A Groundswell at SXSW: How The Audience Revolted Against the Speakers

[Posted by Jeremiah Owyang]

For the second year, I experienced the SXSW Interactive Festival, an event attended by thousands who have love for media, the web, and gadgets.

SXSW is a bubble of the tech elite assembling, in many ways it’s a glimpse into the future, exposed on a Petri dish today.


[A Groundswell Occurred at the SXSW Interactive Festival as the Audience Revolted And Took Charge]

Last year, Twitter gained traction at SXSW 2007, this year, it fully ramped up to be one of the most prominent and power shifting tools of the festival –we witnessesd a Groundswell. What’s a Groundswell? It’s a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions. Dan Fost, writing for Fortune Magazine reports that this is Social media is putting an end to the passive role attendees traditionally play at business gatherings.

At least four Groundswells occurred at SXSW 2008:

1) Audience Revolt at Mark Zuckerburg Presentation
The first and foremost example was the interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg by Sarah Lacy, Although discussed by
hundreds of blogs and on twitter, I'll summarize:  Sarah Lacy was un-prepared to interview the young CEO, displaced the focus, and a uprising happened online and in person from the audience.  They vocalized their discontent on Meebo (a chat room provided by the conference organizers), and expressed themselves using Twitter (a mobile social network and chat room), and even took charge by taking control of the questions, and then spilling it over to hundreds of blogs.  Sadly, for Sarah's reputation has been marred as an interviewer by the extensive coverage of blogs and even mainstream media.  As a result, the audience took charge, revolted in discontent and hijacked the interview, later, Mark Zuckerberg held a make-up discussion off site. It’s very clear the audience took charge.  You can watch the video, and read Wired's SXSW: 2008, the Year the Audience Keynoted.

2) The Crowd overtakes a Panel
Perhaps far worse than interviewing skills was the direct challenge to the general assertion of some presenters.  The speakers in the Social Marketing Strategies Metrics, Where Are They? panel, were victim to a revolution in their own session.  Although I wasn't present, I heard that the audience disagreed with the content, statements, and stance of this conservative panel and directly challenged them.  One member of the audience requested to ask a question, but was denied by the panel. Defiantly, and with the crowd on his side, he asserted himself.  Read the actual chat transcripts to learn more.

3) How an audience “team” improved a session
Not all the examples were negative, in Charlene Li's presentation, apparently, one of the projectors were off center, disrupting the experience.  A murmur started to bubble up in Meebo (conference provided open chat) requesting that "...somebody fix the screen".  According to Miles Sims, one member of the audience nearest the projector went over and fixed it, and a silent cheer from the crowd echod in the chat room.  You can read the archives yourself.

From the Meebo Chatroom during Charlene's Preso:

09:37 alx: can somebody fix the screen?

09:37 TheMuggler: I wish that sxsw staffer near the projector would line it up witht he screen

09:37 aebaxter: I know, I can't see all the pictures of the revolutionaries

09:37 mstephan: I am next to it, I'll see if I can fix it
09:38 james nice

09:38 Miles: Good work!
09:38 mstephan: *bow*

09:38 TheMuggler: you are a revolutionary!

4) Twitter, a communication tool to track sessions, parties, and events
Perhaps in a pure social manner, Twitter became the glue of the dozens of friends that were spread out over the city at parties, to find out where friends are and people you want to meet, people were actively tweeting where they were.  In many cases (myself included) it was a way to let people know where the happenings were, and to constantly keep a pulse on what the masses were up to.  More than one person expressed to me that they were overwhelmed by the dozen or so tracks simultaneously, but were able to monitor through twitter, meebo, and from blogs. 


SXSW is a conference made up of folks who thrive on interaction, you won't see this type of behavior from every conference, and the conference organizers supported this behavior by providing the Meebo chat room.  We should still look at how this could impact other conferences, is this just a one off, or a trend?

Wisdom of Crowds or Idiocy of the Mob?
Some are suggesting that this is an example of unruly mobs being rude and disruptive using anonymous tools.  Despite the damages this could have, it's certainly not going to go away.  It will be interesting to see if conferences are going to encourage back channels (like SXSW promoted the Meebo chat rooms) or how they will embrace as they naturally bubble up due to twitter usage.  It’s very clear that this groundswell can quickly do immense damage (search engine results impact client and job relations) yet it can also put the power into the hands of the customers, in this case, the audience.

Speakers, Panelists, and Moderators must monitor back channel
Recently, I wrote a post that has been passed around many conferences on how to successfully moderate a panel.  I'm now adding a section suggesting that the moderator first poll his community using some of these tools, and to also monitor the back channel in real time, while not all conferences will embrace a back channel, it's safe to assume that Twitter will be found at many tech and marketing conferences.

Moving from "Me" to "We"
SXSW was certainly a collection of creators, critics, and joiners (individuals that participate, then influence, according to the Forrester's Technographics data) and in no way represents a larger sample of the marketplace.  Conrad Hametner, shared with me that the esteemed speaker Henry Jenkins, who gave a presentation at the Festival and suggested that social media world is taking charge, the former generation the "I" generation is now being replaced by the highly networked generation of the "We" where collaboration, two-way discussions, and power of masses starts to take hold.

Jenkins is right, we're starting to get glimpses of the future where the social tools gives to a  culture shift from the "me" to the "we". 

I've cross posted this on my Web Strategy Blog

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Comments

re: A Groundswell at SXSW: How The Audience Revolted Against th

Twitter certainly seemed to be a disruptive force in the panel - and far worse in the keynote - at least the panel gives the speakers a chance to read the feedback and respond. In a set speech, how can you deliver it and respond to microblogging feedback.

re: A Groundswell at SXSW: How The Audience Revolted Against th

Hi Jeremiah,SXSW was quite some fun. I think social media applications like Twitter are making it easier than ever for the collective "we" to be heard.Panelists can take this and mold it to their advantage or they can continue to ignore the "we" and feel the backlash.

re: A Groundswell at SXSW: How The Audience Revolted Against th

When I first read about this, my visceral reaction was redemption for all of the boring or unprepared speakers I've listened to for many years. Then, a much bigger, less indulgent insight prevailed--this is really what Marketing 2.0 is about--will it be mob rule or evolve into some sort of disciplined dialogue among consumers and brands that creates value for both? I think we are still waiting for some catalyst(s)to signal marketing can grow a new skin and consumers show an interest in more than self-promotion.Ralph Sherman

re: A Groundswell at SXSW: How The Audience Revolted Against th

RalphIt can go both ways: mob rule, or mob justice. The key here is to listen. Listen before an event, listen during, and listen afterwards.The next step is to give and take!