It's not all beer-pong and barbeque at SXSW. Isn't the Interactive portion of the festival supposed to be about sharing ideas? We're chronicling the most innovative encounters of our days in Austin, just a small dose at a time.
1. Questioning the power of access to information. Clay Shirky's take on social media's ability to be revolutionary—as in, social media's ability to foment revolutions—is skeptical. The role of mobile social media is dependent on myriad factors, including availability, influence, and existing traction of ideas expressed, says the Berkman Center fellow and NYU professor, who studies the effects of Internet on society. The belief that access to information is able to change things is incorrect, he argues, citing a "flattering notion that we in the West have the source code for Democracy." So what does it really take to foster political activism via tweet? Three things, he says: Citizens must synchronize, coordinate, and document. The documentation—say, a photo, video, or tweet—is especially important as it is the most likely to upset the government in question. But it also can spur what Shirky calls "the dictator's dilemma." Say a blogger overlays incriminating information over a Google map. If the government wants it wiped out, its decision might be to block Google maps, or geographically limit Internet use. Outrage ensues, as does exposure to the idea of documenting via Google maps. The dictator backs off, restoring Internet access—and likely realizing he would have been better to not have acted. Social media is effective in this case, but it has a broader impact only under particular circumstances. Political tweets are "not magic democracy dust. They're not even rapid tools," Shirky says. "They're tools that only work if you're both playing a long game and a short game." Bonus point: "The erotic novel predated the scientific journal by 150 years," Shirky notes. "It was very early in publishing's history that people thought, you know what I bet people would pay for?"
2. Start-ups neglect marketing at their peril. Matt Galligan, the co-founder and chief strategy officer at SimpleGeo, a location-based game-creation tool, says that, from a start-up's early days, marketing is everything. "It is a naïve way of thinking that marketing does not happen at every level of a start-up," he said. "It's everywhere. One of the dangers we are getting into with start-ups is that they think that the product is the most important thing." He talks about building SimpleGeo: "I decided I didn't want to market it as a software." He has a realistic view about the marketing's power, or lack thereof, however. When SimpleGeo sponsors or hosts a party, for example, Galligan knows 90 percent of attendees "won't interact with us, but they'll hear our name and, the next time someone tells them they're building something with SimpleGeo, they'll hear oh yeah SomethingGeo. And the next time they'll hear SimpleGeo." Bonus point: Allison Mooney, the head of trends and insights in marketing at Google, ponders whether the Don Draper of today would need to not only tweet, but also build on Twitter's API.
3. Do your managers see social media as a career risk? Jaime Punishill, the global head of wealth online at Thompson Reuters (who jokes that no, his title does not mean he's in charge of all the money on the Internet), has advocated for years for his company to adopt social media. It's a daunting feat when "everything about your organization is designed to reject this," he says. " It's hard to say this, but doing this is taking a huge career risk. They want to reject, for legal reasons, for financial reasons. This is like an organ transplant for them." Bonus point: A few hands went up when the audience was asked how many people don't have access to social media on their office computers. A dozen more had the "super special access" their colleagues don't, because they have the only "social media" computer. Yes, seriously.
4. Big tech dominates SXSW. It's clearer than ever just how super-sized the Geek Spring Break has become. Downtown Austin a big-marketing maelstrom, with Chevrolet offering cars to take for a spin and Pepsi Max sponsoring a Big Boi concert. On top of that this year, the tech world heavyweights are crashing what was formerly the little guys' party, with Apple opening a pop-up store, Microsoft unveiling an updated Internet Explorer 9, and HP setting up a veritable trailer park as a "temporary live-in community for artists, bloggers, and trendsetters." At what point does an indie scene lose its credibility as an indie scene? Bonus point: Even corporate types can sometimes cause our pulses to quicken. For example, Google's Marissa Mayer was the day's most sought-after panelist, drawing a huge, enthusiastic crowd.