South by Southwest Interactive plots a course to a better world

Peace, love and QR codes
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  March 24, 2011

 South by Southwest Interactive Festival

After a week of bottomless queso and free condoms, it's hard to leave South by Southwest. Music aside, the conference's heady "interactive" portion — five days of workshops and powwows about life and culture in the digital age — is a snapshot of utopia. While quieter than the much larger adjoining music conference, SXSWi is nerd heaven, an intellectual open bar complete with free bloodies and QR codes on the cocktail napkins.

What transforms this corner of Austin into Zion every March is the attitude of attendees. Rather than duke it out as competitors, companies come here to tag-team panels and extol their collaborative feats, while others address topics like civic engagement and "shopping as a revolutionary act."

The hacks, hackers, geeks, and consumers at SXSWi represent the tastemakers who are moving culture forward, and on whom brick-and-mortar industries are leaning for guidance. According to a pre-festival survey, they are (on average): in their 20s and 30s; good for one to five daily status updates; and obsessed with the Old Spice Guy (now back to me). One thing not measured in that tally, though, is the extent to which SXSWi-goers, including those in powerful positions, are by and large not greedy assholes like the power brokers who preceded them.

Though SXSWi is best known as a launch pad for marquee start-ups like Foursquare and Twitter, it's also a forum to examine how social media and other tools can catalyze positive change.

A substantial number of workshops are billed under the themes "Greater Good" and "Work & Happiness," and there's a host of panels on the intersection of philanthropy and technology. If there's any hope in this post-Madoff, mid-apocalyptic circus that we live in, it's evident at SXSWi, where sharing, not ruthlessness, is valued, and where there's a sense that technology can be used to mobilize people — not just against dictators, but against forces that oppose social justice everywhere. In this oasis, the good gals and guys are empowered to make a significant difference, and the plan is to continue doing just that as soon as the hangovers subside.


HOOKING UP

The notion that competitors with seemingly incompatible interests can win together isn't novel. In his 2005 bestseller, The World Is Flat, New York Times soothsayer Thomas L. Friedman wrote: "The further we push out the boundaries of knowledge and innovation, the more next great-value breakthroughs — that is, the next new hot-selling products and services — will come from putting together disparate things that you would not think of as going together." As an example, he applauds biologists who worked with computer programmers to map the human genome.

Friedman was right about the strength of networked resources. But even more remarkable than specific high-tech breakthroughs — and on full display at SXSWi — is the revolutionary spirit of collaboration that fuels group-thinks like "Your Business + Social Mission = Happiness + Ka-Ching." What's demonstrated in discussions here is that people aren't sharing for the sake of image — they're holding hands in belief that mutuality can lead to victory. According to Derek Neighbors, a "Collaboration Over Competition" panelist and co-founder of Gangplank collaborative workspaces: "[Collaboration is] the ability to share ideas and to recognize that what you do has the ability to impact the people you collaborate with, [and to] lift everybody up."

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