Friday, 16 March 2012

SXSW #3: Tactivism

So it's day 4 and I feel exhausted. Not because the SXSW talks are too much or the sun is sapping my energy. But because I feel under an immense pressure to be energetic about a cause or an issue every waking minute of the day.

Yesterday I attended an interesting panel on 'brands as patterns'. There were some insightful points made around the analogous areas of music and architecture - around the idea of choreographing experiences so that people feel they are both familiar and surprised by the brand. For this reason they posit that in the future interaction designers rather than marketing managers will be the brand guardians (but that's another blogpost!).

Anyway the talk then went off into the need for every brand to have 'a values based mission that empowers people'.

If felt very much that if you are going to say it's not about brand narrative anymore, (only about user experience) then you can support your case by hiding behind some lofty cause-related position that renders your argument acceptable.

Time and again I could hear the drum beat of activism underneath nearly every presentation.

Social activism came out loud and clear in Biz Stone's presentation. In a very compelling, evangelical talk he took us through the principles on which he built Twitter. Passionate about baking-in good causes to the business he creates he stated that 'the future of marketing is philanthropy'. Our businesses always have to be doing something to help people. He suggested that instead of Coke spending money on advertising they should just supply red cups to the World Food Programme, claiming 'what great marketing is that!'

No-one here seems to understand that the only reason Coke could do this is because of the equity it has built up over years, the meaning it has created and the brand story it has told.

And anyway I can't imagine that awareness of such an association would go beyond the recipients, the digerati and the left-wing press. Coca Cola, a brand built on its strength of distribution surviving by only doing this? I don't think so.

The day before, I attended a conference panel on celebrities and causes. The main thrust of the argument being that celebs should only get involved in the issues they really care about. Lady Gaga was held up as the shining model of getting this right. Her support of "don't ask, don't tell', LBGT rights and anti-bullying. Strangely these sorts of issues have helped to recruit so many little monsters that she now has something like 4m followers. Which came first though, the activism or the marketing?

Sean Parker and Al Gore preached to a packed crowd about the evils of the TV medium, about how TV has gatekeepers, how anti-democratic it is as a medium for politics and how the Internet has returned to us a form of political town-square debate that will out-popularise TV in the long run.

Sean Parker who now runs a company called 'causes' (where he matches issue based groups with politicians) and Gore talked about how TV monopolises media with the messages of only those that can afford it and what people now have with digital is a set of tools, through which they can take action. In fact it is their duty to take action.

They failed to see that only the richest too get best access to the Internet as an advertising medium; that social platforms aren't object but value-laden too; that progress lies not within a group of people who all feel compelled to say they 'like' the same thing but in conflict, dissent and debate; and that not everyone's opinion is as valid as another just because 'we all have a voice now'.

The idea that traditional media is corrupted but new media isn't just seems extremely naive to me.

The author of "You are not a gadget" was much more informed and expert around this subject in another talk on the good and bad of technology, and he said:

"Facebook has two versions of you. One you can see (your page) and one you can't (your algorithm) which determines which ads you see, when, and what happens and doesn't happen in your news feed".

He quite rightly called for democracy and empowerment in new media saying: "People have to own their own information in order to be empowered by it". Exactly.

In all this talk of collaborative consumption and shared ownership and loveliness and community - we seem to have forgotten the political power brokers who sit behind these new media platforms pulling the information-access strings!

And so overall there is an unspoken political doctrine of SXSW which says your brand must have a cause; your brand must behave like an activist; and your users must be activists too in order to be properly engaged. Activism is 'politics made popular'. And it will make your brand popular.

And then there's a smaller group encouraging us to be activists in the area of data privacy - to fight against the very platforms that enable us to be activists in social and political issues worldwide.

So whilst much of the cause-based initiatives i saw over these days are laudable I am left feeling that the constant call for very public 'activism' is often a justification for some more private marketing 'tactics'. These involve using and abusing personal data of people on a mass scale. A distraction at best; a manipulation at worst.

One thing is for sure: 'Tactivism' is the new mode of marketing; whether people see it as such or not.

SXSW #2: L-Shaped Data

So there seems to be a crossover from two of the emerging themes of the first few days. One is the huge importance of personal (or Big) data; and the other is that of local and the value of information and exchanges based around locality.

Not that anyone else is but I'm going to call this crossover, 'L-shaped data'.

That's because I think location will prove to be the biggest disruptor of the next ten years, transforming the very nature of the lives we live, the services we enjoy, the jobs we do and the experiences we enjoy. I predict that 'local' will be a bigger transformational trend than either e-commerce, or social media has been so far and that it is locality that will unlock our willingness as individuals to freely give our data away to invisible sources and intelligent services.

Yesterday Steven Levy (the Wired journalist and author of In The Plex) talked about the idea of Epic Tech Wars and about those of the past and those he predicted for the future. One common to both was the battle between Open and Closed; between Freedom and Control. He took us through the history of Hacktervism from as early as 1959 and it was clear that as more personal data enters the public domain, a battle between Protection ( govt control) and Privacy ( personal freedom) is set to take place.

But there is a third way and that seems to be around setting data free within a local setting. So it's local govt control as well as local community freedoms. In fact those people and institutions that are defining a local code of behaviour are the same people and institutions that are opening up their local data. It's a local quid pro quo.

I came to this realisation during a session entitled Cities in 2032. A company called New Urban Mechanics talked about an app they've developed called 'Street Bump' in which the sensors within the smartphone detect smooth or otherwise driving conditions, record this and upload it to form a picture of where local road repairs are required.

Chris Volinsky of AT&T took us through the results of an experiment they conducted in New Jersey in which they took 6 months worth of data from all the phones in a particular city, anonymised and analysed it and started to identify and then solve city issues around commuter routes into town, or traffic around schools.

And Eric Paulos shared a fascinating point of view on the growth of 'Citizen Scientists' showing how with sensors in phones everyday people could not only input local data but also analyse it themselves to start solving problems in their local area. Imagine if we could tell from aggregated local data whether a particular bus route was the most efficient for most people and as a result of the data we find a better one. People feel engaged, effective and an active part of their community. He quotes Obama "we can't win the future with the government of the past". Right. So once governments cotton on to this availability of local data thing, everything in every local community will change.

And with burgeoning companies that have Local at their heart, like Living Social, an 'L-Shaped' revolution is guaranteed. Their CEO, Tim O'Shaughnessy talked not only about how they want to become the default choice for 'local' but how in order to do so they are expanding from online to offline in order to service local communities. He talked about their truly fascinating plan to launch a physical store/space in Washington DC to help local businesses put on events and host branded experiences. The example being a local sushi restaurant that wants to run a series of sushi classes. They can afford the teacher-chef but can't afford to close for the evening to put on the events. Enter the Living Social space to the rescue.

And finally, Amber Case of took us through a mind-spinning uber-intellectual history of the Cyborg, and ended with the notion that "the next generation of location is ambient". She explained the new technologies and partnerships behind the geoloqi service: a technology that allows our actions in the real world to trigger virtual annotations to pop up that relate to our exact locations. For example one can put a 'geo-fence' around the local bus stop and as you take your bus journey, without having to think, act, press a button or pull down any data, your phone will alert you to get off at the right stop. As she explains: "information flows at you, and the interface disappears; you don't have to search or even ask a question". One of the most useful trial applications of this technology is the geo-fencing of all the local restaurants and the aggregation of all their restaurant reviews to produce "Don't Eat That", warning you not to eat somewhere you might well be about to enter.

So local is where it's at! And after a couple of years of the machismo of BIG Data it feels like small data might triumph. The micro data contributions we make on a daily basis around our local areas are proving to be the most priceless. So I would say watch out for an increase in "L-shaped data", in "L-shaped businesses" and in "L-shaped government initiatives".

As Bing Gordon said on the first day I arrived here, "Local is the extra vector the Internet can bring to bear on us". And everything I'm seeing and hearing would suggest that is very much the case.

SXSW #1: Becoming SuperBetter

I guess that's the overall theme of SXSW, isn't it: how do we all become a bit (or a lot) better through our gaining of knowledge; our making of new and vibrant connections; and our contributions through the brands we work on to make everyday life a bit better.

So I was intrigued to attend Jane McGonigal's 'Crash Course on becoming SuperBetter'. I have seen her TED talks, read much of her work yet still wasn't quite prepared for what a truly inspirational speaker she is. Young, attractive, energetic and above all having come back from a life-threatening accident/illness, totally irrepressible. She started the talk with her mission: 'To increase the lifespan of everyone in this room by 7.5 minutes'. OK then, she has everyone's attention!

Her argument is as follows.

People are criticising the games industry and gamers of sucking the life blood out of real world participation and as a result we're becoming a population of dumb-ass gaming droids who put mindless entertainment before meaning.

BUT her research and that of others shows that of all the biggest regrets in life that people have, actually games and gaming can alleviate and potentially address them all.

We learn that the top deathbed regrets include wishing we had worked less hard (tick); had seen more of our friends (tick); let ourselves be happier (tick); had the courage to express our true selves (tick); and lived a life true to our dreams not what others expected of us (tick tick tick)... Again she has us all. There's a weird chill of connectedness that's descended on the audience. It has made 1000 individuals in the room feel like one universal being.

Jane presses on channeling research stat after research stat proving that game-related activities actually make us better. For example: Stanford Uni have research that proves that your avatar can make you more confident and determined in real life; having just two people you can express yourself to is more important for long term health than watching what you ingest; experiencing three positive experiences for every one negative emotion keeps hope alive - if you can find three tiny things a day that make you feel good - you'll be emotionally happier.

She invited her audience to carry out four tasks that would build up our physical, emotional, mental and social resilience. And you can do them yourself right now if you download the SuperBetter app or visit And her point was that in the time it took to carry these playful activities out, we have actually improved our resilience - that 90 seconds has given us 24 hours of better resilience. And she had; she had given us a 'Futureboost'.

But the bigger point she is making is that there is going to be an exponential growth in gaming-type learning and self-improvement, enabled through digital, interactivity and social. Her premise is that we are going to go far beyond pursuing happiness - we want to progress and achieve - and improve. "It is not the pursuit of happiness but the happiness of pursuit". Boom.

Her rock solid belief in the fact that gaming can encourage better human behaviour in us is clear. Gaming makes us Courageous (helping us determine who might be enemies and how to seek out allies). Games give us Agency, the confidence that the actions we take will have an effect in the world. And Games help us value time, and we commit time and energy to the things that are important to us. She makes the point that the definition of 'virtual' is not about un-real but is about capacity, the about-to-ness, or Possibility of something to become a reality....

And gaming trains us into possibility - the possibility to problem solve; to find allies and fight enemies; and overcome challenges. They give us skills in the virtual world that positively enhance us in the real world. She is almost religious in her credo that a life of play is a life that is SuperBetter in every way. And you'll find it's pretty difficult to argue she is wrong. But more importantly, why would you want to?

Of course I have to point out that if we weren't having to stop every 30 minutes to recharge our phones, that there was actually some network coverage from AT&T or T-Mobile deep inside the concrete convention centre, and the registration queue could take less than the obligatory 2 hours, that wouldn't even be SuperBetter, it would just be a bit better. Which is more than enough better for me.