My South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) experience began on the “nerdbird” – the flight from San Francisco to Austin. At high altitude and in even higher amplitude, the techies sitting a row behind me were speed-outsmarting each other, jumping from database mining, the UX challenge of creating a human-friendly pixel resolution, the myth of interferences for avionics, to the “stupid-smart Nathans” in their lives (sorry, guys, it was hard not to eavesdrop). I first listened with intrigue (because these guys were really, really smart, and I might as well just transcribe their conversation into a comprehensive SXSW summary post), but after a while I began to resist the unsolicited expertise, and browsing through the conference program I couldn’t help but think of my two favorite session titles this year: “Co-Founder Speed Dating” and “The Evolution of the Douchebag in Modern Cinema.” Giving up on my way-too-thin headphones, I craved an enclave that would offer asylum from the forced intimacy of all the power-chatter, a simple switch-off that would disconnect me from verbal deluge and provides some kind of digital refuge from the very human analogue conversation. With all the new services that enable ‘controlled serendipity,’ it seems ironic that social filtering assumes we constantly want to meet people. I wanted to un-meet. Now. And there was no app for that.
Obviously, the signs of the times are different. Social discovery was a main theme of SXSWi this year. Start-ups from Uberlife, Sonar, to Crowded Room were vying for the pole position in the race to become the de-facto in-situ connectors. The winner, I would submit, will be the one service that manages to balance the need to “find the like-minded” (predictability) with the desire to “discover the unexpected” (serendipity). The path between the two is where true meaning occurs. Being a social utility is not enough – the best matchmakers understand that their job is to put on a great game, not to predict its outcome.
Another theme was the browser vs. OS war, extending the conversation from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that had preceded SXSWi. In light of the emergence of HTML 5 and Mozilla’s recently announced, much gushed about Open Web Devices (OWD) partnership with Spanish carrier Telefonica, the browser-OS web apps vs. native apps showdown drew a lot of attention. As Wireless Watch writes: “HTML5 is coming close to delivering the same quality of experience for web apps as native ones, and with its cross-platform nature can, theoretically at least, break the ties with the OS and allow non-platform owners such as operators or web service providers to create their own brand and distinctive offerings for any device.” My colleague Scott Jenson, creative director at frog, and a speaker at SXSWi, expects this trend to deliver on the promise of “just-in-time interaction,” allowing a far more seamless, personalized, and localized user experience than the super-fragmented native apps ecosystem can deliver today.
SXSWi was bigger, noisier, and messier than ever, and it was hard not get frustrated by the abundance of options and the scarcity of seats. But while there were some pleasant surprises (e.g. a session with “Catch Me If You Can” con artist Frank Abagnale), some panel topics are apparently evergreen. You could still find panels on crowdsourcing and branding in a social media world. The tone, however, was distinct this time: the digital literacy has increased exponentially, far beyond the tech in-crowd. The confidence and techno-swagger were staggering. And everyone, I mean, really everyone, was in town – hardcore digerati, outliers, cultural observers, and more and more business bigwigs. Location matters, and there is no place like SXSWi. Somewhere between hubris and pragmatism, the tech pilgrimage to Austin forms a unique geekipedia, a vast knowledge library, a mega-download of the future to come.
Speaking of which, the “Future of Work” was subject of a dedicated program track this year, and strikingly, eight years after the release of Thomas Malone’s seminal book, the main takeaway from the sessions was that the Future of Work may have already arrived – without us noticing it and indeed not evenly distributed. This became most apparent in a panel on “Decentralized Organizations - Do They Work?” with representatives from Zappos, Burning Man, Second Life-founder Philip Rosedale’s new company Coffee & Power, a marketplace for “small jobs”, and Malone himself. After several failed attempts to get a discussion going beyond just sharing anecdotes, a simple show of hands by the audience made clear that the session title was a rhetorical question. Of course decentralized organizations work. At least for a crowd like SXSWi, for which job title is oh-so-yesterday and even the online social status seems antiquated. The new currency is your latest venture.
Most of the people in the room appeared acutely aware of what Malone described as the historic opportunity in front of us: “For the first time we can combine the benefits of large organizations with the benefits of decentralized individual decision-making.” Indeed, if you combine economies of scale with the value of intimacy, you yield the “Economics of Emotion,” as Alan Zorfas coins them. In his recent article, he references a recent IBM survey poll of 1,700 CMOs who emphasized that building an enduring emotional connection with consumers is fast becoming a top business imperative.
Ironically, the very emotional bond, the very humanity we espouse as value in organizational designs, may be threatened by the technology we create: “True love is a lack of desire to check one's smartphone in another's presence,” the ever witty philosopher and writer Alain de Botton poignantly tweeted during the conference (perhaps during a date gone awry).
Keynote speaker Baratunde Thurston (The Onion) heralded the power of “laughter against the machine,” the importance of “artful ridicule,” of “comedy in the code”, and presented examples from various countries – from China to Afghanistan, Iran to Egypt. Not just coding or decoding, aggregating or analyzing, but “reading the world,” he argued, was an ever more important task in this day and age of big data, and as both institutions and experts experience an erosion of their authority, he demanded comedians step in as the new sense makers, the new interpreters who laugh off the tragic with humor. Thurston cited an Old Roman proverb, and his points were not breaking new ground by any means. But his humble and genuine delivery captivated the audience and was touching. As history has told us, it is the fools who speak the truth and foresee the future. Or you can just use Forecast, a social tool that asks “What are you going to do?” and thus captures a valuable aggregation of the likely future based on intentions.
Aside from all that, another key insight from SXSWi this year was that, as with every human enterprise, the effects of horserace politics have begun to kick in. It is now the Super Bowl for tech marketers. From political theatre to tech theatre – the backstory has become the actual story: Egos, plots, gossip, and campaigns trump the actual program. This year’s most controversial “meta-story” was BBH Lab’s Homeless HotSpots campaign – a “social experiment” that had been launched before SXSWi but reached a broader and more critical audience here that was quick in dismissing it as a ludicrous exploitation of homeless people. It is interesting to read The Atlantic’s analysis of how the public’s reaction went through all of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, but whatever you think of the appropriateness of the idea, the HotSpots campaign presented a welcome counterpoint to the dominant techno-optimism at the show – a gloomy and inadvertently comical question-mark amidst all the exclamation points. The same audience that had laughed about Baratunde Thurston’s irreverence was irritated by the absurd theater of the Homeless HotSpots, and the discomfort expressed in many blogs represented an underlying sentiment that may have gotten lost otherwise at SXSWi: social technology has invaded our lives, but it may not be the great socializer. Or as a colleague admitted over dinner: “Here I am with 17,000 like-minded souls and a dozen of social discovery tools, but when I wander through the halls, I couldn’t help but feel lonely at times.”
[image credit: Digital Journal]