My name is Brian Fitzgerald, and I’m head of Mobilization and Digital Networking at Greenpeace International. This is a presentation of 11 BIG things I took away from SXSW. I’m leaving out the geek stuff, the RSS hacks, the new apps, the design of ipad apps etc etc etc -- which are a big part of the reason I go to SXSW, but which don’t make for very compelling listening to a non-geek crowd. Yes, you’re welcome. These are the things that impact the world, rather than the digital ecosystem on your Macbook Pro. The Twitter hashtag for this presentation is #briansxw -- I doubt many of you are tweeting live, but this is actually one of the things I took away from SX this year -- this year, I found myself taking my notes via twitter, as did many many people at the conference. In some ways, this scares me. It can be the triumph of the sound bite over the complex thought.
For those for whom these letters mean nothing, SXSW Interactive is the Geek leg of a Music & Film festival held every year in Austin, Texas. It was started as a film and music festival in 1987 and added a “Multimedia” event in 1995. It’s been called the Place where the Future Gets Invented, and that’s not far from hyperbole insofar as the technology landscape goes. In 2006 I watched a new thing called Twitter burn through this crowd of early adopters so fast it would singe your eyebrows. This year, you could more easily count the people in the crowd who DIDN’T have an iPad as the ones who did. It’s attended by Digital Creatives, entrepreneurs, deep thinkers about society, a bunch of charlatans a lot of people selling things, some genuine nut cases, and a handful of activists: Greenpeace, Oxfam, Peta primary among them. At 20,000 people for the interactive side alone it basically takes over the city of Austin and there’s an impossibly large number of panels to choose from on anything from how to design better robots to how to deal with your social media data when you die to what role twitter can play in revolution. This year among the random people I met was the oscar winner for short films, the head of security for Facebook, NASA’s social media guru, and a guy who used to canoe with Greenpeace uber-hippy Bob Hunter when he was a kid.
Jay Priebatsch, CEO & founder of a software game called SCVNGR gave a keynote which sounded the theme of the conference, which was games. His thesis is that the decade of the social layer has led to Facebook, and the platform where the world’s social interactions are going to happen is largely decided. What that has created is an entirely new economy of influence and reputation, and that those are both the rewards and the point systems of a giant game that advertisers have begun playing. If you know Foursquare or Gowalla you know some specific applications he’s talking about: SCVNGR is like those but with puzzles. But he also saw Game Technique as a powerful tool for measuring human interest, for engaging people in activities, and as this intensely powerful means of engineering society: Two examples: School as a game that’s broken. He did a standard rant about school being designed not to enhance learning, but to get grades. You win if you get good grades, you fail if you ignore tests and learn how to learn. He broke down cheating as a game that does not discourage cheating, but discourages GETTING CAUGHT by the boss monster: e.g. the teacher, and how Stanford fixed this by crowd-sourcing honesty -- removing the teacher from the room when tests are administered, but requiring every test taker to sign an honor statement that they did not cheat “and they witnessed nobody else cheating.” Complicity is guilt. He promised to solve climate change with an interactive game he led us through. We didn’t fix climate change, but he gave a great example of how a large number of people, given a loose set of rules, can solve a complex problem. On entry to the hall all 3000 of us got a piece of paper with different colors on either side. He asked us all to choose a color and hold it up. There were four colors in all. He then said he’d give 20,000 USD to the National Wildlife Federation if we could sort the room through card trades so that every row was one color in less than 2 minutes, with nobody getting up from their chair. We did it in 1:35. I believe his implicit message was that central authorities (The UNFCCC for example) are not going to solve climate change with directives. He could have stood in front of us and said you red you blue you green all the way through the hall, but it would have taken a half hour or so. But by empowering local solutions and small-scale change and working the power of individuals, you get big change quickly.
“ Work is more fun than fun” was the Noel Coward epigraph that Jane McGonigal used to introduce this session, and to describe what she sees as a ideal situation: one in which work and play are no longer at odds with one another. Jane is the author of a book called Reality is Broken, and talks shamelessly about how games are going to save the world, and in fact she’s written a couple of games where the object is just that. But she see’s deep social meaning and value in the idea of games as systems of goals and obstacles, and how important goals and obstacles are to our every day life. She sited academic studies about the benefits of video game play used as therapy for soldiers in staving of post tramautic stress disorders, studies about how playing a game with a sexy avatar improved the “Flirt Confidence” of teens for eight hours, and how children who played up to 21 hours of video games a week were more social and did better on test scores than those who watched televesion: though she also broadcast the warning that 26 hours a week was too much, and all the trends plummetted once kids hit the point of addiction. She introduced a room of 3000 people to the game of massively multi-player thumb wrestling. It made us all very happy. Jane engineered the first Alternate Reality Game that had a real-world message, which was World Without Oil in which players had to navigate post-peak oil world wracked by climate change. She’s currently engineering a game for the NY Public Library. Players download an app on their Android or iOS phones they take pictures of QR codes that are attached to 100 of the library's notable objects. At each object, players meet a challenge. When they find writer Charles Dickens' letter opener , which, bizarrely, is made out of his dead cat's taxidermied paw, they get a prompt that asks them to write an open letter to someone they love. When they find a draft copy of the Declaration of Independence, which has scribbling in the margins that suggest Thomas Jefferson was trying get the Founding Fathers to ban slavery, they're asked to write a declaration of their own. &quot;You see that and you think this wasn't just some moment in abstract history. This was a man who was trying to stand up for what he believed in,&quot; she said Out of the entries will come a book and a real life
Clay Shirky, an author and sociologist who wrote “Here comes everyone” talked about the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in particular as events that were LEVERAGED by social media. NOT, as the hype has claimed, CAUSED by social media, but leveraged. And by that he means that twitter and facebook brought the ability to do three things: synchronize movements, to coordinate efforts, and to document events all of which he identifies as key revolutionary verbs. His whole speech is worth watching on line, link is in my blog at the end of this presentation.
Shirky’s take is that in the Geritocracies of the Middle East, there’s truly a social division and a social tension between the young and the old, and the mere use of Facebook and Twitter by youth sends a revolutionary social signal: We are young, you are old, we are many and you are few. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook and Twitter are exclusively being used by revolutionaries, but their use raises immediate suspicion and so are targeted by repressive regimes. He showed some correlations stats that Amnesty has run between their measures of democratic freedom and attempts to control the use or availability of the internet, and not surprisingly there’s a high correlation there. He told a story of how the police in Yemen put a Facebook page together full of “Overthrow the government” rhetoric and called for a rally in the city centre on a particular date, then just swooped in and arrested everyone who showed up.
Fascinatingly comprehensive overview of Social Media Fails by Marla Erwin, who has gathered dozens of examples and case studies. I especially liked her presentation of Edelman’s anaylsis of the standard story arc for a social media fail: 1.Gaffe 2.Outrage 3.Apology 4. Parody 5. Everyone considers it funny 6. Indifference 7. Repeat The advice she provided to those who find themselves on the pointy end of a Social Media attack: Fight social media fire with social media water. If you’re attacked on Facebook, respond on Facebook, and calm the waters, don’t feed the flames. Context matters. When a Social Media Fail starts, people pay attention. You need to address the whole issue, not the fragmentary comments. Apologies matter. If you are going to apologize to your customers, you’d better mean it. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Respect your audience, your customers, your supporters: always. Don’t delegate a disaster. Empowered staff tweeting out is great, but when the tweets hit the fan you need official responses from official voices. Avoid “The Streisand Effect.” The “Streisand effect” was coined when Barbara Streisand tried to get pictures of her house removed from a number of websites, and set of a storm of defiant postings. As when Nestle tried to ban the Greenpeace Kit Kat parody by ordering YouTube to take it down, the internet hates censorship, and the best way to provoke attention to something is to tell people to remove it. Nestle’s Kit Kat Fail, which was prompted by Greenpeace rallying supporters against Nestle’s use of palm oil from rainforest destruction in Indonesia, wasn’t one of the studies but it got asked about from the floor and everyone in the room clearly knew about it (This was mostly reputation managers and corporate social media people): Marla was asked if Nestle came out better or worse. Her assessment was neutral, and she knew no case where anyone came out better. I challenged that from the floor and said that among our target audience at Greenpeace, they actually went from zeros to heroes, and we’d done out best to champion the decision they had made to do the right thing in the wider media. But we do have to accept that it’s harder to broadcast the news of a corporation doing the right thing than it is to get attention to the conflict. If it bleeds, it still leads, and we need to make sure we get the story out forcefully when a company we’ve targeted comes around and lives up to the expectations of their customers.
Has Facebook jumped the Shark? was a panel struck by a bunch of classic, right out of Mad Men advertisers who wanted to know why the hell it’s worth 60 billion dollars when they can’t get a decent roi: the question was it all hype. And the answer was surprisingly no: Facebook was viewed as a gift, but a disruptive gift. But there were some very interesting cautions: Brands now live in glass houses, and unless Facebook creates an emotive bond to its users and gets away from an appearance of shukster allegiance to the advertising dollar, it’ll lose the only asset which makes it worth 60 billion: us. I suggested in the tweet stream that one way to create an emotive bond is to take a page out of Google’s play book, and look how they’re striving to be a good corporate citizen with alternative energy investments, crisis relief, etc: Facebook could start by making an appearance to care about our future’s by getting off coal. And thankfully, I got a chance to make the closing remark at this panel when another environmentalist got up and talked about how much he loved Facebook as an activist tool because it saved him putting posters on trees and so was “environmentally neutral” That was just too good an opportunity to pass up to talk about the Unfriend coal campaign, and I pointed out from the mic that while Facebook continues to run their data centres on coal, it’s very far from environmentally neutral, and there’s a wide swath of people who expect Facebook to be a good corporate citizen and help us out of the climate mess we’re in. That, gratifyingly, got applause.
One of the best talks was by a professor of religious history who asked the question what is a priest? A priest is someone who takes a secret knowledge of the world and translates it into something useful in everyday life. And then decides what the flock should and should not look at. Flash is an abomination unto Steve Jobs, and he has banished it from this eco-system. But he giveth unto us the ipad and it is good. Bill gates has had his conversion from greed and is now roaming the world giving alms to the poor. Torvald Linux has nailed his 95 thesis to the door of both churches and declared a new religion open to all. The best part of this speech was the visual, which was this crazy painting that looked like it came out of the 16 th century except it was filled with ipods and ipads and macbook lites being brought down from heaven and babelfish and geek saints... I asked the speaker afterward where he had got this and he said he had painted it himself. This was a true renaissance geek.
I got in an inadvertent argument with someone over twitter at a panel on the electric car. The panelists were talking about how they were tryint to drive adoption of the electric car by melding activism and marketing together to create demand clusters in particular neighborhoods, there were apps for test-driving an electric car by brining your phone along on your regular commute you could find out what your range was, when you’d need to charge, and all of this was framed within the presumption that the audience or target customers were environmentalists concerned about climate change. A self-confessed midwestern republican piped up and said he was a prius owner, and actually interested in an electric car, but all he cared about was the economics and the fact that he wouldn’t be running on any foreign oil. He didn’t care about the climate case and in fact it turned him off. I found that interesting and asked in the twitter stream how we could harness the Tea Party to buy electric cars as an energy independence move. This offended the guy greatly, and he shot back a wounded tweet about how he didn’t support the tea party nor did he like stereotyping. I found him in the hall afterward and apologised (I actually did think all US conservatives supported the tea party) and we had a great conversation where he expressed his deep conviction that we could sell midwestern US conservative farmers on electric cars simply by positioning them as the thing that OPEC hated most.
PETA was no this panel and talked about how they had taken over a hashtag at TWTRCON, a Twitter conference, where a NASA rep was speaking. PETA had a campaign against NASA irradiating chimps, and tweeted a protest against this with the conference hashtag. They then went out to their membership, and asked them to retweet, which they did, and pretty soon the TWTRCON hashtag was carrying nothing but PETA’s message. Great action. Except TWTRCON wasn’t the target. NASA was. And there in the room at SXSW was the founder of TWTRCON, who stood up and politely pointed out that the information stream at the conference ended up as collateral damage to this action, and many people who had paid good money to be there and share the knowledge -- some of them actually sympathetic to PETA’s cause -- were quite pissed off. Personally, I think this should have been the place where PETA said HUH, you’re right we didn’t consider that, and we’ll factor that in to our strategy in the future. Instead, right there on the stage PETA made the classic social media mistake of being disdainful of criticism, dismissive of the critique, and not listening to a reasonable voice of dissent. It reminded me of a couple actions we did at Greenpeace back in the day, blocking bridges full of rush-hour traffic to protest heavy transport regulations -- we inconvenienced far more people than we meant to. Rules for radicals: don’t piss off your supporters by treating them like targets.
Every year you can spot among these young, Red Bull and Vodka drinking 20 something entrepeneurs these kinda withered old guys who drink whisky and smoke cigarettes and go to panels about the death of journalism. They’re journalists. And while they may be reduced in numbers, paid less for what they do, and tend to be cranky about the way things are going, the fact that they’re there generally means they get it, they’re down with the Zeitgeist, and in fact are alive and well.
Bruce Sterling is a futurist and Sci Fi writer who was one of the instigators of SXSW and used to invite the entire conference over to his house when it was over, back in the day when that was possible. He speaks at the end of every SXSW, and he’s the guy who spoils the picnic by pointing to the dark clouds gathering. He’s the guy that asks these optimistic entrepreneurs, full of hubris, why they demonetized journalism instead of food and shelter. He asks what they’re doing about global warming and poverty and political corruption. And this year he asked why a guy name J. Craig Ventor was at SXSW talking about synthetic biology. Let’s just roll the clip.