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03 | Hugh Forrest, SXSW: Crowd-sourced Content, Community, and Why Growth is Overrated

  • June 26, 2019
  • 41:38

During this discussion, Hugh Forrest (Chief Programming Officer, SXSW) shares his perspectives on curating great content, what it takes to maintain a strong sense of community at an event with hundreds of thousands of attendees, and how events can bring people together in an increasingly digital—and at times divisive—world.

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Top Takeaways


GO DEEP WITH CONTENT: Whether you are programming content or submitting a presentation, you should aspire for content that is focused and in-depth. As Hugh puts it: “You're not aiming for the proverbial mile wide and inch deep, you're aiming for the inch wide, and a mile deep.” Hugh admits that it can be a struggle to consistently program content that is both deep and highly relevant to a given audience but finds this approach to be key.


ASK YOUR AUDIENCE: In 2007, Hugh launched an innovative system for crowd-sourcing panels at SXSW called PanelPicker. This system allows anyone with an internet connection to submit a speaking proposal and then allows the greater community to upvote, downvote or comment on the accumulated submissions. By analyzing the data from these submissions, Hugh and his team have been able to surface larger trends in audience interest.


GROWTH IS OVERRATED: When SXSW first launched in 1985, it attracted around 700 attendees. At SXSW 2019, there were over 250,000 attendees. While this growth speaks to how SXSW has resonated with the greater community, it has also caused some challenges for Hugh and the SXSW team when it comes to creating a space for personal connections. As Hugh puts it: “I think of the things that is most important to an attendee experience is being able to meet, connect, network, establish valuable, professional, and personal relationships at a conference.”

ABOUT Hugh Forrest

In addition to his role in curating content, Hugh is the Director of SXSW Interactive Festival. He has been with SXSW since 1989 and was their first full-time employee. Hugh's seen first-hand how the event has scaled from a gathering of hundreds to a gathering of hundreds of thousands.

Episode Transcript

Hugh, thank you so much for being on the show today.

It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

I'm really excited to dig into your perspectives on content. Obviously, South by Southwest is a huge event, and has grown exponentially over the past well, 30 years, or so, so really curious on your perspectives on how the event has changed, and some lessons that have been learned along the way, but for starters, I want to start with your origins with South by Southwest.

I know that you were the first full-time employee, or the founding employee, as you've mentioned in the past over in 1989. I'm curious, what led you to South by Southwest, and once you joined the organization, what was your journey like to the role you have today?

Well, yes, I started slightly more than 30 years ago. It was, as with a lot of things in life, I didn't have any comprehension at that point that this would go on to be a job that would work out for the next two, three decades. South by Southwest was certainly a very, very small thing at that point, or certainly much smaller than it is now, and my specific involvement was more like them leading to me.

I knew the people who are doing this young event called South by Southwest, I knew them, because I was a writer, and I was somewhat involved with the Austin Chronicle, because it was an outlet to write for, I had a Mac computer, and I got pulled in because I had a Mac Plus, and South by Southwest didn't. So, my initial entree into the company was the fact that I had this hardware, and that they in year two decided that it was time to move from keeping all their records on paper, or three by five cards, to a computer.

But that said, South by Southwest, even in those early days combined, and leveraged so many of the things that make me like living in Austin, make me love living in Austin, a celebration of creativity, a celebration of music, a celebration of how you can craft a life doing the things that you want to do on your own terms, as opposed to what someone else wants you to do.

So again, those were some pretty compelling reasons to stay involved with South by Southwest after I came on-board over those 30 years. The event, and the company has certainly changed a ton. We've gone from one employee that was me, to 200, or so employees. We've gone from a small one-room office that was part of another office, to just launching, or opening a new building that we helped put together.

We've gone from an event that only focuses on music, to an event that focuses on music, and film, and technology, and startups, and government, and food, and style, and Blockchain, and cannabis, and sports, and all kinds of other things, so again, has really, really changed a ton over that 30 years.

The thing that hasn't changed, and the reason that I'm still here 30 years later is that focus on creativity, that focus on innovation, on celebrating what makes humans human, which is creative thinking, creative approaches, and I think that's one of the things that makes South by Southwest so, so special.

That's so cool, and so you are the Chief Programming Officer at South by Southwest. Could you tell us a little bit about what that role entails, especially concerning that South by Southwest covers so many different types of content?

Yeah, that is a fancy, fancy way to say that I answer a lot of emails, or answer many emails, and hopefully, don't ignore too many of them. My role at South by Southwest is to oversee all the content that happens during the day. That is the panels, presentations, keynotes, meetups, what we call 'Mentor sessions', anything that happens during the day that our badge holders can learn from, make new connections at, network at, those types of things.

And then I also oversee the music festival, which brings together about 2000 bands over the space of six, or seven nights, and the South by Southwest Film Festival, which showcases about 250 films over the space of nine nights. So again, I oversee all the content of the event, and I would say the operative word in that sentence is 'Oversee.'

I'm not directly involved in most of this. I'm involved with managing, or meeting with a person who has more expertise, and insight in their particular area. On it's best days, it is a great job in the sense that I'm working with creative people who are also working with a very, very creative community, and it's a front seat to so many interesting ideas, interesting projects, interesting cultural happenings, all of which we try to showcase, try to find a home for at South by Southwest.

And I think you're being a little modest. I mean, I understand that you take this more overview approach, and as you said, you're often working with the people who are experts in these areas, but I mean, you've done some pretty amazing contributions to the overall content process, one of which was the PanelPicker which you launched in 2007, and it's this innovative, crowdsourcing approach to finding content. Could you tell us a little bit more about PanelPicker, and sort of what led you to the creation of this system?

Absolutely. PanelPicker is a topic I love to talk about. I do think it's one of our better contributions to the overall ecosystem of conference, and event, and festival planning. We started this thing called PanelPicker about 12 years ago at this point. The name is a nod to, I always love alliteration, and it helps me remember things if I have two words in a row that start with the same letter.

But the general idea here was as follows: I had done a lot of the programming, worked on a lot of the conference programming in some of the earlier days of South by Southwest, and a lot of that was done by me reading a story in Wired magazine, or Time magazine, or Sports Illustrated, or People, or whatever, and saying 'Oh, this is a pretty interesting topic, let me see if I can track down some of the people that are mentioned in this story, and maybe we can put together a panel about it.'

So, it was me, or other people on my staff reaching out, and trying to convince these people to speak at the event, and that system worked pretty well on a lot of levels, but invariably, or inevitably, the best content that came to South by Southwest, or that we had at South by Southwest was when someone reached out to me, and said, 'Hey, I am an expert in this new thing called social media, and I've got three other friends from around the US who are also experts in slightly different ways. Why don't we put together a panel on social media?' And I'd say, 'Well, that's great. You guys know this topic a lot better than I do.'

So, we'd often see the best content that way, and thought a lot about how can we make that process more formal, more open to more people where they can be giving their ideas to us, and we can be choosing from the best ideas of those, as opposed to us reaching out. So, we thought about this a lot, we created an interface that we titled the PanelPicker.

The upsides of this interface, it allowed anyone with an internet connection to input a speaking proposal, and then that speaking proposal was then displayed on a second interface where the online community could in internet parlance, upvote, or downvote it, comment on it, and we could get some real interesting feedback on what the community most wanted to see.

When we first launched the PanelPicker 12, 13 years ago, we thought, 'Well, maybe we'll get 20, or 30 ideas this way, and maybe we'll use one, or two of them as programming at the event, it's an interesting experience', and lo, and behold, we got 500 ideas the first year we did it, and wow, there's a lot of really interesting stuff there.

So, it was an interface that immediately resonated with this community, with this tech community that appreciated, and understood the interactivity it offered, and the transparency it offered and liked the ability to have a say in what we were programming.

There's a little bit of a tip of the hat there to the open source community, and certainly a large tip of the hat to just this overall idea that you are part of a community, and that sections of the community are smarter in some ways than you are, and other sections that are smarter in other ways than you are. So again, kind of trying to harness the power of the community.

Over the years, the PanelPicker has continued to grow. Over the last few years, we typically got about 5,000 total ideas from innovative, and creative people from all over the US, and all over the world. Those ideas are again displayed on an interface, and anyone can vote on them, comment on them, that creates a score for each idea. We also have an advisory board that rates each idea, and staff rates each idea, so each idea gets kind of a score, and review those scores very, very extensively, and hopefully, that helps us choose some of the best content for the event.

So, from those 5,000 ideas that come in through the PanelPicker, about 700, or 800 will be part of the event, and that's again, neat. That helps us get new speakers in the event, it helps us get new ideas into the event, ideas that very creative people are working on that may not have floated into the mainstream yet.

The PanelPicker also in many ways serves as a barometer of what our community is interested in. Meaning, one year we'll have 15 proposals about Quantum, the next year we have 40 proposals about Quantum Computing, and we understand that wow, there's a big uptick in interest there. So, it's valuable in that regard.

It's also valuable in just again, creating a point of contact, a way that people can engage with South by Southwest during the summer months when we typically don't have a whole lot of other ways to engage with the community.

So again, the biggest picture of the PanelPicker is an outgrowth of my belief, and I think of the belief a lot of people who work at South by Southwest in the power of the community, that the community has some great ideas, that the power of the internet, and other connected technologies allow us to leverage in a way that we couldn't have ever imagined doing 15, or 20 years ago.

There's so much to unpack right there in terms of just the amount of success you've had with it, the amount of entries, in terms of the unique approach you've taken with having an advisory board, and having a little bit of curation into the mix, and the rating, and all of that, but one question I want to ask you real quick is, what is an example of something that was submitted through PanelPicker that really was impressive?

Well, I think one of the most interesting examples of something that came in through PanelPicker that shows both the strengths, and the weaknesses of the interface was, seven, or eight years ago, there was a small social media company that put an idea into the PanelPicker, and again, the PanelPicker will be open, and is open in July.

So, that process happens in the summer before the spring when South by Southwest occurs, and this idea from this social media company, it got a few votes, not a whole lot, so less than average number of votes. The advisory board who reviews speaking ideas kind of liked it, but no one was crazy about it, staff kind of liked this idea, but not crazy about it.

So, this idea I think made it into our maybe pile, which is generally a pretty big pile, but again, it's something that, 'Huh, we should think more about this', and what's interesting is from the time that idea came in in the summer, and to when we finally needed to make decisions on the ideas in the maybe pile, which was late November, and December, that small social media company had gotten a lot more attention, and we realized that this social media company probably has some legs.

Okay. So at this point in the story, I'm just dying to know, what was this company?

That small startup was Pinterest who had entered a speaking proposal, and again, in the summer when they'd entered, Pinterest was at one place in their journey. Three months later, they began gaining more traction, significantly more traction, and we realized it made sense for them to be in the event, and pulled them in, and then in fact, I think they were voted one of the best panels of the event, but you know, that story is fun, because we've all heard of the company obviously.

It indicates the strengths, and the weaknesses of the PanelPicker that we had this emerging, or this startup that was destined to do some great things, want to participate in South by Southwest, and use this interface to participate. It also indicates weaknesses of the PanelPicker in that it isn't always immediately obvious what the best ideas are, or what the best startups are, and we had numerous people review this one, and it didn't immediately stand out as, 'Oh yeah, we got to do this one, this company's going to go on, and have an IPO in 10 years, and be phenomenal', or something.

But it's one of the stories that I always remember, and think about, and talk about. It always gets a reaction out of people when you mention that one.

Yeah, no, that's crazy.

There are dozens of other stories, some similar of startups that have been involved that you didn't know at the time, but wow, they went on to do other things. There are also again, lots of great stories from the PanelPicker of seeing those microtrends, and understanding, or learning from the microtrends in the PanelPicker, and then seeing those play out into larger trends in the greater technology ecosystem.

Okay. So, could I throw out a buzzword real quick?

Everyone loves buzzwords.

You know, to me, Hugh, this sounds like a really novel example of big data.

Yeah, it is, absolutely on big data. It is somewhat rudimentary there. I mean, every year, once the PanelPicker entries are in, I spend a lot of time just doing word searches, how many times was word searches for the descriptions that people write for the PanelPicker ideas? And those again are very rudimentary, and basic.

It's comparing for the 2020 interface, how many proposals do we have that mentions Donald Trump in the description, versus how many we had a year ago, and that's basic info that one small human can do, but again, it's just some interesting insight year, over year in terms of what our community is interested in, what has gone up in interest, what has gone down in interest, and provide some insights into what kind of ideas, and what kind of thought processes are powering the overall tech ecosystem.

So, to sort of summarize the very content focused section of our discussion today, what's a piece of advice you'd give to someone who is looking to put together good content for an event?

Well, I think that my first piece of advice, my best piece of advice, whether it is someone who is entering a speaking proposal in the PanelPicker, or someone who is thinking of launching an event, or even someone who is putting together a lecture, that type of thing is to aim for depth over width.

People, whether it's Southwest by Southwest attendees, or people who are going to any kind of conference, people want to deep dive into the topic at hand, and that tends to provide a richer experience, a better experience than trying to cover way too much ground in the space of 30 minutes, or an hour.

So, said another way, you're not aiming for the proverbial mile wide, and inch deep, you're aiming for an inch wide, and a mile deep, really something that is a strong, deep, specific focus on the topic at hand, and having read many, many speaking proposals, literally thousands, and thousands of speaking proposals via the South by Southwest PanelPicker, that is one of the biggest mistakes that we'll see where people are putting together a speaking proposal on the history of social media.

Well, that's really hard to cover that whole history of social media in the space of an hour. That's an entire conference, not one particular session. So instead, maybe let's focus on the what happened in social media in 2015, or something, one year, or even one three month period, but again, my advice, or my answer to your question on tips for people putting together content is go deep young man. Go deep, young woman, don't go wide.

I wish somebody had told me that back when I was writing research papers in high school, but no, that's huge, and come to think of it, listening to some of the feedback I've heard from other attendees, and even some other event organizers when it comes to content at events, it comes back to this where it's, 'Well, you know, we talked a lot about on the surface of some issues, and challenges, but we really didn't dive deep', and to just hear you phrase it like such, it makes total sense.

Good. Yeah, and I will say that as well. I mean, this is something that we continue to struggle with as with all events, that even having that understanding, and knowledge that you want to provide a deeper dive, it's a point of feedback we'll almost always get that, 'Gosh, there were some great sessions, but I wish more sessions had provided a deeper perspective, as opposed to a wider perspective.'

For sure. All right, so I want to pivot the conversation to community, something that is very near, and dear to South by Southwest from what I understand, and to start with, I know that Southwest has scaled greatly since 1987 when it first launched. At the time then, there were 700 attendees, in 2019, all of the offerings at the event from music, to film, to educational sessions brought in around 250,000 consumers, and that's just the consumer, it's not other people who might be affiliated with the event.

And so on the one hand, this is crazy exponential growth for South by Southwest, and I think it really speaks to the resonance that South by Southwest has had with the greater community, but on the other hand, I know that this has introduced some challenges as well in terms of providing an environment, can connect, forge personal relationships, and that's something again that I know is very valuable to South by Southwest.

So, what are some ways that in the face of this rapid growth that you, and your team have sought to foster in-person connections?

Well, absolutely agreed that as an event organizer, you're trying to grow, and increase numbers of your events, but that said, quantity is almost always the enemy of quality, and scaling communities, whether they're virtual communities, or physical communities, is extremely difficult.

So, it's great to grow, it's great to see numbers increased year over year, which we've been lucky enough to generally experience that at South by Southwest, but again, the growth in numbers makes running an event even more challenging. So, more specifically to your question of how do you break down those numbers, and continue to try to provide an experience where people can make meaningful one-on-one connections, certainly what we have done a lot more in the last 10 years, and even more so in the last five years is create, or develop, or offer more meetup type programming at South by Southwest.

And meetup being there's a specific place, and a specific time that if you are a web developer who focuses on Ruby, that's where you can go to meet fellow Ruby developers, or if you want to hire a Ruby developer, that's where you can go. We'll have other meetups that focus on specific countries, or specific cities, or specific attributes, or interests, or entrepreneurs in the mobile space, or entrepreneurs from the LGBTQ community.

All those kinds of things with the context that you're just breaking down a very large event into smaller component pieces that are easier to digest, and easier for people to make connections at. We also offer a lot of what we call mentor sessions, which are one-on-one meetings where someone can get direct advice from a quote industry expert, and do a lot of other things like that that again, help break down this increasingly large, and to a degree, hard to digest event into something that is much easier to focus on, much easier to make connections on, and in that sense, on the one hand, lots of organizers want to grow, on the other hand, I think that growth is overrated.

There is so much you can do, and so much more freedom you have with a relatively smaller event to provide connections that are meaningful for people, and I think that we have to remember as event organizers that one of the things that is most important to an attendee experience is being able to meet, connect, network, establish valuable, professional, and personal relationships at a conference.

Yes, it's great to be able to go to a lecture, or a presentation, or a panel where you learn something new, that's a big part of conference-going, but even bigger is the whole networking factor of making a new connection with someone who can help your specific career path immediately, or somewhere down the future, and if you can create spaces with an event that make it easier for people to do that, then you've got the beginnings of something successful.

I appreciate that emphasis on networking, and creating those smaller communities so much. I mean, when it comes to events, it feels like there is such a tough balance to providing great content, and making sure you have all those boxes checked, but then also making sure you are creating those opportunities for people to meet, and going out of your way to create those opportunities as well.

Absolutely, and I think that certainly, we live in a content-rich world at this point. It is great to be able to go to a session, and see Jeff Bezos deliver a lecture on where he sees commercial space travel evolving to in the next five years. That's fascinating, but realistically, I can probably watch that on YouTube, right?

I can probably find a video online where he's doing the same thing, and I can watch that from the comfort of my couch, and I don't have to worry about a lot of other things. What events provide is the ability to potentially connect directly with Jeff Bezos, and say, 'Hey, I want to be on that first flight to Mars', or connect with other very, very compelling people in real time, face-to-face setting, and as much as we've changed, and improved technology to be able to connect with people, nothing yet replaces real-time, face-to-face interactions in terms of creating new opportunities,

100%. Now, sort of counter to what we were just talking about the value of in- person, face-to-face connection, I want to talk a little bit about social media, and I understand that social media has been a significant part of South by Southwest's growth, and I understand to some extent it has also proved to be somewhat challenging. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the double-edged nature of social media, and how you and your team have sort of learned to handle it.

Absolutely. Social media is a huge part of how South by Southwest grew, and particularly how we grew in the period from say, 2007, to 2015, or even earlier, 2000, 2005, to 2015. We were in the right place, at the right time with a lot of the early pioneers of this medium, and it's hard to conceive of in 2019, but yeah, there was a time when lots of us were just learning what the social media stuff was, how it could be used in both a personal, and professional setting, and again, we were offering that kind of information to people, and ahead of the curve in terms of offering that, and saw so much growth there.

Certainly, one of our most famous events within the South by Southwest history is 2007 when Twitter essentially launched at South by Southwest, and that caused a huge upturn in our growth where more, and more startups wanting to be involved in the event, and more, and more VCs wanted to be involved in the event to meet the next Twitter, and then a couple of years later, Foursquare launched at South by Southwest, a few years after that, Airbnb, which is less about social media, but also about ways of connecting people, Meerkat in 2015.

So again, a lot of these social media platforms, very, very central to our growth, but per your question, I think most of us understand that in 2019, we are in a little bit a different place as a society in terms of social media, and we've come to realize, come to understand that in addition to all the ways that social media connects us, social media has emphasized, accelerated, reinforced a lot of the divisions in our society, and in many ways disconnected us, and contributed to the very divided times that we live in now.

And we better understand the challenges of regulating hate speech, or negative speech on social media, and understand the challenges of that in terms of a Constitutional framework. Well, the Constitution says one thing, but did the Constitution understand what the internet would look like 200 years forward?

So again, I think we're in a very different place on social media now in 2019, a very different place than we were even five ago, and that certainly puts us in a very different place, or very interesting place as at South by Southwest, because it's been such a big part of our growth.

I hope that in 2020, and 2021, and moving forward at South by Southwest, we'll be a leading voice in how to create the next wave of social media that is better at connecting us to the things we like, and better at also regulating the things that pull us apart, whether that is a platform, or it's a paid platform that mitigates some of the problems that way, whether there are some other ways that smart people figure out how to improve the landscape we're in now.

But again, we've kind of come full circle in social media from, this is the greatest thing ever, to no, this isn't the greatest thing ever, and the role of events like South by Southwest at this point is to figure out how we can change some of these problems for the better, and produce better outcomes for everybody.

Right, and I'm so glad you mentioned that. I know that you believe that South by Southwest, and events can really play a special role in the global climate of 2019, and some of the divisions that you face. How do you see that role-playing out?

Well, I think that at a most basic level, events like South by Southwest, you bring together, and hopefully amplify some of the smartest voices in the room. People who have new ideas on how to improve social media, how to improve a number of other things in our society, and people go to these events, these ideas get traction from events, influencers push them out, traditional media pushes them out, and hopefully you arrive at some solutions there.

I think that events like South by Southwest also serve as inspiration, and serve to remind us that just again, the power of face-to-face connections, and remind us that social media can do some great things, but that the greatest thing of all, or even greater than what social media can do is face-to-face interactions with people who are of the same tribe, or people who aren't of the same tribe yet, and realize that they are of the same tribe, and I've played around with this idea in many settings, that events like South by Southwest are in many ways this kind of the new church.

We serve a lot of those functions that institutions like the church have traditionally served. We bring people together, we offer fellowship, we offer inspiration, we offer new ideas, we offer networking, and hopefully when they leave at the end of the church session, or at the end of South by Southwest, they're in a better, more inspired place, and can go out, and do good things in the world.

Okay. Well, we don't have too much time left, but I do have a few more questions I'd love to ask you, Hugh. First of all, what is another organization out there that you think is really doing a great job when it comes to creating in-person experiences?

I think there are numerous organizations that do this. At a large scale, or in terms of a brand that we all recognize, and understand, I think TED does a phenomenal job at this, and do a particularly good job at creating content that can be shared personally, whether it's a TED Radio Hour, or TED Talks absorbed by video, they do great things there, but I also think that so many of the smaller events that are hosted at coworking spaces around the US, and around the world achieve some great results also, and part of the greatness of those results is that they are relatively smaller events.

These events are typically 10, to 20 people, they're free, they provide a way for people to connect, learn things, network, create new opportunities. So again, that's where so much of this is happening as well, and I think the common thread between a smaller event at a local coworking space, and a larger event like South by Southwest, or TED is again, that feeling of community, that importance of community, and understanding that bringing people together in one place at one time is more powerful even than being together online in some kind of chat room, that type of thing.

If you could give an earlier version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be, and why?

I mean, I think that what I would say now to earlier self is be more patient, and understand that building anything of value takes a lot of time, and that's something I need to continue telling myself, because I'm too often impatient, and want things to happen immediately, but one of the secrets, or if not the main secret of South by Southwest is simply, we've been doing it for 30 years, and grew a little bit every year, and add that all up together over three decades, and it amounted to it a ton of growth.

But again, the lesson there being that it didn't happen all at once, it happened fairly slowly, fairly organically. It was often one step backwards in terms of a mistake made, but then two steps forward in terms of that mistake rectified, and improved, and other things fixed.

Again, that kind of slow, and organic approach is hard for you to understand when you're 25 years old, it's also under hard for you to understand when you're 45 years old, but when you look back at the arc of what you've put together, the realization is 'Yeah, we did put something together that was pretty cool, but it took us a while to do that.'

Great, and how do you stay inspired, and keep your creative instincts fresh?

The more I can connect with our particular community, or our specific community, the more inspired I am. You know, seeing the new ideas, brainstorms, new innovations that the community has, and certainly seeing that to the PanelPicker is one of the things that keeps me going.

Certainly, another thing that I always love is I love hearing from attendees of South by Southwest when they say that, 'This is my favorite time of the year', or 'I came here, I got a new job out of it, I met someone who eventually became my co-founder, or who funded my company', 'I met my boyfriend', 'my girlfriend', 'my wife', 'my husband', 'It was a life-changing event.'

That is really neat to have played a small role in building something that is that meaningful to a lot of people, and that's one of the things that keeps me inspired in terms of South by Southwest is getting that kind of positive feedback, and hearing from people who we've been lucky enough to impact at the event.

Awesome. Well, that's our time, Hugh. It's been such a pleasure to hear about your journey through South by Southwest, and beyond, your philosophy towards content, and building a community. So thank you once again, Hugh, for being on the show.

Thanks for having me, I really enjoyed the conversation. These are things that I always love to talk about, about community, and some of the lessons we've learned in [inaudible 00:37:35] slow growth factor, so I hope I've given a little more context, and inspiration to others, and inspired them to do much better things than what we've done at South by Southwest.

Thank you, Hugh.