SXSW: A user’s experience

Simon Mainwaring / Brands / 8 years ago

I just returned from the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas, and it was quite an experience. As you can see from the photo above that I took at 3.45am on the final morning, the event was packed with people and energy. Last year was my first time there and I have to say that the experience was even better and more intense this year.

In terms of technology, API’s, geo-apps, augmented reality, and gaming in all its forms dominated the week. Overarching this technology was a theme of doing social good that also benefits the bottom line. This blend of social technology and social change is my prediction as to what will dominate the event next year.

But if there was one gesture exhibited by almost every attendee that portends the future, it was the week-long, eye-lock with a smart phone in almost every person’s hand. For the entire five days, streams of people strode the corridors as if tethered to their phones. Glowing like crystal balls and bristling with the latest text, tweet or status update about what was going on, where their friends were or what they needed to know, it seemed as if the answers that everyone was looking for were locked inside these little Black Boxes.

Some will see this as a sad sight but it is also a window to the future. This army of digital ambassadors has already made the transition from desktop to mobile seamlessly sharing their lives, relationships, news, and creativity through portals the size of their palms.

This shift has a two-fold effect. Not only does it accelerate the rate of information exchange but it also alters the way people relate to each other. It was commonplace to see four people huddled in a group with the appearance of a “conversation” only to discover each person was locked in a simultaneous dialogue with someone else at the other end of their phone.

Does this make us less present? Less caring? In fact, less connected? (No doubt many would call it rude.) Yet I would argue the opposite. This technology allows us to connect in multiple ways in real time across multiple platforms weaving an ever-denser network of connectivity between friends, family and colleagues.

I believe this connectivity is rapidly re-stitching the web of relationships in the real world around shared values directed towards the benefit of all. That’s because social technology is built on relationships with people you care about within a framework of community.

As such the mobile is my weapon of choice with which to reshape the future and distance ourselves from self-destructive “Me First” behavior and thinking of the past. If it comes at the cost of some eye contact, it’s a small price to pay when you consider what people – citizens, consumers, technologists, social entrepreneurs, non-profits, government agencies, brands and CEO’s – can achieve when they set their minds on their well being of others and themselves.

Do you believe that mobile technology will effect our lives in a positive or negative way and why?


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  1. Avatar Tejdesai says:

    Hi Simon, great pov as always! Honestly speaking I am a victim of this behaviour as well, so totally relate to it. Having said that, I also believe that while this technology offers lots of advantages, one cannot undermine the negative impact it subliminally causes.

    Yes, it may develop an ever-denser network of connectivity between friends, family and colleagues – who may be physically distant, yet at the same time it risks damaging the emotional connect with those in ‘physically close’, at that very moment. Not sure if I have been able to articulate my point well enough. But this film truly captures the point impeccably. Let me know what you think! 🙂

    1. Thanks Tej,

      I agree. the damage to physical relationships in the short term may be real.
      Hard to know what to do and whether its possible to stop it. Mass mobile
      adoption is already underway. Not sure what i think of the ad. eerie, to say
      the least. Thx

  2. Great post, Simon. I wrote a post about my experience coming out of SXSWi (on the Band Digital blog). I made three key observations. And one of them is exactly what you are saying here. I called it “Device Blindness.” For me, it made it next to impossible to have conversations with people. This was mostly in sessions, but it was present in a lot of places – walking and texting, checking in at parties and restaurants, etc.

    Surely, in time we’ll collectively uncover ways to have IRL conversations even if we’re engaged with a device. Maybe the social norms around interruption will shift and it will become more acceptable to speak to someone even if they’re on their phone. Surely this falls in line with our evolving interest (and perhaps even “ability”) to multi-task and take on an increasing number of distractions while still feeling in-the-moment.

    1. Thanks Steph and I’ll check out your post. It’s definitely a question of how
      to balance social behavior in the real world and online. maybe the pendulum
      is swinging too far right now but it will come back. Felling in the moment
      is important. So is knowing in what world that moment is. Simon

  3. Avatar Alex A says:

    Simon, I think the cost is profoundly more than just eye contact. I look at the conferences I’ve attended where, for example, presenters ask people to tweet if they are too nervous to ask a question aloud (even in a room of 15). While on the one hand this is freeing for the agoraphobic, I believe it may be reinforcing what is likely an antisocial behavior.

    I also think it’s easy to mistake social networking for true socializing, why not question if the behavior is a form of avoidance? Is texting an inane observation or scanning through tweets really that different from playing Angry Birds (another behavior I saw a lot of)?

    Like you, I’m unsure about what this all ultimately means, but if this is ‘mobile insularity’, it is a undoubtedly a movement towards “Me First”.

    1. Thanks, Alex. yes, it could be avoidance and there are no doubt negatives to
      the upside I wrote about. Especially when it consider children. I hope it’s
      not a shift towards insularity. That indeed would be unhealthy. Thanks for
      sharing. Simon