SXSW: Missed Connections for the Massively Connected

For nearly 20 years, the misfit haven of Austin has brought awesome nerds of all ilk together at SXSW, though there should be healthy debate around the word “together.” For the vast majority of the four days, folks from agencies, brands, startups and other marketing services keep their eyeballs glued to their screens while they ironically all ask themselves questions about the habits, wants, needs and trends around people. 

SXSW Stairs

They spend their days watching other people (experts) talk in panel discussions, while live-tweeting what they say. They spend their time outside looking at the SXSW app, their text messages and their email to figure out where to go next or who’s expecting them where. And they spend more time Instagramming the cool new drone than asking the expert in front of it how it works. Of course there are exceptions, and I can’t entirely admit I’m one of them as a first-time SXSW’er. I spent my time dutifully Instagramming the Mr. Robot Ferris wheel activation rather than actually riding the Ferris wheel. I tweeted statistics about connectivity—ultimately about people—while being highly plugged in but not talking to the person next to me.

Mr. Robot_SXSW

At Olson, we’re honing in on the service of people and let it speak in our work. We know it’s real people like you—not anonymous statistical “consumers”—who are at the center of all of our businesses. As an industry, we spend billions on analytics tools, studies, and clinical focus groups to try and better understand them without actually having real conversations.  Nowhere was this missed mark more apparent—or ironic—than at SXSW. 

Most of the discussions were in panel format—that is, a host interviewing one to three experts and then opening the floor up for audience questions after. Sometimes the audience questions were thoughtful or provocative, but often included the attendee telling us their various titles and then asking something that only pertains to that role. That is not to say SXSW as conference promoters on the whole doesn’t try, despite a mass of 100K attendees, to connect. There are mentor sessions, small group sessions and meetups to join parents, yoga fans, sober folks, you name it, together. But I cannot say I went to any of these. 

I DID see Christian Slater talk about his TV show about hackers (he’s still a total fox, by the way).

I tried but failed to see Anthony Bourdain (also, fox) mouth off about food but the line was at least six city blocks long.

I tried to learn more about content and social media, as a director of both, but instead was told over and over that the quickest and easiest route to awareness is to just try and find the right influencer do it for you. 

I learned quickly that the hot topics of the conference were going to be Virtual Reality, privacy and encryption (Apple vs. the Feds), content (a given), Artificial Intelligence, and Snapchat. SO MUCH Snapchat. There was even a session titled “This Snapchatter Makes More Than You,” in case you weren’t feeling insecure enough about this new crop of 16-year-old content makers.

Refreshingly, I didn’t hear much about any Facebook algorithms, which was a very nice change of pace. New platforms were mentioned, like Twitch and KnowMe, and Shorts, which everyone will be flocking to learn more about this week, even me.

As far as people, I met a few. I introduced myself to the DJ at a J.J. Abrams event and talked hip-hop fast and furious for a half hour with the 19-year-old Uber driver who drove me there. I went to a Funny Or Die-sponsored WuTang show with Emily, an entrepreneur I met whose company aims to reward the real heroes (not “influencers”) for doing great work. We’re Facebook friends now, and I’ll plan to see her in LA soon. 

As far as panels, there were a lot of stats flying around. One memorable panel I attended was entirely outside of my work boundaries but still close to home: “Acceptance Revolution: Fashion’s New Body”. It featured legendary magazine creative director Joe Zee (Elle, Yahoo Style) and inspiring plus-sized model Ashley Graham. Their conversation, in front of a room full of smiling, friendly women, was bold and uplifting. It talked about the term “plus-sized” being totally outdated and gave new lens to the future of fashion, which will include sizes 12 and up increasingly (size 8 is considered plus in the high-fashion world!).

SXSW_Ashley Graham

As soon as I sat down, the young woman next to me (didn’t get her name) offered up what she knew about Ashley and told me the session would for sure be great. She oozed authentic enthusiasm. 

I should have gotten The Excited Woman’s card; I should have jumped on that Mr. Robot Ferris wheel with a stranger, and I should have gone to mentor sessions and meetings over panels. Next year, I’ll go to events I know nothing about. I’ll connect with as many PEOPLE as I can, not titles.  

And it’ll be great.

- @Jen_Boyles

Content Strategy Director and Real Person, Olson