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Idea IS the format

The occasional downtime of Daniel W. E. Light

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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

SXSWi 2008: We, the people


In many parts of the world, communalism is a modern term that describes a broad range of social movements and social theories which are in some way centered upon the community - Wikipedia.
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Just arrived home from South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), a 4-day coming-together of bloggers, geeks and new media mavens in and around the convention centre in Austin, Texas. My mind's still buzzing and I can't sleep, so here it is; my SXSWi.
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What am I doing here?

Saturday morning. I have little or no idea what to expect, beyond a long queue to register. As it is I find time to get my pass, smoke, get coffee, defecate, say hello to CC Chapman, smoke, collect my freebie bag, empty my freebie bag onto a nearby table, smoke and get coffee, before ducking into the first of the panels that catches my eye.

It used to be that if you ran a bad ad campaign and everybody hated it you could just pull it. These days, just when you think the inferno of negative blog coverage is finally dying down, you’ll end up featuring in The Suxorz: The Worst Ten Social Media Ad Campaigns of 2007 watching the embers of your humiliation fanned back into a roaring flame by such denizens of interactive media as Steve Hall (Adrants), Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine) and Rebecca Lieb (ClickZ).

The panel is a lynching, albeit an entertainingly insightful one, and, as it happens, just a foretaste of what’s to come at SXSWi 2008. It opens the programme by firing a warning shot across the bows of marketers like myself who feels compelled to venture into the undiscovered country of web 2.0; do so with caution, and respect for the natives. They have sharper spears than you do. And they have more of them.
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Following the morning’s bloodlust and a lunchtime burrito I settle down by a power point in Ballroom A for the day’s keynote, with Henry Jenkins. I do so with absolutely no idea who he is. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that he’s an academic and an author. It doesn’t mention in the programme notes that he is also a man of visionary brilliance.

‘I’ vs ‘we’

Jenkins introduces many notions throughout his Opening Remarks, but the point at which SXSWi really starts for me is when he first presents the notion of ‘collective intelligence’, using it to describe our increasing capacity to process information in ever closer conjunction with one another, making use of the rapidly widening array of social networking tools at our disposal.

Jenkins sees collective intelligence driving change and convergence in the areas of education, politics and entertainment. He cites the example of the Harry Potter books, seeing a generation learning not only to read, but also to write, socialise and become political through Rowling’s work, articulated and aggregated through blogs, online communities and other social networks.

He also discusses the television series LOST, strands of which are more fully realised and developed through websites and other interactive channels, by which individual ‘pathologizing’ creates a communally realised narrative. And, looking within World of Warcraft, Guild loyalties are understood as a new, wholly legitimate form of ‘civic connection’.

Eventually Jenkins arrives at the question of how this cumulative creative energy can be harnessed to improve society. The closest he comes to providing an answer, and a clear manifesto for his ideas, lies in his observation of the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘we’.

Jenkins is ‘an Obama boy’, and believes that Obama’s campaign mantra, Yes we can, is symbolic of the fact that, in a world in which politicians still speak in the language of ‘I’, a generation of children are growing up defining themselves and their ideas in terms of ‘who we are’ and ‘what we believe’.

This isn’t presented as happening at the expense of individuality or self-determination. On the contrary, this is not communism but communalism, seeing the interests of the community best served by the divergent creativity and initiative of we, its constituents.
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The AMD Bloghaus is to be found in meeting room 7 of the 3rd floor. I’m sitting in ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) and the Future of Entertainment when tweet comes through that beer is now being served in the Bloghaus.

Somewhat disenchanted by the fact that the panel’s only advertised member, Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment, has been replaced by three ill-prepared substitute panellists, I withdraw. (I now note that the panel is not listed on the SXSWi website. Evidently I inadvertently strayed into some highly unsatisfactory alternate reality in which SXSWi panels are a bit of a waste of time.)

Creating we

I know who I’m hoping to find at the Bloghaus. I’m hunting down Hugh Macleod (AKA Gaping Void), blogger, cartoonist and designer of the SXSWi swag bag (pictured left – photo courtesy of Laughing Squid). I’m not doing it for the conversation. He doesn’t really seem to have conversations, at least not with me. He just draws pictures and makes connections, managing overflow by playing cupid.

About 18 months ago Hugh introduced me to Neville Hobson, a well-respected communicator, blogger and podcaster who has gone on to become an important collaborator, and a friend. Hugh made the introduction very much on his own initiative, and at the expense of his own time. Hugh can sometimes seem standoffish, but he understand the importance of connectedness as well as anybody.

Within minutes of locating him I’m locked in conversation with Damiano Vukotic, Head of Sales & Digital Strategy at RSA Films. We follow each other through Twitter, and have mutual friends back in London, but this is the first time we’ve met in the flesh. As we talk Hugh occasionally looks in, like a horticulturalist, checking the seed of yet another idea.

Hugh and Damiano are just two of the fifty-ish people I now follow on Twitter, most of whom also follow me. For the uninitiated, Twitter is a micro-blogging tool exquisitely fine-tuned to connect like-minds through the ongoing exchange of thoughts and ideas, expressed in 140 characters or less. It was the great success story of SXSWi 2007, and, frankly, looks like being that of 2008 as well.

Where Facebook holds a mirror up to my life and reflects all the relationships that are and once were through the simple binary of ‘friendship’, almost everybody I know on Twitter I know through Twitter, and each brings something different to the table. Twitter germinates, where Facebook merely incubates.

It seems to me that this is an important principle of creating we. It’s not enough to just connect – and certainly not to re-connect – people. You have to achieve a reaction, something new and full of promise; a co-incidence of chemistry and mutual empathy or understanding. Just as the value of money is wholly relative to that of what it buys us, a connection’s worth is measured in engagement.
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Them and us

Anybody attending Sunday’s keynote by Mark Zuckerberg, 24-year-old Harvard graduate and billionaire founder and CEO of Facebook, likely comes away with their own version of events.

It's a debacle, whichever way you turn it, whereby the blandness of Zuckerberg and the flippancy of his interviewer, Sarah Lacy, coalesce to provoke exactly the wrong kind of reaction.

Lacy's undeniably flirtacious approach suggests that she was after an altogether different kind of engagement. She appears to have undertaken the interview with some very clear ideas about what's going to happen, and the many plaudits that will ensue. When things started to get away from her the best she can manage by way of Plan B is to bemoan how difficult her job is, and to begrudgingly declare ‘mob rule’. SXSWi 2008 won’t yield a better example of the arbitrary, single-mindedness of I being swept aside by the common interests of we, the unruly masses.

Unfortunately the principle offshoot of this is that much of what Zuckerberg actually said has been spared analysis. Of course, once you’ve heard Facebook described as a tool for “more efficient communication” for the seventh or eight time, you tend to lose the will to tweet. This was compounded by the fact that Lacy seemed ready to avoid just about any avenue of inquisition on the strength of his assertion that ‘we’re just not focused on that right now’.

Maybe I imagined it. Because it seemed to me as though, somewhere amid this evasion and awkwardness, the Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook had succeeded in opening up a new front in the war on terror. I must have imagined it. It hardly seems to have warranted a mention anywhere in the morass of resulting coverage.

As I saw it, he articulated the view that a generation of Lebanese students, using Facebook to follow the progress of friends journeying into the wider Western world, have now put aside some of the prejudices that might have drawn them into a life of Islamic fundamentalism. Terrorism, actually. (I’m pretty sure he used the word ‘terrorism’. It struck me at the time as a slightly awkward word for him to use, he being the CEO of a company in whom the venture capital division of the CIA has a pronounced financial interest.)

His argument seemed to be that Facebook has torn down the walls of censorship constructed by Imams in order to shield their students from the truth about the West. As I understand it the truth about the West – in this context at least – is that we’re an unholy quasi-religious Zionist alliance, united under the banners of greed and self-interest, crusading to take control of the world’s natural resources and spreading gambling, pornography and substance abuse to all four corners of the world in the process.

Looking at some of the most popular Facebook Applications (Mob Wars, Armies, Vampires, Zombies, Friends For Sale!, Texas HoldEm Poker et al) I can’t for the life of me see what Facebook does to debunk this point of view. On the contrary, I could list dozens of the most popular apps supporting the notion that all we do is trade in cheap thrills and human suffering. Spend enough time looking through them, and even Scrabulous starts to feel a tiny bit Anglocentric.

Maybe Zuckerberg would argue that Facebook is humanizing the students’ relationships with the wider world, creating an authentic sense of connectedness with a credible reality outside of that in which they are immersed, imprisoned even. That’s not the Facebook I use. My Facebook commodifies my relationships, templatizing my friends within its own arbitrary strictures of format and function. My Facebook puts up walls, more than it knocks them down.

Anybody trading in moral absolutes, be it Zuckerberg or the Imams he decries, is going backwards, at a time when we ought to be moving forwards into an era of networked moral relativism, originating from grass-roots and transcending personal, cultural and historical context.
_ _ _

I hadn’t heard of PostSecret until a few minutes before Frank Warren’s Monday keynote was about to start. I flicked through the weighty $40-to-replace festival programme and caught a quick summary before leaving Emma at P.F. Changs Chinese Bistro and bolting through heavy rain across Congress and into Ballroom A.

I only made it to the Monday keynote on account of a delay to our flight out of Chicago, and the decision to spend $100 pushing back our connecting flight until later in the afternoon. I had a good feeling. The feeling that it would turn out to be money well spent.

Getting to know we

PostSecret is a community art project started by Frank Warren as the basis for an installation in 2004, whereby he invited anybody to send him a postcard decorated with a secret that they had never previously revealed. He now curates over 2,500 original pieces of art sent to him from all over the world, and continues to receive new secrets on a daily basis, leading him to be described as “the most trusted stranger in America”.

Warren has a pastoral quality, free from religious rhetoric, openly pondering the ways in which this makeshift confessional has affected his life and those of his boundless flock. It’s seems pretty clear that he has addressed some of his own demons in the course of confronting other people’s, bringing him to the realisation that “the children most broken by the world become those most likely to change it”.

He also understands the power of a secret, and of sharing it. He cites the example of somebody emailing him to tell him that they’d written their secret on a postcard, but that the mere sight of it written down had led them to tear up the card, and to change their life irrevocably. This is what Warren is talking about when he refers to the second type of secret; not the one we keep from others, but the one we keep from ourselves.

Warren finishes speaking, and invites members of the audience to share their questions – and secrets – with the room. The first question is a simple one, a proposal of marriage. (She says ‘yes’.) It feels a bit Oprah for a moment, but sits nicely against Warren’s sermon. Questions and confessions follow thick and fast, until a girl takes the mike and opens up about the fact that her sister, a blogger, can’t be with her in Austin because of a life-threatening illness. She implores members of the audience to post a message of support on her sister’s blog then takes up Warren’s offer of a hug. The keynote closes with a standing ovation, and, for my part at least, a strong sense of occasion.

Whatever’s happening here, it’s been bubbling away under the surface for me since day one. It began to crystallize that morning around the point that Hugh, on the panel for Self Replicating Awesomeness: The Marketing of No Marketing, made his closing observation that “a story without love isn’t worth telling”. He’s right. And somewhere beneath the surface of this convention – in the last place you might expect to find it – is a powerful shared emotional agenda, and an acute sense of intimacy.
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Our little secret

I’m going to tell you a secret. I’d like you to help me destroy it, both for my own sake and for the purposes of demonstration.

Take yourself back to the beginning of Saturday, my first day at SXSWi. I haven’t slept so well, and I wake up later than I would have liked. Stealing nothing more than a mouthful of granola on my way out the door, I make a breakfast out of vente latte and Camel Lights. After that it’s pretty much coffee and cigarettes all the way through to beer o’clock. I manage a cheap burrito some time around lunchtime. I drink no water whatsoever.

I pick up a headache, and someone doses me up with some weapons-grade painkillers, washed down with my first mouthful of beer. More beer. Cigarette. Across to the Seesmic party for one margarita (god that’s strong), a second, third one’s almost palatable, and hey, nice, it’s a rooftop bar, I can smoke freely. Cigarette. Cigarette. Emma arrives and we head downstairs for dinner, which, for my part, consists primarily of a bottle of red, with a few scraps of barbecued red meat for ballast. Cigarette. Cigarette. Cigarette.

Days like these. I’ve had a few. At some point it became my idea of fun. The next morning isn’t, but I make a fist of it, until I have to duck out of a panel to have a fifteen-minute chat with a toilet. By the time I’m done I can see flecks of blood in the bowl; fresh, red blood, so probably nothing worse than a grazed oesophagus, but it freaks me out. I find myself a corner somewhere in the corridor outside, and hide behind my laptop. My throat’s sore, my stomach is tied in a convulsing knot of emptiness, and my head and my heart ache from the truth.

At that moment I know for certain that if I don’t affect a change – a sea-change – in terms of how I live my life, I’ll never see my daughters grow into the confident beautiful young ladies they will undoubtedly become, like the one I was lucky enough to meet and marry. I just won’t last that long. I’ve had too much fun already, and I wasn’t made to do things in half measures. On the contrary, I’ve always preferred doubles.

This knowledge hits hard, and with it comes the realisation that part of me doesn’t want to care, and almost wants to create distance between me and the ones I love. Part of me will always be looking for a way out, an angle that will allow me to go on doing it my way. It’s a part of me I try to hide from others, and from myself. It’s a part of me inscribed here now, in these few lines.

There it is. A broken secret. If you’re wondering why on earth I’d share such a thing with the world, you’re slightly of missing the point. Who else would you have me share it with? Whoever you are, whoever I am, all that matters is that we’re talking.
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So what are we doing here?

Mass intimacy. In application, it means showing you my daughters, Lola and Ruby, come into this world, or sharing Emma’s and my many hopes and fears in the weeks and months before we first became parents. It means taking you on holiday with us, inviting you to commute with me, or inviting you to pick over the many other fragments. It means opening up our lives to others, and to ourselves.

Mass intimacy. Contradiction in terms? a paradox? If so, a paradox befitting of a movement of closet extroverts, marrying our essential insecurity with an urgent need to share our point of view. Together we pool our knowledge and destroy secrets in the course of creating our new morality of networked relativism, whereby our actions are conveyed through infinite time and space, so that we may understand them in the most intimate of terms.

Mass intimacy. Empathy through greater understanding. Love through the prism of technology, experimentation and desire. Sometimes we hide behind the minutiae, but it’s each other we’re contemplating, not the tangle of hardware and software in between.

Mass intimacy. Love and technology. Feels like a kind of paradox. So walk the halls of SXSWi. We are the paradox.

posted by Dan Light  # 21:47
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Dan, great article, like many I'm now reading I wish I'd met you up in the Bloghaus, a room full of amazing people. This is really going to help me put my thoughts together on the conference.
Dan, woah, nice one.

On intimacy, the way I understand it is that you're writing for me and the other people who know you, it just happens that the rest of the world is eavesdropping on the conversation. I've done that coffee, cigarettes, beer and painkiller dance. I'm happy to talk to you about it f2f anytime when there aren't *quite* so many people listening :)
Well should I go? I kept asking myself that. Yes I should have gone. Yes I will go next year. Thanks for your thoughts and review.
Awsome post Dan. Found it from one of Hugh's tweets. Been regretting all week that I wasn't there... ho hum, next year!
Fantastic post. What's more: I found you via my new Twitter friend, derekeb.
This is incredible. Thank you so much for posting it. You gave me a lot to think about, and I love that.
What an extraordinary writeup. About two paragraphs in, I found myself feeling great gratitude that you compiled notes and wrote up the experience afterward. SXSW is sort of like living in a human tornado, I find: you're not quite sure what happened to you until you're deposited back on the ground.

Am just sorry I didn't bump into you there.

Oh--and for the record, I also found you via a Hugh-tweet. May have to start compiling a list of treasures unearthed by Twitter to convince/'splain to those still on the outside.
Thanks for the great write-up! I can't wait for the podcast to be online so I can start listening to some of your highlights.

What a wonderful, powerful, connective, life-affirming experience SXSWi was again this year.
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