Ronald Reagan Invented Foursquare… March 15, 2011

Written by: Larry Weintraub
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…and other things I learned at SXSW.

How is that for a headline? It is a quote from mega new media/tech publisher and conference guru, Tim O’Reilly during a one-on-one interview he did with Jason Calacanis on Friday at this year’s SXSW conference.  O’Reilly told the story of how the government/military GPS program was made public during Reagan’s presidency paving the way for today’s location-based maps and corresponding applications.

I’m a longtime veteran of SXSW Music, but only a sophomore at SXSW Interactive.  This year’s SXSWi was incredible with attendance surging between 15,000 – 20,000 attendees.  A collection of techies, brands, nerds, hipsters, and foodies came together to learn, meet, eat, and drink.

This year’s standout technology was group messaging with GroupMe and Beluga leading the charge. The idea here is that you invite a small group of friends to follow and interact with you, thus avoiding all the clutter and keeping tabs on just the specific people you are most interested in hearing from.  That said, plenty of people were using last year’s darlings Foursquare and year before favorite Twitter to communicate where they were and what they were doing.

Celebrities were abound with sightings of Ashton Kutcher, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Pee Wee Herman stopping by parties, panels, and the IFC Crossroads House for interviews.

Also standing out were some significant brand activations.  Chevy was cutting into the local cab business by providing attendees with free rides in their Volts and other new cars, AT&T supplied much-needed phone recharge centers, and Pepsi had the largest party zone featuring Foursquare-sponsored four square tournaments and plenty of free PepsiMax.

Panels were spread out amongst numerous venues and standouts were AT&T’s head of social media Chris Baccus explaining the complexities of handling customer complaints via Facebook and Twitter, R/GA’s top brass advising on how to avoid your brand becoming obsolete and Wieden+Kennedy presenting the Old Spice case study to a packed room that left hundreds turned away at the door.

While the dense crowds at the Driskill and Four Season hotels made business meetings a challenge, there was still a lot of networking getting done.  Despite the occasional feeling of claustrophobia and exhaustion, SXSW continues to be the most informative and fun conference of the year.