The Digital Life: SXSW and Social Organization for the Creative Class

by Jon Follett

Episode Summary

Is South by Southwest the big tent tech revival for the American creative class? As knowledge workers make their annual pilgrimage to Austin this week to participate in a giant festival filled with the latest in technology, music and film, it's worth asking if conferences like this one are the 21st century's communities of engagement.

As traditional organizations, civil and religious alike, like Lions Club International and Rotary International, churches, and even unions lose membership, there is a need for new structures to organize and engage people in meaningful ways, especially those in the creative class.

Witness the rise of the conference, the unconference, the meetup and the ascendancy of the professional group as one of the primary binding elements of our society — at least for those involved in the information economy. In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss this phenomenon examined through the lens of the popular SXSW festival.


Here are a few quotes from this week's discussion.

Jon on the rise of professional organizations as social groups:
Right now in the United States and probably around the world as well, there are a lot of organization types that were part of previous generation’s social fabric. You have your civic organizations like the Lions or the Rotary Club. Then you’ve got your religious organizations like your churches. Then you have other organizations around professional work like unions that really brought people together and organize them around common interests.

With the diffuse and entrepreneurial aspects of some of the kinds of tech that we’re involved with, plus just the general working style where collaboration can be done across many miles or where it can be done virtually or pretty much anywhere you like. All of these things have made those kinds of connecting organizations a little bit, let’s say, irrelevant to these creative class types that are likely to show up at South By Southwest.

To get to my point, these professional organizations that we see whether it’s something a little bit more vague like the festivals of South By or something more specific like the Interaction Design Association which is one of the prominent organizations in our industry of software. People are finding their “second home,” their larger community in these professional groups that also have personal interest built in to them.

We could go on and on about how these mechanisms are cropping up. You’ve got meetups. You can be involved in meetups for just about any sort of professional or tech hobbyist interest. I find it interesting that the underlying fabric of professional technologists that the social fabric is being connected by these professional groups now and the creative class of 2000s and 2010 are being slowly organized into these relevant groups that … Who knows what they’re capable of and where are they going to push things, but they’re starting to organize people in a way that they can relate to each other.

Dirk on the growth and change of SXSW:
What’s incredible how much it’s changed. South By interactive was … The first time I spoke there, I think it was 2004 or maybe 2005. It was the conference for designers. There certainly weren’t business people there, and product managers and engineers were at a minimum. At the time, it was so relatively small. It was definitely growing. It was in the thousands, not hundreds, but it was sort of like the place for the cool design types to hang out and watching that evolve. From the first time I spoke there, I spoke every year through like maybe 2008 or 2007, I don’t remember, but each year, it was growing bigger and bigger, and then toward the end of that is when the business has started to show up.

Because the attendees of South By were sort of like design, cool influencers, the businesses said, “Oh hey, we should use this as a launch event. We should use this as a marketing platform because there’s a lot of hip and influential people here.” Once that started happening and most notably with Twitter’s big coming out party, a lot of people grokked that that was a pretty good idea. From there, it just went nuts. Now, it’s like … This is an overstatement of course, but the whole tech world kind of descends on it. There’s people who 10 years ago or five, six, seven years ago, they wouldn’t have even known what South By was and now they’re like, “Oh yeah, I’m going for the annual pilgrimage.” It’s just totally, totally changed in a really remarkable way. I don’t know. It’s probably cool for some people, but I definitely miss the days when it was this smaller thing for certain community basically and now it’s just broaden into like all things tech.

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Topics: Podcast