Lessons from SXSW

, Friday, March 20th, 2009

And we’re back!  After 5 jam-packed days at SXSW Interactive in Austin, the Beaconfire contingent is back in the office, catching up on email and trying to process everything we saw and learned.  In my case, what I learned was incredibly diverse – from the Beacon lounge to the panels to late-night conversations, from case studies to philosophical musings.  Some of these may become their own posts over the next few days, but I wanted to share some of the themes that emerged in my experience.  That’s one of the cool things about SXSW – everyone had a totally unique experience and learned different things.  Here are some of mine:

Non-profits love the web. This comes as no surprise to us, but I was impressed at how many non-profits and socially conscious companies were represented at SXSW.  We had a steady flow of these folks in the Beacon lounge, all of them happy to chat and tell you what they’re working on.  There was also a proliferation of panels on social change – where there were only one or two last year, I counted 8 on the schedule this year.  At lot of non-profits are still figuring out how to incorporate social media into their online activities, but these folks blew away any stereotypes about non-profits and technology, with some great examples of how we can use the web to change the world.  I hope that next year we put forth an even stronger presence!

SXSW loves Twitter. I can’t believe how prevalent Twitter was at this conference.  As a Twitter skeptic, I signed up for an account a couple days before, just to check it out, and I’m glad I did.  Nearly every panel had a Twitter hashtag, most speakers gave out their Twitter handles, and a surprising (to me) number of participants wore custom t-shirts with their handles written on them.  Twitter shared back-channels for the sessions, gave tips on the best parties, and facilitated meet-ups.  We contributed by tweeting away at the Beacon, and there was a lot of “IRL” chatter about how Twitter was going to change the web, from social networking to fundraising.  I think there was a bit of group-think going on at the conference – what seems “normal” to a large group of similarly-minded people may not be “normal” to the world at large, and Twitter is still in that category for me.  It’s intensely popular among the web elite, but plenty of people out there don’t use it, and that’s easy to forget at a big event like SXSW.  For my part, I’ll confess that I don’t get it.  (Phew.  I said it.)  I tried, honest I did.  I followed people I knew, and followed people who seemed interesting, but I found my Twitter feed repetitive and distracting.  While is was occasionally helpful or entertaining, most of the time it kept me looking down at my phone instead of up at the panelists or the people around me.  And while it came in handy for the conference, I’m not sure I’ll use it again until next year…

Crowds can be wise, but only if you help them. Crowd-sourcing on the web means basing your content and decisions on the input of your users.  Netflix uses it when they recommend movies to you based on the ratings of users with similar tastes.  And the New York Times does the same with their Most Emailed lists.  (SXSW even tried out a panel recommendation system on their site.)  This idea is both enticing and frightening for organizations.  In the past, I’ve heard two big concerns from organizations considering this sort of interaction mechanism: we’ll get bad input, and we’ll be obligated to do whatever the crowd says.  Not so!  (Unless your site is targeted by Stephen Colbert.)  In fact, you can, and should, curate your crowd-sourced data to make the best use of it.  Keep your goal in mind, be up front with your users about how you’ll use the data they give you, and make your data collection as simple and clean as possible.  At best, make sure that what’s in your best interest is also in your audience’s best interests.

Powerpoint presentations don’t have to suck. I actually went to a presentation about how to give good presentations – and as one might hope, it was a great presentation.  Did you know that bullet points are only marginally helpful in getting information through to your audience – and that they can’t process your text and listen to your narration at the same time?  To get our audiences to remember the information we present, we need to target it at the way the brain works.  Big, exciting visuals, meaningful animation, limited words, and strong narration are the keys.  I was reminded that the brain still has survival as its number one priority – if your presentation is exciting, maybe a little alarming, the brain will really tune in.  I don’t give a lot of powerpoint presentations, but it’s easy to see where these ideas could apply to the web.  We’re always trying to break up big paragraphs on web pages into bullet points, but if we really want to make an impact, maybe we need to push it further – cut out those bullets and toss in more engaging pictures?  This makes me think of a video I saw this week from Free Range Studios that uses no words, just animated images, to communicate some pretty strong ideas.

Social media is for grassroots activism. I talked with folks from a lot of non-profits, large and small, and some of the most exciting applications of social media that I heard about were focused on local or grassroots activism.  I met a local Austin group talking about building a social network for backyard farmers to compare notes.  I saw a demo of a CA-based non-profit connecting local chefs with local farmers, and letting them order produce online.  I often like to think about how the web is letting us connect with like-minded people around the world.  It’s nice to remember that it can also connect us with like-minded people in our own neighborhood.

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