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Re/wind: A Look Back at South By Southwest's Past Futures

Gimmicks? Where we're going, we don't need gimmicks. ... But we'll get bombarded by them anyway.

Back to the Future Part II

This year’s South By Southwest festival begins on Friday, and Re/code will be out there in force to track the trends (and also party).

In recent years, the “interactive” track of SXSW has built up a reputation for itself as a microphone for the little guy with the next big thing. It’s most strongly identified with the launch of Foursquare, which launched to great hype at SXSW 2009 and raised a ton of money not long after.

Since then, though, SXSW has seen plenty of other attempts to define the Future that ultimately went nowhere. Here, then, is a look back at the good and the bad of recent years at South By Southwest, by way of the Re/code team’s previous home, AllThingsD.

Despite the Foursquare rollout, the theme of SXSW 2009 was Twitter, according to Google’s Kevin Marks. Facebook also released Facebook Connect for the iPhone, which analyst Charlene Li explained was an “incremental step toward social networks’ inevitable migration to mobile.” Sounds right!

Meanwhile, Web 1.0 founders resurfaced, Dave McClure explained his investments and Boxee CEO Avner Ronen talked to Peter Kafka about “going head-to-head against the TV establishment” and becoming “an irritant or worse for the TV business,” which sounds a lot like present-day irritant Aereo.

Two years later the social networking solutions were bubbling up like crazy at SXSW, both online and off. Sites like promised to be a “personal network, rather than a social network” (where are they now?) and new apps promised to let users stalk celebrities, freely message their friends (hmm, that sounds familiar), meet people in the real world and check in Foursquare-style at concerts.

Although SXSW has a history of dumb rumors, one rumor that year nailed Google’s social plans: a site based around the concept of “circles” of your friends. Only problem is, Google didn’t launch the network, dubbed Circles at the time, and said it might not launch it, ever, until it did just a few months later as Google+.

A year later, even with the cat out of the bag, people were still wondering what Google+ was, and technology was delving ever deeper into the real world, whether by saving the environment, fixing politics, tricking drivers into opening an ad for a parking app, or turning homeless people into Wi-Fi hotspots. SXSW Interactive also played host to many Big Ideas that year, ranging from lessons in disruption to how videogames might fix your brain to how socially networked society had bred a “culture of fear.”

Perhaps the biggest idea that year, courtesy of my colleague Liz Gannes: “… It was impossible to ‘win’ in 2012” because apps that kept trying to do more and more “were hindered by poor service and battery life impact.”

(On a less serious note, 2012 also gave us these amazing lists of what people at the festival were asking for from task and errand services Zaarly and Taskrabbit. My favorite: “$120 for ‘120 beers delivered to the Airport Hilton in the next 29 minutes.'”)

Which brings us to last year, 2013, when it became clear that maybe we wouldn’t get another huge SXSW app on the scale of Twitter or Foursquare. Instead, amid a sea of gimmicks that were brilliant, odd and/or unsettling, the hot idea was 3-D printing: Bringing it to amateurs, using it to make guns and even 3-D printing a rocket engine. And then Al Gore spoke about democracy being “hacked” and spider genes spliced into goats.

Will this year’s South By Southwest Interactive be as gimmicky and faddish as years prior? Almost certainly. But will it also serve up some new innovations that will be worth talking about next year? Stay tuned for more.

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