see the potential big hitters of the future, previous winners have included story curation site Storify and travel search company Hipmunk. This year, once again, there were a whole host of interesting companies pitching. Particularly noteworthy was Plotter, which subsequently went on to win in the social technologies category. Describing it as a ‘social network for maps’ the Plotter team demonstrated how you could create your own maps with your own plot points. For example, if you were planning a trip to an unfamiliar city, you can set up a map in advance on Plotter that has every place you want to visit and pull in recommendations from your social networks, directly into the map. London-based MakieLab won in the Entertainment category with its unique combination of games, toys and 3D printing, and life-logging wearable camera company Memoto stood out in the Innovative Technologies category. Partly funded by a hugely popular Kickstarter campaign that raised 11 times its original target, the camera takes two photos every minute and syncs with an app that organises the photos and selects the best ones for you to view. It has a planned ship date of May 2013.
In fact, wearable technology was on display and in discussion all over SXSW 2013. From Memoto to Google glass and numerous health tracking devices and apps, there was certainly a trend for portable tech that tracks your life, captures data and provides insight or adds a layer of further information to the world around us. Expect to see much, much more of this over the next 12 months.