Photo by Peter McCrady
Hugh Forrest, director of the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, said privacy and surveillance will be two of the hottest topics at this year's event, which is held March 7–11.
SXSW Interactive conference director
Hugh Forrest is the director of the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference, scheduled for March 7–11, in Austin. This event brings together more than 30,000 digital creatives from throughout the United States and around the world. These guests are able to attend five days of panels, presentations, brainstorming, networking, deal-making, socializing, creating, innovating and fun. Forrest majored in English at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Before joining the SXSW team, he founded a small alternative publication called The Austin Challenger and wrote for several other newspapers.
What’s new at SXSW this year?
We have lot of new stuff this year, as we try to do every year. Some of the new stuff we have for 2014: We have added a more formal awards ceremony for our accelerator pitch competition. This is the pitch competition for startups within the event. So we now have an awards ceremony, which will just make it a little bit easier for folks to identify the winners. We’ve also added a gaming awards competition and ceremony. That’ll occur March 8 at the Long Center. As with most of our gaming stuff, that is community-focused, meaning that it’s free. Another community event that we are changing a little bit for 2014 is this thing we call SXSW Create, which is sort of our mini version of a Maker Fair. We are moving Create to the terrace of the Long Center. The last thing I’ll mention is that we’ve added a track of sports programming for 2014.
Do you have any tips for someone who is submitting a proposal of a panel for SXSW Interactive and wants to get in? What works?
The tips that I have are to try to make the proposal as straightforward as possible. Consider the context that there are 3,000 other proposals. So we’ll get a proposal that will be something totally abstract like ‘Beyond the Fence.’ If you’re looking at 3,000 proposals—whether you’re an advisory board person or staff—when you see ‘Beyond the Fence,’ it doesn’t tell you anything. You’re going to move on. We also try to counsel people to be as specific and focused as possible. Depth is much better than width. That’s a factor of the event because we’ve got 600 or 700 total sessions. You don’t need to explain social media A–Z in your panel. Pick one small aspect of it— ‘Why Soccer Moms Aren’t Using Pinterest Anymore’—and focus on that as opposed to everything.
How do companies benefit from being in SXSW?
In our best days, something like SXSW Interactive brings together a lot of media, first-adopters, trendsetters … people who push the envelope. So for a company like Pinterest, coming to SXSW, even after they’ve been out for a while, it’s a great way to get their message to these early adopters with a lot of social media who will get this message out.
Does that put extra pressure on event organizers?
Yes. Certainly our tipping point in the growth we’ve enjoyed is 2007, when Twitter essentially launched at SXSW. That’s helped us grow so much so that many startups want to come to SXSW and be the next Twitter. So many venture capitalists want to come to SXSW, discover the new Twitter before it’s Twitter. It’s been a great blessing. It has also, however, I would say, to your point, become somewhat of an albatross. There were 10 stories like this in 2013 and there will be 10 more in 2014, ‘There’s no new Twitter at SXSW this year.’ Sure, that’s a fair enough criticism, although I would say the context of that is that in 2007 we had no idea Twitter was going to be Twitter. There may be something that was released at SXSW 2013 that two years later we’ll look back on and go ‘Wow, that’s great. We knew that was going to be big.’ But in fact, we don’t.
Any predictions on big companies, ideas or trends we’ll be talking about this year?
I’ll say in the big picture—nothing groundbreaking or earth-shattering here—but what I think will be one of the biggest trends out of Interactive this year, and we’re seeing it everywhere, is wearable technology. We’re seeing more smart watches develop. We’re seeing Google Glass. We’re on the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kinds of changes we’ll see within this wearable technology space in the next three years or five years.
Are there any must-see events at SXSW Interactive this year?
It’s all must-see. Certainly a big area of focus for 2014, in light of what we know from this past summer is privacy, surveillance, [National Security Agency] and PRISM. We have a lot of programming focused on that. Glenn Greenwald will be part of the event. He is the journalist who broke most of the Snowden stuff. I think that the Snowden stuff from last summer was a reminder to those of us—myself included—who were very idealistic about this technology and all the power of social networks, that there is a very dark side to this stuff as well, which continues to need to be investigated and looked at and thought about and viewed.
SXSW Interactive has grown from a staff of about four people in the late 2000s to include about 25 people currently. Director Hugh Forrest said the Interactive portion of the conference was the smallest part of the SXSW family of events for a long time, but he credits the growth of social media and startups, as well as Twitter’s essential launch at the conference in 2007, for putting SXSW Interactive on a growth curve. This year, about 3,200 presentations were proposed for Interactive. There will be about 800 total sessions at this year’s Interactive conference March 7–11.