SXSW's interactive portion is for everyone

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A stroll around the Austin Convention Center mid-SXSW reveals dozens of young people unclear on the concept of chairs. Propped up in front of their laptops, attendees slump against any nearby hard surface and blog. The convention will be captured for posterity, midflight.

"It used to bug me that they'd come 2,000 miles and type everything into a computer, but this is the new-media world we live in," says Hugh Forrest, event director for SXSW's Interactive Festival.

He should know about that new-media world, having been in on the Interactive portion of SXSW since 1994, when it was paired with the film element. (In 1995, it became its own event; this year's event begins today and runs through Tuesday.) The show has always remained cutting-edge and is designed to educate its approximately 2,500 unique badge holders -- and help them network.

Traditionally, the centerpiece of the Interactive event has been the trade show and exhibition (March 9-11), which features new technology, new apps and new services for interested -- and key -- digital creatives. Exhibitor John SanGiovanni, co-founder of Zumobi, is bringing a mobile-device-based creation that allows users to create widgets for their cell phones that directly link to content which automatically updates itself -- and it's free.

"This is precisely the right audience for us," SanGiovanni explains. "We think the independent community will drive some of the big thinking, and there's a lot of rock star Web developers at SXSW."

But while Interactive attendees may swarm the trade show and exhibition, and flock to the ScreenBurn Arcade (March 8-9), they also pack the panels. Says Forrest: "Whereas it's a challenge for the music and film sides to get their registrants to go to panels, if our people did panels at 4 in the morning, we'd get attendees."

This year the event has snagged some major players: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and PostSecret.com's Frank Warren will keynote; Michael Eisner is participating in a joint panel discussion between the Film and Interactive sections on March 11. Other panel discussions will focus on online activism and e-commerce.

But the biggest change in the last few years for the Interactive fest, notes Forrest, is the closing of the gap between Interactive, Film and Music. "The line between our communities is not completely gone, but it's thinner every year," he says. "What is the difference between an indie filmmaker and someone who has a blog and puts a video on it?"
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