Storytelling at South by Southwest

South by Southwest Interactive 2007 was predictably wonderful; simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. On the one hand, it seems like I spent the entire time goofing off and having fun but at the same time, it’s been the most productive conference I’ve attended in quite a while.

SXSW is a great barometer for testing the current zeitgeist in the kingdom of the geek. Personally, the Southby canary in the Web coalmine was telling me one thing: it’s all about telling stories, baby.

Finally, technology is being relegated to its correct role: a tool for allowing people to connect and share their stories. Whether it’s Ruby on Rails, Ajax, tagging or the World Wide Web itself, I got the feeling that what really matters now is personal communication—storytelling by any other name.

Zeldman nails it when he says that independent content is the new web app. I for one welcome our new storytelling overlords.

The obvious poster child of this new revival is the superb Ficlets, brainchild of Kevin Lawver and executed—with AOL’s approval—by a kick-ass team including Jason Garber and the amazing Cindy Li. But even if you look at any of the other hip web apps like Twitter and Flickr, you’ll find that the reason why they’re so engaging is that they’re allowing people to tell their stories.

Even at South by Southwest, people were using the Web to tell stories. There’s the comedic tale of of course but there was also tragedy and even some romance. Listen to Bruce Sterling’s closing rant which rambles around the subjects of blogs, wikis, video and fan fiction (even when I disagree almost entirely with what he says, I still enjoy listening to him speak).

Mind you, this is all my own personal subjective impression of SXSW. It may well be that other people thought that advertising, revenue and business models were the hot topics but that’s certainly not what I experienced. I found a real spirit of excitement swirling around the question, “how can we make it easier for people to communicate?” Answering that question means tackling a range of subjects from visual design, typography through to the mobile web, accessibility, interaction design and the user experience. The question was confronted head-on in Kathy Sierra’s keynote but its presence could be felt hanging over all the presentations and panels I attended.

What I love most about this feeling I got from South by Southwest is its familiarity. It reminds me of why I got into web design in the first place.

Let me tell you a story…

I was at one of the innumerable late-night SXSW parties. In this case the free booze and music was provided by the good folks at Purevolume and Virb. I just had my Wii cherry popped and I was describing the experience to Andy who was my co-coinspirator for the How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0 presentation. John Halcyon Styn came over and told us effusively how much he enjoyed said presentation.

Now, plenty of other people had come up to me to give positive feedback about our jolly jape but this compliment from Halcyon really meant a lot to me. You see, he was one of the people who inspired me to make stuff for the web. I distinctly remember sites like prehensile tales, 0sil8 and the inimitable Fray triggering something in my brain that made me realise what it was I wanted to do with my life.

Here we are, ten years later, and South by Southwest has confirmed the choice I made back then. There’s a familiar feeling in the air and it’s nothing to do with corporate buy-out or business models. It’s the feeling of exhilaration and excitement that comes from connecting with people through a shared experience. It’s probably the same feeling that our ancestors had when they gathered around the campfire at night to swap stories. They had fire, we have the hyperlink. Our campfire is the whole world. Our stories are individual and multitudinous. Our time is now.

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