Or as my new friend Tim Malbon, of Made by Many called it, the Kingdom of Awesomeness. It was, we’re told, the largest and most attended SxSW Interactive conference yet. Thousands of us from all over the world descended upon Austin to spend hours each day staring at our iPhones. Tweeting, casting plans, checking in, updating. And occasionally bumping into other people also looking at their smartphones.
But when we weren’t glued to a screen (or recovering from the previous evening’s festivities) we were blessed with a non-stop flow of content: daily keynotes, thoughtful presentations, numerous panels.
One could spend all his time attending how-to session on everything from crowdsourcing to seeding viral videos to learning social media basics. And while I did attend numerous panels, including Kristina Halvorson’s very good presentation on content strategy, and a Gen Y panel on how to manage – oops, I mean collaborate with — Gen Y, I was far more interested in the big thinkers like Danah Boyd, Douglas Rushkoff, Clay Shirky and Jaron Lanier.
Thought I’d share but a few highlights from their talks while I’m still digesting it all for subsequent posts.
Privacy remains a huge issue
This was best expressed in Danah Boyd’s well-attended keynote where she shared numerous examples, the most poignant being the potential horrors of Facebook’s change in privacy settings last December. It forced users to opt in to privacy rather than opt out. Boyd used the example of a young girl attempting to escape an abusive father recently released from prison.
Given that 65 percent of Facebook’s 450 million users never read the privacy changes or watched the video explaining them – something Facebook could have determined with a little usability research – Facebook put thousands of users at risk for sharing content they never intended to share. For Boyd, and perhaps for all of us, privacy is about control: the ability to determine exactly what we share, to authorize who sees it, even to change our mind and get our information back. The latter is obviously a real challenge.
Program or be Programmed
Douglas Rushkoff – author, speaker, thinker — believes that we are not the beneficiaries of all the new platforms, but in many ways the victims. We’re subject to Facebook’s definition of a profile, WordPress’s limitations on how we can express ourselves, Twitter’s 140-characters. We ask what we can do with a platform rather than what a platform can do for us. If we don’t learn to program ourselves, we become subordinate to the biases of those who program for us. It gets worse when you consider the macro consequences. While China and Korea are actually teaching kids to program, we’re teaching our school aged children to use Powerpoint and Microsoft Office. What are the long-term implications of that policy? Rushkoff shared his 10 Commands, which I posted here.
Sharing can save the world
For me, the highlight of SxSWi was Clay Shirky’s keynote. The author of Here Comes Everybody takes a different stance. Perhaps it’s the difference between a technologist and a social thinker, but Shirky believes that information and sharing can save the world. Engineers can’t solve the urban traffic problem with wider roads or better public transportation, but social media, with a means of connecting people who have room in their vehicle with those who need a ride in the same direction, can. Shirky, one of the best speakers you’ll ever hear, rattles off story after story to prove his point. The most important being that we can share information for social good, whether it’s to present abuse against women in India or inspire civic responsibility closer to home.
Everyone has something to say
Jaron Lanier may not be as clear and focused a speaker as any of the above, but he certainly is both brilliant and charming. Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget, questions whether the Internet has lived up to its potential. He laments the fact that Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, a 1960’s pre-cursor to the Internet that promised every user would have one identity across the digital landscape (a potential antidote to the proliferation of platforms, accounts and passwords that promise to overload us in the very near future) never saw the light of day due, to among other things, Ted’s lack of management ability.
Lanier does, however, celebrate Nelson’s early and oft-criticized belief that everyone is a potential creator with something to say, a conviction that flew in the face of both traditional publishers and programmers (see Rushkoff), both of whom believe we are nothing but spectators and users. Lanier believes we are all first class citizens. All of us creative. All with something to say. You could argue recent social media trends prove them both right.
I have synthesized four hour-long speeches into a few paragraphs. But I hope it’s enough to whet your appetite for more. Use some of the links above and explore on your own. And let me know what you think. More soon. Thanks for reading.