This year the SXSWi 2012 theme was the distinct lack of a theme – and this blog will not have a bulleted list of takeaways. Perhaps themes had a harder time of rising to the top because SXSWi has swelled to 25,000 registrants and, as many vets complain, is “blown up.” But I say there is a certain beauty in this explosion. At a time when it feels like the internet keeps getting smaller as Google and Facebook reel us in, SXSWi is getting bigger. It was nice to see the tech world that works so hard on perfecting their algorithms, curating content and serving up relevancy, bask in the randomness and offline events that occur all over Austin.
I started the conference thinking I shouldn’t veer too far from the “better tomorrow” track which is comprised of the events for nonprofits and government agencies. This was the most curated experience the conference had to offer me. After all, in the social good world, the internet’s power to mobilize the masses is how things get done for a good cause. So I thought I should stay with the pack.
But I found that this curated experience was the most mundane because someone put it together for me. A lot of it I already knew, which made it harder for me to learn something new. What is SXSWi about if not expanding knowledge? So I fanned out and that’s when I started to really learn.
As the days went on and there was no underlying theme that I heard anyone referring to (last year was all about gamification) I realized that there may be a big hole in the tech world. How could this be when the big internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft gobbled up the competition and are now focused on rendering each other redundant? While we were distracted by the internet wars, a large, untouched area is opening up. The demand for random experiences is there and not many people are developing for them. It’s hard to engineer random.
Yet why do some crave random when it sounds so good to have a perfect tool to give me what I want without spending time searching for it? I think we are scared that Google will tell us one day just how predictable and similar we all are. People want to hear they are a special snowflake and not a cog. And again, if they keep giving back to us what we put in, it’s hard to evolve past this loop.
I think there is room for both — the ultimate serving of relevancy and the healthy dose of random. As Bruce Sterling said “information wants to be free, but it also wants to be archived.” So instead of takeaways I’m left with questions. Where do I go when I don’t feel like being grouped, pinned or followed? Is it a waste of time to purposely do things you don’t like? What if I end up liking it?