SXSW Interactive is huge. It’s sprawling. It’s nerdy. It’s overwhelming. It is great. If this is your first time here you are well served to talk with a SXSW veteran or check one of the many blog posts on how to survive your first SXSW experience. The scale of people wandering the streets of downtown Austin carry light sabers and using terms such as “ambient location” and “transmedia” is kind of mind-blowing. Can you tell that this is my first SXSW Interactive yet? Well, it is and I could not have been happier that I came. However, what is most striking to me about this experience is just how important face-to-face conversations with people are at a conference that is all about how algorithms and data aggregation can make our lives simpler and more enjoyable. But even as panelists discussed the importance of technology, several deliberately rushed through their talks so that they would have more time for unmediated interpersonal interaction with attendees. A common refrain was, “panels are great, but parties are better because that’s when you really get to know people.”
There is something ironic about a conference that thrives on technological innovation, yet thrives on personal connections. But then again, that is what social media is all about right? Connecting with friends, connecting with family, connecting with customers, connecting with strangers. Connecting in large groups or connecting individually. That is what media does. It is a channel, an intermediary that allows us to communicate with others. But perhaps the most important contribution of SXSWi is that it brings 15,000 people to the same physical location where people no longer need screens, data connections and satellites to talk with each other. The panels and parties are teeming with unmediated interaction.
It has been amazing how many people I have met from my local neighborhood with whom I share common interests. It is in these casual conversations with the person sitting next to me at a panel, or the person sharing a elevator, or the person in front of me to get a drink that yields the greatest insight into why all of this technology matters in the first place. I am not suggesting that social media is irrelevant; I’m actually saying the opposite. Technologies like GroupMe, Twitter, and Foursquare helped me find the new and old friends with whom I wanted to have an unmediated hang out. Perhaps the best summation of the role of people and technology came from someone I overheard: “You should use the internet to get off the internet.” That same thought applies to all of technology. We use our gadgets and apps to help us make decisions about our unmediated, not just our virtual presences.
Questioning the usefulness of the expanding universe of apps was a recurring theme as there was a touch of social media fatigue and cynicism among long time attendees. No one is questioning the reality that technology and social media have forever changed how we engage the world, people are starting to ask about the sheer volume of applications that are developed and the long-term chances of their profitability. One of the most insightful panels I attended was ‘Social Media is a Bubble and SXSW is Fad’. Obviously, the title was meant to be tongue in cheek, but only slightly. The panelists: Alyson Shontell (Editor Business Insider), Curtis Hougland (Founder & CEO Attention), Josh Levine (CEO Rebel Industries), and Jason Rzepka (MTV) all voiced their thoughts on an inevitable social media bubble burst that would bring about the demise of lots of start ups, but also help on overly-crowded market consolidate. After attending SXSW Interactive, it is hard to disagree with their assessment, because even as everyone continues to pitch their startups, attendees complain about insurmountable volume of companies to sift through. If technologically savvy folks feel this way, imagine what consumers think! In that panel Rzepka offered the simple and truthful answer, ““People will rally around the best experiences”. And a major part of creating “the best experiences” is creating something that is useful to them.
Here at SXSW Interactive every person has an exciting new start up that they hope will be the next Foursquare or GroupMe. I am more an anthropologist than a tech person. I research how people go about their lives and what they think about their place in the world. As such, I came into SXSW concerned about the chasm between perceived problems that some apps and gadgets attempt to solve and the things that non-tech people actually view as problems that need to be solved. It was refreshing to hear talk to “too much tech” at a technology conference. We marvel at the enhancements that the latest and greatest apps bring into our world, but ironically SXSWi’s greatest reminder is that in our 21st century world, some things are still best left unmediated.