March 21st, 2012

Three insights from SXSWi 2012





South By Southwest Interactive, held every March in Austin, brings together some of the best and brightest in the interactive industry. The conference abounds with skinny jeans, breakfast tacos, fedoras worn askew, and insights into an ever-changing industry.


Here are three key insights from my trip to SXSWi.

1. It’s time to start looking at brands as patterns.

We often view a brand as the single, unified identity of a business or organization. Today, that mindset couldn’t be further from the truth, with the Internet and social media redistributing the balance of power. According to Marc Shillum’s 10×10 white paper from Method, “Brands are no longer definitive. They are temporal. Brands are informed by multiple voices, and they exist in multiple media and through multiple contexts.”

Greg Johnson, the Global Creative Director of Hewlett-Packard, believes that, in the past, consistency built brands. Today, brand equity is established and cultivated through coherence. “Digital isn’t a medium. It’s the age we’re in,” Greg said in the SXSWi panel Brands as Patterns. “We must be digital-first,” he continued. “Digital-first brands are designed to be distinctive, relevant and active.”

Rather than viewing a brand singularly, we can start looking at a brand as a pattern. Every TV spot, every radio read, every print ad and every tweet, when viewed from the right perspective, form the pattern of a brand. Ensuring those pieces come together beautifully, rather than haphazardly, is the key.

2. Real-time versus timelessness.

At the height of the hype surrounding Twitter, it was all about the feed. Real-time information is distributed in seconds to a group of followers that chose to participate. There’s just one problem with real-time – it’s fleeting.

Ben Silbermann, co-creator of Pinterest, wanted to create a site that allowed users to collect artifacts from around the web and save them into beautiful collections that could remain timeless. While other sites were focusing on the feed, Ben was focusing on the board. The boards of Pinterest allow users to create collections much like the physical ones we find in our homes, which are meaningful and sharable.

3. We are entering the age of computation.

We live in the age of information. Arguing about an episode of Seinfeld? Google it. What’s the best restaurant in town for Pad Thai? Yelp it. The information is literally at our fingertips.

But what about answers to complex problems? Google “seinfeld” and you get more than five million results. We have an overabundance of information and less time to synthesize it.

This is changing however. Search results are becoming more specific. They make inferences about what you are actually looking for (like Google’s insufferable “Did you mean…?”). They are presenting information within search results à la Bing’s weather feature. And we can now use natural language for questions posed to Apple’s Siri.

How does this work? Short answer: computation. The computational program and sophisticated algorithms that make Siri work are found within a program called Mathematica, developed by Dr. Stephen Wolfram. Dr. Wolfram has devoted the last few decades to increasing our understanding and application of computation. This work has culminated in the development of Wolfram|Alpha, a computational knowledge engine, which Dr. Wolfram demonstrated in his SXSWi talk, Computation and Its Impact on the Future.

Go to and enter the phrase “planes in the air.” Wolfram|Alpha uses data from thousands of sources and advanced computational processes to tell you the number of planes in the air above your head at that exact moment.