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The history of South By Southwest Interactive
A year-by-year glance at the good, the bad, and the awesome from the annual tech conference.
The South by Southwest Interactive conference began in 1994 with a hope and a prayer: zero keynote speakers, a staff of less than 10, and a largely local group of “cutting edge visual creatives” milling about a two-day open house in search of the next free cup of coffee.
“Give us a break, it was our first year,” the SXSW staff would write a decade later.
The conference split from Film a year later, but it wasn’t until 1997 that what’s now the most highly attended component of South by Southwest actually started to take hold.
The events of those first three years, when it was still known as SXSW Multimedia, read in today’s tech environment like a comedy of errors, perfectly encapsulating the prehistoric days of networked computing: panels called “The Web Is Dead?” and “So You Want to Make a CD-Rom?”; rocker Todd Rundgren giving a keynote address; and a laughable official email address, [email protected]
Below, the tale of the tape on the last 14 years, a timeline of what happened after the dust settled.
—SXSW staff in 1994
SXSW Multimedia becomes SXSW Interactive, a switch event director Hugh Forrest calls “an accurate reflection of the industry we service—more and more people are using the Internet more and more often.” Monday’s keynote speaker Jaron Lanier delivers his address during the conference’s closing party as a hybrid speech-and-performance journey through time that combines “the most advanced technology with ancient music instruments from around the world.”
Keynote Speakers: Digital music pioneer Thomas Dolby Robertson, Jaron Lanier
With no name change or implementation of an extra day or signature event, SXSW Interactive 1998 may be remembered as the first year the conference felt at least somewhat settled. Notable panels among the then-record-high lineup of 56 include “Games for Girls”, “Copyright 101”, “www.irrelevant.com: Who Cares About Webzines?”, and “Adding Community to Your Site”, which offered tips on how businesses could improve their sites by better catering to community involvement.
Keynote Speakers: “First Citizen of Cyberspace” Howard Rheingold, Cool Site of the Day executive producer Richard Grimes, Codeworks President Chipp Walters
SXSW Interactive cuts back to 37 panels after attendees were spread a little thin the year before. Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton plays the conference closing party. The conference is held in tribute to founding SXSW Interactive creative director Dewey Winburne, who passed away that February in an apparent suicide. The Fabulous Furby Fan Page (with a URL of members.tripod.com~Eeyore_2/index.html) earns a nod as a Web award finalist.
Keynote Speakers: Broadcast.com’s Mark Cuban, composer Philip Glass, Burn Rate author Michael Wolff
Dave and Jennifer Evans win the first annual Dewey Winburne Award for Community Service. The Web Awards party moves to the Radisson Hotel, where it’s emceed by John Halcyon Styn. The first-ever SXSW Interactive Art Festival features work from more than 20 virtual artists who represent the cutting age of net.art—art that is developed to be seen in the new worldwide virtual gallery of the Internet.
Keynote Speakers: Shockwave’s Rob Burgess and Macromedia CEO Kevin Lynch, New York Times tech reporter Denise Caruso
The conference expands to a four-day format in a year in which the unspoken theme of the conference is money, as evidenced by the overwhelming attendance at the panel “Is Anyone Making Money?”. Communication Arts writer Kathleen Mahar notes in observance: “Several speakers stated flatly that the Internet has rendered the concept of intellectual property obsolete.” Panelist Danni Ashe, one of the first adult stars to wrangle the Web’s cash intake, finds herself in small company.
Keynote Speakers: Standard Media International CEO John Battelle, DJ Spooky, Pride Before the Fall author John Heilemann
Keynote speeches are moved to the afternoon to accommodate SXSW Interactive’s developing habit of staying out too late. Star Trek star Chase Masterson hosts the Sexiest Geek Alive Competition. The first and only Iron Webmaster showdown goes up in smoke.
Keynote Speakers: Macromedia’s Kevin Lynch; Heavy.com cofounders Simon Assaad and David Carson and Subvert.com’s Heather Gold; “Renaissance Geek” and cofounder of Boing Boing Cory Doctorow
SXSW Interactive celebrates its 10th anniversary by moving upstairs to the Convention Center’s third floor, where there’s less of a disconnect between the Film and Interactive components. Film director Robert Rodriguez speaks about the development of Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. Panels include “User Unknown,” “Streaming Media: Tips and Techniques,” and “Counter-Attack a Spammer.”
Keynote Speakers: NYC School of Visual Arts professor Joshua Davis, Doug Lenat, creator of artificial intelligence program Cyc
The conference is guided by a political current thanks to the upcoming election, with the choice between George W. Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry. Attendees debate whether Howard Dean’s failed campaign was a dotcom disaster or dotcom miracle at a panel led by campaign manager Joe Trippi, who speaks about the Internet’s power to change politics. SXSW.com/blog is introduced as an online open forum for attendees to discuss goings-on and air grievances.
Keynote Speakers: MoveOn’s Zach Exley and Eli Pariser, returning keynote speaker Howard Rheingold
Success of 2004’s MoveOn keynotes results in the introduction of four panels dedicated to “exploring the continuing intersection of technology and democracy.” Comedian Laura Swisher emcees the SXSW Web Awards. Panels include “Flash for Mobile Device” and “How To Leverage Solipsism.”
Keynote Speakers: Malcolm Gladwell, Wonkette founder Ana Marie Cox, Worldchanging.com editor Alex Steffen
SXSW Interactive launches ScreenBurn, a portion of the conference dedicated to gamers and gaming. SXSW updates are available via MMS for the first time. The conference also partners with Jambo, a proximity-based social-networking application. Female panel participation increases to 120 speakers, more than twice as many as the year before. Panels include “AJAX: What’s Up With That?” and “Secret Sex Lives of Video Games”.
Keynote Speakers: Coudal Partners’ Jim Coudal and 37 Signals’ Jason Fried, Dooce.com’s Heather and Jon Armstrong, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark
In a pivotal moment, Twitter becomes the first major product to launch at the conference—though not many were blogging in 140 characters or less then. 2007 also markes the first time that SXSW Interactive uses Panel Picker to determine which panels are included at conference. Public voting accounts for 30 percent of the decision. The conference opens on Friday for the first time with the panel “Real Story Behind ‘Snakes on a Plane’.” ScreenBurn hosts 20 panels and opens up the ScreenBurn Arcade, a two-day event that gives registrants the opportunity to try out games before they hit the market. SXSW Interactive’s panel count cracks 150 for the first time.
Keynote Speakers: Gaming developer Kathy Sierra, Apple vice president of product design Phil Torrone, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, game designer Will Wright
Photo by Andrew Feinberg
Conference sees a severe increase in attendees, with over 9,000 people converging on Austin for the Interactive portion of SXSW alone. Organizers set up morning yoga sessions to help night owls work out their drunken injuries from the night before. Meebo.com hosts SXSW Interactive’s first conference-centric live chat, allowing attendees to chat in real time with other registrants at any panel. Panels include “Bio-Networks: Using Mobile Technology to Impact Health Style,” “High-Tech Craft: Why Sewing and Knitting Still Matter,” and “Kill Your Mouse: Kinetic Computing Moves Off-Stage.”
Keynote Speakers: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, author Henry Jenkins, PostSecret Project founder Frank Warren, video-game designer Jane McConigal
“Talk about something interesting.”
— one heckler during Zuckerberg’s keynote
SXSW Interactive launches SXSW Accelerator, a competition designed to spotlight new startup companies doing work in the fields of music, online video, and social networking. Emcee Guy Kawasaki crowns Popcuts, TubeMogul, and Wardrobe.com winners of the 24-company pool. In-house social networking site my.sxsw.com launches as a way to connect registrants and inform them about events and panels. About those panels: 2009’s conference hosts over 400.
Keynote Speakers: Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, The Long Tail author Chris Anderson
In the great location-based social networking war of 2010, Gowalla and Foursquare battle for the most check-ins. The latter ultimately wins the SXSW Web Award for best mobile service. Attendance at SXSW Interactive attendance trumps that of the Music conference for the first time. SXSW senior director Louis Black not-so-boldly claims that the conference has reached “a critical mass.” Keynote speaker Evan Williams’s speech bombs so badly that Interactive director Hugh Forrest considers dropping the keynote address format altogether. YouTube launches Vevo, a new video playback platform for independent musicians. Microsoft launches Internet Explorer 9.
Keynote Speakers: Twitter founder Evan Williams, Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd, Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek
Photo by Randy Stewart
Live streaming of keynote speeches and select panels is offered for the first time. The conference launches its first independent game designers competition, run by Zoo Entertainment Inc., where winners split $150,000 in prizes. ScreenBurn moves across the river to the Palmer Events Center. Viral sensations the Gregory Brothers perform at the Interactive Awards. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears play the raucous Twitter party.
Keynote Speakers: Scvngr “chief ninja” Seth Priebatsch, 4chan founder Christopher Poole, actress Felicia Day, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie
“I think what’s important are the stories of people—not just the game mechanics of checking in.”
—Josh Williams, Gowalla
Chase Hoffberger reported on YouTube, web culture, and crime for the Daily Dot until 2013, when he joined the Austin Chronicle. Until late 2018, he served as that paper’s news editor and reported on criminal justice and politics.