Despite the blogosphere and Twittersphere making it seem as if everyone in marketing and communications was in Austin for SXSW this year, I was among the many who weren't able to be in Texas for the festivities. But thanks to some good friends who helped get me up to speed and a great wealth of information coming out of the unprecedented coverage, I was able to keep up with some of the important themes coming out of the discussions in the Lone Star State.
And, now that most of the SXSW postmortems from those who were there are behind us, I've been reflecting on some of the issues that persisted through my discussions and reading about the event. Beyond all the hype and the marketing, there were some key trends that I think will be shaping what all of us interested in digital communication will be thinking about for the rest of the year. Here are a few I'll be keeping my eye on:
1. Back to Local: There was a time when critics of online communication warned us we'd become detached from the "real world." (Think Bowling Alone). Now, local is at the forefront of what people are talking about in online communication. As mobile technology becomes more pervasive, social interaction through devices more commonplace, and location-based technologies more accessible, social applications are increasingly focusing on how to connect people "in real life." Some are calling it "SoMoLo" (for social-mobile-local), but I hope you don’t. A more palatable common phrase around Austin was "ambient reality": technologies driven by "augmented reality" but that run in the background and give you relevant data about where you are at.
SXSW was full of app startups demonstrating what these location-based technologies could do for the tech enthusiasts in Austin. The belle of the ball was Highlight, an iPhone app which connects to a user’s Facebook account to tell them similarities, connections in common, etc. with people in close physical proximity, in an effort to foster face-to-face connections. But there is also Glancee, Ban.jo, and Sonar.me, which provide some variation of the same function, and Kismet and Uberlife, both of which help form in-person get-togethers of likeminded people who happen to be in the same area.
While it seemed the festival was full of companies all vying to be the app you use to find friends or like-minded strangers near you, the reaction was mixed. These apps’ usefulness in a town full of people with similar interests and friends and acquaintances interested in finding one another were embraced, and stories abounded as to how such apps could be helpful for making connections when traveling, meeting new people after a move, etc. On the other hand, many were questioning how useful such apps would be outside of a festival atmosphere and in everyday life, while others voiced concern or disgust about the concept in general.
2.) TMI…: One particular critique of the push for combining location and social connection through mobile devices focused on the plethora of apps with one function and the plethora of information users have coming at them, which can hijack attention and disrupt their lives. Much attention instead was given to cyborg anthropologist (and my former SXSW partner in crime for our panel "Does Your Sh*t Talking Really Help My Brand?") Amber Case, whose keynote focused on the need for location-based information to serve users’ intuitive needs rather than flood new data "at" them. Case’s research focuses on how humans can live and work seamlessly, and her project GeoLoqi focuses on using new technologies to help people better make their way through their everyday lives. (Examples include everything from knowing what time your bus will arrive, to connecting your grocery list to your trip into the store, to automatically alerting your boss if you’re delayed on your commute into work.) See more about Amber’s work here.
3.) Gadget Overload: Consternation about technology from the tech enthusiasts in Austin, and the reporters covering the event, persisted throughout this year’s coverage on SXSW. As the conference has grown even further, and as more startups than ever cram into Austin to vie for attention, many began to discuss the saturation point of new apps and technologies; the downsides of social connection; etc. keynote conversation from Al Gore and key Napster/Facebook figure Sean Parker on the need to use digital tools to "occupy democracy" and further re-engage people in citizenship), as well as finding ways to celebrate how printed materials designed by humans that can provide information and get attention in ways that apps cannot, amidst this aforementioned oversaturation of technical solutions.
4.) The Heartland Emerges: Another theme of SXSW self-loathing among tech enthusiasts came with questions about the event’s continued relevance. Beyond the gadget overload, the increasing prevalence of companies’ marketing initiatives, and the swelling population in Austin for the festival, many also voiced surprise that the big social media darling of the year was not Highlight or the other social media apps using SXSW to gain prominence but rather Pinterest, a platform that gained its momentum by starting up in Iowa and spreading throughout "flyover country" rather than a tech enthusiast hub. There was much hand-wringing that Pinterest didn’t come from SXSW or even from Silicon Valley or any other technophile coastal town. The idea that the next new tech phenomenon came from middle America and spread out to the coasts left many wondering whether the pervasiveness of social technology means that the SXSW tech entrepreneurs and marketers are no longer the driver of innovation and SXSW as the place where new technologies launch is no longer the case. Pinterest, meanwhile, used SXSW to further its momentum, announcing an iPad app and plans for expanded profiles and the ability to pin video.
5.) Social Business, Not Just Social Marketing: Increasingly, conversation surrounding SXSW has focused on utility. Much as Amber Case stressed the importance of location-based technologies which serve the user’s everyday wants and needs, conversation persisted around how social media should be used in service of customers and other audiences. In particular, the Dachis Group held a gathering during SXSW in Austin aimed at talking about "social businesses," organizations that reconfigure their internal communication and the way they work to rewire themselves for a digital age in ways that extend far beyond marketing and corporate communications and fully realize the potential of digital communication to transform every aspect of the company. See more here.
6.) Ethical Concerns: A charge for designers to consider the intrusion social media and apps are making into people’s lives was far from the only ethical concern raised at SXSW. The plethora of new location-based apps fostering in-person connections were among a wide range of topics that were the focus of privacy concerns, and some companies even touted new apps or services aimed at better protecting one’s privacy online.
Some expressed consternation over the increasing trend of companies requiring attendees to install an app or tweet about them in return for swag at the conference. While such marketing efforts are conducted in a way that fit within regulatory guidelines, some raised marketing fatigue, with companies bombarding people with "to dos" throughout the event. Meanwhile, accidental plagiarism and the sloppiness of online attribution from where content originally came was a major focus, from the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation to the Curator's Code presented by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. And the biggest controversy coming out of SXSW was BBH Labs’ project to fit homeless people in Austin to "become wifi hotspots." The initiative was meant to mirror the homeless newspaper initiatives that provide service in return for a donation, but some critics reacted strongly to what they saw as affluent digital "haves" turning disadvantaged "have nots" into technology who are at the service of festival attendees, in exchange for pocket change.
I hope to rectify my absence by being in Austin next year. In the meantime, though, I'll be keeping a close eye on some of these questions and how they shape digital communication between organizations and their audiences in 2012.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.