SXSW Interactive 2009

Much has been written about this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, where game developers rubbed shoulders with web marketers, and the publishers that attended were confronted at one panel by exasperated authors and bloggers. But now that the bytes have settled (or healed, as the case may be), what are the useful takeaways?

Most surprising, perhaps, is the extent to which the digital creative class relies on storytelling as a mode and a metaphor for what they do. The value of long-form writing and storytelling was the focus of several panels, such as “Not the Same Old Story,” about engaging users with illustrated stories, and “The Future of Visual Storytelling, about cinematic narrative. Speaker after speaker—along with gamers, designers, marketers, developers—talked about how users are drawn to sites by the stories that unfold. At “What We Can Learn from Games,” Junction Point/Disney’s Warren Spector, MIT’s Henry Jenkins, and ASU’s James Gee had a riveting discussion about games and education, and their individual approaches to game design and storytelling. Gamers follow a decision tree and, as Jenkins explained, “that becomes their own story.” Spector noted that gamers are willing to give up the game at the play level, but want to keep the narrative level: “They don’t want to know ‘How did you do that?’ but rather, ‘How could you have killed off that character?’”

Jim Schroer, a PR consultant talking about marketing, defined PR as “understanding and pre-informing stories.” The creators of Electronic ArtsDead Space, which began life as a comic book, then became a YouTube video, blog, and finally immensely successful game, explained that they started with “a centralized franchise story” from which everything else flowed. Ultimately, “the content was the marketing.”

Cyberfantasy author and Wired columnist Bruce Sterling, who was possibly the most anticipated keynote speaker, talked (mostly disparagingly) about publishers and lovingly about books (drawing a lot of laughter when he compared the Kindle to a cassette for an Atari 2800), but his success was arguably because his entire talk was the story of his life. Indeed, the Frey Café on Red River Road was packed when it hosted an open-mike “Telling Stories” night. (Fans weren’t disappointed when Cookstr’s Will Schwalbe told a hilarious story about Matt Dillon’s denim jacket.)

But along with storytelling, the conference was also about books that the speakers had read, written, wanted to read,
were in the process of writing—the ubiquity of books in an interactive conference was both startling and heartening. Just days before SXSW, Bill Clinton talked at the AAP annual meeting about how, in an age of blogs and internet information, books help develop “perspective and linear argument.” That was what many speakers reiterated, and given the success of author signings at the makeshift B&N sales booth, attendees were happy to follow their advice.

As one tweeter put it so succinctly (not that there’s much choice on Twitter): “SXSW makes me want to read more.”