SXSW – where everybody knows your Twitter name

“In the last two days I’ve had better conversations about the technology we’ve developed than I’ve had in the past 2 years in London.” So said one of the UK entrepreneurs on the Digital Mission to me while we shared beers in a bar at one of the myriad events to happen at South By South West Interactive (SXSWi) in Austin Texas. But that doesn’t mean everyone there was firing on all cylinders.

SXSW is fairly unique. The majority of content at the event is created by the people attending. You submit an idea for a panel (plus your suggested panelists) and if it’s accepted by organisers you get to go to the event for free. Even then it only costs about $300 for the festival, and you can also get day passes. There are formal speeches as well – such as Facebook’s launch of its Facebook Connect API. But the the crowd-sourced nature of this content means that panels can be hit and miss. This is especially true of panels organised by friends and colleagues who have a tendency to agree with each other, rather than entering into vigorous debate.

Frustrated by the apparent lack of dissent on many panels, some renegage Brits – Richard Pope of FixMyStreet and the guys from the School of Everything – decided to run what was rapidly dubbed an ad-hoc “un-panel” titled “Not another social Media panel?!”. It started out serious – forget trying to monetise Facebook/Twitter and start trying to work out if social media can affect real change in the world, like fix problems on your local street for instance.

Of course, with Brits in charge (and I cannot tell a lie, I helped) the whole thing started to descend into good-natured farce, with panelists being voted on and off by the crowd and at one point an American panel volunteer declaring that she’d clearly been born in the wrong country.

Appropriately, the random hashtag of #kebab was applied an thus ended up trending on Twitter (check out the ongoing twitterstream here).

But the serious point of SXSW Interactive was more, well serious. The Brits were there as part of Digital Mission, a trade mission organised by Chinwag for UK Trade & Investment, designed to enable digital companies to expand into overseas markets and attract investment outside the UK. Check out the official pictures, the blog and the companies exhibiting. You should also check out the daily TechFluff episodes.

That’s the official story. For what it’s worth, here’s my 2 cents on why the Brits were there. SXSW is a chance to see Silicon Valley and US tech culture at play. And I mean at play. Some even call it “Spring Break for Geeks”. Whatever the case, it’s a great opportunity to arrange to see Valley people, if they’re in town, for a fraction of the price of other Silicon Valley events, and in a more casual environment.

There is of course the assessment of the ever cynical ValleyWag, that the difference between SXSW Interactive 10 years ago and now is that “Thanks to the delusions of public-market investors, there was actually money to be made from what Internet insiders admitted were inanities. Now there’s no money and no hope of making it. There’s just the frivolity left.” They were of course referring to the myriad parties around the event such as a well-oiled Facebook party, which featured bands, DJs and breakdancers, and even Valleywag’s own event. However, there is still clearly money of some description to be made if the swathes of consultants and ‘social media marketers’ were anything to go by.

In truth the real point about SXSW is the sheer randomness of the event – advancing your thinking, making contacts and seeing another side to Silicon Valley and tech culture in the US. You had to be seriously dull not to get anything at all out of it.

And conversely, we were in a position to give something back. It became clear on day one that US tech people could use more educating about the tech scene outside the US. I was on the Saturday morning panel about starting up in Europe. It it quickly became apparent that although there was a smattering of knowledge, most questioners during the Q&A were largely unaware of any startup scene in Europe other than the high profile success stories behind Skype, for instance.

In a panel the next day, title “Ditch the Valley, run for the Hills” the conversation revolved largely around starting up outside the Valley – but still within the US. When others ventured that there might be some interesting companies and startup clusters outside the US – as Beijing-based renaissance man Kaiser Kuo did – the majority of the panel – including Robert Scoble who has notably toured Israel and China recently – roundly scoffed at the idea. Although there are incredibly sound reasons for doing a startup in the Valley – 50 years of innovation, huge numbers of VCs and tech people, need I say more – the panel discussion could have used a little more context to their discussion.

At least SXSWi did offer one vision of the future which could well go global – the trashing of the local mobile reception by thousands of mobile users, probably the majority of whom were on iPhones. For most of the five-day digital conference, AT&T subscribers – which has the iPhone contract – had sluggish service, dropped calls and outright outages. A missed opportunity for the cellphone network to put in more bandwidth. Instead it was being roundly trashed on Twitter by SXSW attendees. But then you haven’t really arrived until you’re trashed on Twitter have you?