The Wrap-Up: Highlights from SXSW 2014


The past ten days have been a whirlwind of tacos, talks, and tunes. Here are some of the highlights, lowlights, and just plain strange lights from this year’s SXSW fest.

We’re worried about online privacy, but we still love social apps

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and world-renowned whistleblower Edward Snowden discussed the dangers of the NSA via remote video conference, but all these conversations about privacy seem to be at odds with the scores of new apps and wearable devices designed to encourage even more sharing of personal data. The lure of Facebook may be waning for millennials, but the age of social media is far from over; wearables startups hope to capitalize on direct lines to your heartbeats and nervous systems to provide useful services, but also sell information and make money at the same time.

Typecasting is still alive and well in the film industry

Mindy Kaling of FOX’s The Mindy Project vented her frustrations with being asked questions about her nationality, gender, and appearance rather than her creative process: “They try to put you in a pageant that you never wanted to be in.” Meanwhile, Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls pointed out that despite the success of her show, actor Adam Driver is the one who gets all the job offers while she and her female costars are mostly offered “high school ditzes.” “People are ready to see Adam play a million different guys in one year, from lotharios to villains to nerds,” she explained. “Meanwhile Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet are still waiting for parts they can get interested in.”

Celebrities are just as desperate for attention — as usual

Twin Shadow performed in a dumpster, and a performance artist threw up on Lady Gaga onstage. Justin Bieber skipped out on his court appearance and surprised festivalgoers at Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden, dedicating an impromptu performance of “Boyfriend” to ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez. A savvy University of Texas journalism student managed to snap this hilarious selfie with the Biebs in the background.

Corporations required music fans to jump through a series of social media hoops just to score tickets

Samsung rewarded Galaxy phone owners with complimentary tickets to all of their sponsored shows, and in order to attend Lady Gaga’s much-hyped performance, hopefuls had to post something “bold” to Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, and plaster it with Doritos hashtags. Despite the backlash, Lady Gaga defended the move in her keynote speech on Friday, explaining, “The truth is that without sponsorships and companies coming together to help us, we wouldn’t have any artists in Austin because the record labels don’t have any fucking money.” No word yet on whether her onstage puke-fest inspired rampant purchases of nacho cheese tortilla chips.


The future of listening to music involves understanding contexts

Spotify bought the Echo Nest, a music intelligence platform company, for a rumored $100 million last week. Director of developer platform Paul Lamere described the challenges of engaging more casual listeners. “The idea is to make apps that really engage the casual listener and make them really want to dive into a song. We have 30 million songs in our pocket. We have to do a lot more than putting a search box on top and saying, ‘Go at it.’” Lamere thinks the next stage will be accurately scaling contexts for individuals, as in, “it’s Tuesday morning, give me music for waking up or getting confident for a meeting, or it’s Friday night, give me music for bedtime, or hosting a sexy pool party, or programming with friends.”

Cat videos make a lot of money

A few fast facts: the Internet Cat Video Festival outsold Depeche Mode by 3,000 tickets; Henri le Chat Noir earns $10 for every 1,000 views of his YouTube channel; and Grumpy Cat’s book topped the New York Times bestsellers list for 10 weeks running. Ben Lashes’ official job title is meme manager for three famous internet cats, including Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat, and Keyboard Cat. “There’s an evolution of the crazy cat lady,” said panelist Grace Suriel, social media director for Animal Planet. “From all walks of life, people have cat dresses, cat tattoos. It’s a whole new breed of cat person.”

Viral content is king, and now we have algorithms to measure it

According to Eli Pariser, CEO of fast-growing news site Upworthy, “We’re moving from this world in which everyone types in newspaper homepages. Increasingly, people are logging into Twitter and Facebook, and they’re expecting an algorithm to surface the most important stuff to them.” Rather than measuring unique visitors and page views, Upworthy (which attracts an impressive 50 to 60 million each month) focuses on what the company calls “attention minutes,” or how long people are sticking with the content. “These little pieces of code are more powerful now than a lot of the most powerful editors in the world,” Pariser said. “Now we have this real challenge where the story about Afghanistan or new policing methods or whatever has to compete in the same pool with Kim Kardashian or Candy Crush or everything else that’s begging for attention from the algorithms.”

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