SXSWi Finale: Lifting Up, Beating Down

When I conceived of this series of articles about SXSW Interactive, I figured I’d start by talking about the obvious philosophical inconsistencies in the entire production, then I’d make a spectacle of the conspicuous consumption that goes on in Austin during the festival (not all of it directly related to the festival, but it can’t be escaped one way or another), and finally I’d wrap up with an article talking about all the good things I thought were worth remembering. It turns out the most memorable thing that happened to me in Austin was how I was assaulted and ended up in jail.

And so my SXSW coverage became a thing on the Internet, a thing that likely gathered more attention from influential tech experts and bloggers than some of the keynote talks. I somehow turned it into even more of a shitshow than it already was. More on that later.

While I was in jail, I had a lot of time to think about Internet Explorer 9, which was officially released by Microsoft on Monday. Long derided as an inferior browser, IE9 offers vastly improved performance over its predecessors and its competition. Upgrading to IE9 is a great way to speed up your grandmother’s computer. Your best bet, despite Microsoft’s best rebuilding efforts, still seems to be one of the other browsers. But if it’s indeed faster than the other market browsers on PCs (it’s worth a try) while remaining stable, expect it to gain popularity soon.

Foursquare also upgraded just before the start of the festival. Version 3.0 offers additional features like Explore, additional types of check-in special offers, and a totally revamped point reward system. It’s more engaging and useful. It really helped with navigating the sprawling SXSW social agenda.

The big consumer device release at SXSWi was the iPad 2, from Apple. There was even a pop-up Apple Store in downtown Austin to serve the hordes of enthusiastic gadget freaks who wanted to have one immediately (the lines were blocks long). It’s a truly remarkable device, with significant improvements over its first-generation predecessor.

I had a chance to see the iPad 2 in action courtesy of SPiN PLAY, a new application from the publishers of SPiN. SPiN PLAY combines written articles from the magazine and website into specially-formatted articles for application subscribers ($7.99 annually) that are paired with relevant digital tracks and videos created specifically for the SPiN PLAY platform. It’s far slicker and usable than anything ever attempted on the web in this field. But that’s not all … the application also has a mode for playing the digital tracks as standalone playlists, so that you can use the iPad platform as your own personal, portable playback device to listen to all of the latest music covered by SPiN. This is a huge advancement in music editorial coverage, finally shattering the wall between music literature and the music itself.

The most exciting new mobile app that I had a chance to experience at SXSWi is not brand-new, but it’s gaining momentum quickly. RedLaser was first released last February as a barcode and QR code scanning application, and has since been acquired by eBay and expanded their tracked data to 90% of coded consumer products. Use the camera on your mobile device (iPhone or Android) to capture printed codes on real-life items, and the RedLaser app immediately retrieves any relevant information that can be scraped off the internet … for food products, it retrieves calorie/nutritional info, lists of allergenic ingredients, and price comparisons for ordering from different retailers. Scan a book and it’ll tell you the nearest library in which it’s available. Scan a consumer electronics product and it’ll give you customer reviews from around the Internet in addition to competitive prices. It’s free, and it’s a must-have mobile app.

The truly big thing at SXSWi this year was the movement of humanitarian causes. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan struck just as people were arriving to the festival, and an immediate effort was started to organize relief and support for its victims. SxSWCares was launched on the first day of the conference and has raised nearly $80,000 in a week from participants of all three SXSW festivals; fundraising efforts are still in-progress at the Music and Film festivals. These sort of commendable efforts are not just evidence that great things can happen from the interactive media community, but also that SXSW means more than a bunch of random drunk douchebags milling around consuming food, liquor and swag.

Speaking of such things, let’s talk about my arrest.

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I was at the very last event of the Interactive festival … the official closing party with a free concert from the Foo Fighters. After the show had ended, I was sending an email to my tech bosses at BlackBook using my phone. At some point, an event staffer walked up to me and accused me of being drunk. Having felt totally lucid and steady, I calmly argued the case for my sobriety and tried to reason with him, but he threatened me and walked away. I went back to typing my email … within a minute, I was jumped from behind by several men, dragged out of the venue, had my belongings ripped off of me, and had my head slammed into the ground and cuffs shackled on my wrists. I was defenseless the entire time and suffered a head injury in the incident. A police officer walked me over to a car that took me to Travis County Jail, and I spent the night in lockup on charges of public intoxication and resisting arrest. The latter is a serious matter; if convicted, I face up to a year in prison and a $4,000 fine. At no point was I given a sobriety test.

Upon my arrival at central booking, I was worried I was going to miss my 1pm flight the next day and that I was essentially trapped in custody in a faraway city with no local family or close friends to assist me. But I knew that if I could get the word out, I could get the attention of whoever hadn’t left Austin yet to help secure my release. I could afford bail, but I needed someone to post it. Then, as I retrieved important family phone numbers off of my mobile phone (which they confiscated afterward), I noticed my roommate and his girlfriend in New York had been trying to contact me since my arrest; he was robbed earlier in the evening and had lost his keys, so he had no way to get into our rental house. I tried calling my fiancée in New York and my parents in Florida, but was initially unsuccessful. So then, in desperation for help for all of us, I got on the phone with my roommate’s girlfriend, a long-time friend of mine, and I gave her my Twitter password.

She used my Twitter account to spread the word quickly. The news went viral. Many people contacted us to offer assistance. Others were deeply concerned. Some people used the opportunity to state how much of a buffoon I looked like for being picked up for drunkenness (since my inmate status report from the Travis County website was now being passed around social networks). But thanks to our efforts, my roommate found a person to take him in for the night; we reached our rental house manager who helped my roommate re-enter the house in the morning; we reached my fiancée and she rebooked my outbound flight. Along the way, someone I’ve never met (but who follows my blog) wrote in to offer the help of her boyfriend’s buddy from University of Texas who knew a competent criminal lawyer in Austin; thanks to the help of Peek & Toland, I was released on personal bond as soon as possible and made it back to New York that evening. I’ve hired them as my attorneys to deal with the outstanding criminal charges against me.

Without Twitter, few of these things would have come together as quickly as they did, and I might still be trapped in a cell in Austin with untreated head injuries. Fittingly, Twitter first became massively popular in 2007 at SXSW Interactive.

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