SXSW – Storytelling

SXSW LogoAustin welcomed the 20th SXSW Interactive event. That’s right twenty years. Despite the fact that digital moves at the speed of light, it has a way of creeping up on us. We’ve become so comfortable with it permeating nearly every corner of our lives we hardly notice when it does.

And so there I was in the midst of digital humanity. It’s kind of like being in a tsunami of content. Tens of thousands of smart (and quite polite) people from all over the world in one place sharing ideas, collaborating and connecting.

The question most asked of me was, “Why did you come here and what do you hope to get back for this large time commitment?” I found myself giving a different answer each time I was asked. Or maybe just identifying another layer of the onion which shaped my personal narrative of benefits. Here’s why I attend SXSW.

  • Quality session content presented by knowledgable and experienced professionals
  • Opportunity to see what’s coming next in the expansive exhibit hall
  • Hear directly from politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, icons and media mavens
  • Meet new potential vendors, agencies, partners and customers
  • Conduct business in the context of an innovative atmosphere
  • Reconnect with people from the past and meet your social friends IRL
  • Make cool new friends and followers
  • Network for future opportunities
  • Come back completely exhausted and fully energized

It’s hard to say exactly who should attend SXSW from your company. It’s not obvious what you are going to get out of it. One has to really spend some time thinking about what you’re seeing and experiencing. It has to be carefully observed, listened to and processed. Only then does your own personal narrative will emerge. My advice is send people who thrive in a crowded environment, are gifted observers, good note takers and have stamina to remain focused on about four hours of sleep a night.

There are hundreds of sessions so one must spend a good chunk of time preparing. Reading the titles gives you a window into what people deem important. The words “story or storytelling” appeared in 112 session titles! Why? My opinion is that we have been inventing, innovating, disrupting and layering so fast that we now need time to step back, take a breath and see if we can recognize what we have made. What does it mean? What do we see? Where do we go next?

Sometimes you can tell what’s going on by noticing what people are not talking about. This year there was a lot less hype around mobile, aside from the mobile focused sessions. The cry of “mobile first” has done its job. Message received. We have apps and mobile web and responsive design. Mobile is an “extension” of almost everything now, Our smartphones are a swiss army knife and that’s the problem. They are maddeningly distracting. Show-rooming gets a lot of notice, but shopping is a flow that is best not interrupted or you have an abandoned cart. We begin to shop and then there’s the call of Twitter or Facebook or Text that takes us off track. Solving this problem is what’s next for mobile. Delivery of relevant content that can garner the same interest as a text from a friend would be awesome. So much of what people are doing now on mobile are either payments or offers related. Of course we love Angry Birds, but it’s time now for mobile to get down to business.

The white space left by the volume on mobile being turned down this year has been filled with stories. I noticed a more than usual amount of personal life content in many of  the sessions. They delved into their past, even their childhood, to paint a personal narrative of what motivated them and what fuels their passion.

Here are my notes from the first day, Friday, March 8, 2013

Opening Remarks – Bre Pettis

Bre Pettis is co-founder of MakerBot, a 3-D printer manufacturer. He told his story showing photos of himself as an 8 year old interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. The narrative progressed to the early days of MakerBot and how the team worked almost around the clock to realize their dream. He is deeply passionate about building this printer to help people create and build.

Maker Bot opens the world of creation the way Dreamweaver opened the way to making web sites. — Bre Pettis

He launched thingverse.com in 2008, a web site that has thousands of templates and examples of things you can make with a MakerBot. Their biggest customer is NASA, who uses it to build prototypes, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars on each project. One of the best stories he shared was a about a the collaboration between two gentlemen who are using the MakerBot to build prototype hands for that will eventually become prosthetics for children who were born with no hands or fingers. He introduced a new product called The Digitizer. A small contraption that uses lasers to scan in an object and upload it directly to the MakerBot, eliminating the need to know CAD software to create the template. They have a store in New York where you can visit and have a likeness of yourself printed for free. Mr. Pettis was humble and inspiring. I want a MakerBot.

Tales of US Entrepreneurship Beyond Silicon Valley – Alexis Ohanian

Alexis OhanianThe Internet wants, needs to be kept as open as possible. As it has grown in influence and usage it was only a matter of time before politics and legislation would leave its mark. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and Internet activist talked about the growing number of entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley. Small towns using the Internet to start businesses and people connecting online then moving to the physical world to manifest their ideas. He chartered an across the country bus trip and documented these travels in a film. Proof that the Internet of things is the Internet of things. Mr. Ohanian is concerned about the encroachment of regulation on digital assets. He feels that your digital footprint should be protected with the same vigor as all other personal content. Through due process, court orders an search warrants. Not a broad shut down policy or request to get at the information.

Technology, Imagination and Exponential Thinking – Jason Silva

Jason Silva is a futurist, filmmaker and epiphany addict. That’s how he describes himself. I would not disagree, but would add that he is also a 5 hour energy drink. He did not hold still for even a millisecond onstage. You got the feeling that he is a perpetual steeping pot ready to go off any second. His talk spanned just about everything related to the web, human nature, physics, the future. You name it and he talked about it. He was the perfect end of day speaker, raising the energy bar and sending everyone off on a high. I won’t even try to describe what he does. The only way to understand is to watch.

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Jason Silva
Me with Jason Silva

So many of the speakers are approachable and happy to talk along the way. I ran into Jason the following day in one of the lounges and he took the time to connect and engage. Not promote himself, but talk and ask me what I thought. This kind of interaction opportunity is rare. Another benefit of SXSW.

There you have my snapshot of day one! More to come.

4 comments

  1. Great summary Steve! It is quite an amazing amount of information/hot topics/disruptors to filter through in such a short time, and indeed the sessions are a bit like a box of chocolates

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