While reactors were melting down in Japan and protestors were being shot in the street in Libya, I was complaining about sore feet as I walked around in the crystal bubble which is SXSW (More fully South by Southwest, but pronounced “South-by” whenever said aloud). This is what SXSW Interactive founder and resident Grumpy Old Man, SciFi writer Bruce Sterling, scolds us for every year: for four days, Austin becomes the capital of the internet, and we wander the yellow brick roads between panels about The Next Big Thing, gasping at the seductive gadget-and-app bestrewn world we glimpse through a gate whose margin fades forever and forever when we move.
But the best of SXSW for me is when the boiling chaos of revolution, climate change, natural and unnatural disasters, economic hardships, and all the things we’d like to change about the world get the attention of these hyper-smart and hyper-entrepreneurial people. This is where ideas like Kiva are born, where the concept of doing well by doing good is alive and well and good. When I talk to the Google folks and hear about their genuine commitment to do something about revolutionizing energy supply (Facebook, meh, not so much. Yet) and hear a panel by some of the brightest lights in the tech world who donated three days to helping a charity figure out how to improve their online performance: that gives me hope.
I found myself this year taking notes almost exclusively with Twitter. My pal @KarinaB of Oxfam is also an obsessional quote-catcher, and I feel like I saw twice more than the conference I attended when she and I were in different panels, following one another live transcriptions.
Two apps were standout newcomers that I really used this conference: Beluga, (recently bought by Facebook) which allowed a group of us to form a “pod” and keep tabs on where the good panels were, where to meet up for drinks, how to find each other. Absolutely great for coordinating a small group. The other was Hashable, which allows you to exchange business cards and make introductions via Twitter.
So. I met an Oscar winner.
I helped a rocket scientist from NASA out with his presentation.
I had dinner with the author of “The Pledge to Stop Complaining” who has a brilliant plan to build a “Kindness Map”:
A guy I shared a shuttle with struck up a conversation, and turned out to be son of a Greenpeacer who went on canoe trips with Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter back in the day.
I insulted a conservative for presuming he supported the Tea Party (and apologised in person).
So, a quick gathering of big take-home impressions: “Gamification” was the buzzword of this SXSW, with presentations about how to fix reality — from education to climate change — with the power of play, how to make games better, how to make games more cooperative, how to build games for social good. There was much homage to Gowalla, Foursquare and Farmville, and there were two keynote games that totally rocked: Seth Priebatsch’s 2 minute crowd-sourced sort of 3,000 cards and Jane McGonigal’s Massively Multi-player thumb-wrestling, both of which knocked my socks off.
The role of social media in fomenting revolution was way up there as well, with the most salient note hit by Craig Shirky when said that just as Rock and Roll was once the narrative of revolution and the language of subversion for the boomer generation, so have Facebook, Twitter, and the language of the meme come to carry the narrative of revolution in repressive regimes.
The iPad’s power to save the magazine was much trumpeted by the Zombie Mummies… er, I mean traditional journalists of course… who every year attend panels entitled “The death of Journalism” and while Facebook, Twitter, and Blogs ran around with wooden stakes, no actual undead were harmed in the making of this conference. Though there was a whiff of garlic in the air for the “Death of Longform Journalism in a short-attention-span world.” And while I only attended remotely via Twitter stream, you can check my sources, below:
Most useful was advice from one of the authors of “The Dragonfly Effet” along with luminaries from Microsoft Bing, Webtrends, Google, et al who teamed up for three days to create a “Hackathon” to help non-profit organisation DonorsChoose to increase traffic, conversion, and engagement via their digital channels. They recorded, wrote up, and published the process and result into a surprisingly dense and useful free PDF book: The Goodness Engine.
Most amusing: Shane Kempton’s “Steve Jobs and the rise of the Techno-Priests.” This was part history lesson, part philosophy, part epistemology: it was a survey of today’s technical landscape through the eyes of a religious historian. It started with the question, “What are Priesthoods?” Priesthoods gather the secret knowledge of the world and bring it to the people, and they decide the nature of good and evil and what shall and shall not be seen. Flash? It is an abomination unto the eyes of Steve Jobs, and shall therefore be banished from the Apple ecosystem. Bill Gates? He had a revelation, left the path of Take, Steal, Grab, and now wanders the Earth like a monk giving alms to the poor. The most amazing thing about this presentation was the graphic projection: it was a painting, done by the Shane, but which looked like a 15th century tapestry. It was like a Prezi, done by monks.
A panel featuring our own Chris Eaton focussed on digital activism, hashtag takeovers, our Nestle Kit-kat social media campaign, and our current efforts to get Facebook to Unfriend Coal. Fascinating debate broke out as PETA described their hashtag takeover of the TWTRCON feed. In protest of a NASA speaker (NASA was doing experiments irradiating chimps), they tweeted an appeal to their supporters to retweet a message which contained the conference hashtag — so everyone who was at the conference and following that tag would see it. One of the founders of TWTRCON was there and raised the issue that the action was disruptive to the tweet stream of the entire conference — a kind of collateral damage. I personally think that we as activists need to acknowledge this is an issue, and consideration given to that aspect next time. There’s times the end justifies the means, of course, but just as we don’t win friends by blocking whole roads in protest of CO2 emissions from trucks, taking over a twitter stream for a campaign has to be weighed against the aggro it may cause to folks who are not, in the end, the target of the action and may, in fact, be potential supporters that we’re alienating.
Marla Erwin of Whole Foods did a deep dive into Social Media Fails from Amazon’s delisting of books with gay content from their rankings, United Airlines breaking guitars, Motrin Moms, and heaps of others. Marla has assembled an impressively comprehensive list of Social Media disasters for study of how not to handle a brand attack in Social Media. I liked Edelman’s anaylsis of the standard story arc for a social media fail:
5. Everyone considers it funny
The advice she provided to those who find themselves on the pointy end of a Social Media attack:
- Fight social media fire with social media water. If you’re attacked on Facebook, respond on Facebook, and calm the waters, don’t feed the flames.
- Context matters. When a Social Media Fail starts, people pay attention. You need to address the whole issue, not the fragmentary comments.
- Apologies matter. If you are going to apologize to your customers, you’d better mean it.
- Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Respect your audience, your customers, your supporters: always.
- Don’t delegate a disaster. Empowered staff tweeting out is great, but when the tweets hit the fan you need official responses from official voices.
- Avoid “The Streisand Effect.” The “Streisand effect” was coined when Barbara Streisand tried to get pictures of her house removed from a number of websites, and set of a storm of defiant postings. As when Nestle tried to ban the Greenpeace Kit Kat parody by ordering YouTube to take it down, the internet hates censorship, and the best way to provoke attention to something is to tell people to remove it.
While Marla didn’t specifically use Kit Kat as a case study, there was a question from the floor about it: was this a rare case where the object of the attack came out of it better? Marla’s take was that it was a zero-sum for Nestle, that they didn’t lose or gain. I raised the point that this is unfortunate, in that when a company does the right thing, as Nestle did, we do our best at Greenpeace to ensure they get credit equal to their grief: but just as the traditional media love to focus on conflict, the public attention that the #Fail got can well outstrip the attention to the denouement.
I’ve written up the “Has Facebook Jumped the Shark” session previously — it was one of the best panels of the conference.
Finally, check out Lori Robert’s excellent summary of “Why my phone should turn off my stove” and “Goodbye oil: accelerating the Electric Car Movment.” Both these sessions were about driving consumer behaviour toward energy efficient choices, and how we can leverage games, social media, and online activism to make that happen.
And finally, the presentation on “Open Government” yielded a truly unexpected prize when Nicholas Skytland presented on “The next rocket scientist: you” which focussed on participatory space exploration projects underway at NASA and among space-geeks the world over. I especially loved the Hubble Project’s crowd-sourcing of Galaxy classification at the Galaxy Zoo. But the whole presenation was great: too good not to see in its entirety over at sliderocket.
OK, that’s it. I may add to this as I continue to troll through my notes: there were dozens of other great panels that bathed my brain and fed my soul, and as ever, it’s hard to capture the experience and reproduce it.