SXSW Wrapup Part I: Back Home and Feeling Wistful

South By Southwest (SXSW) was, once again, an energizing experience that reminded me that there is a lot of crazy people doing crazy things out there that just might work. It is the best thing, ever. However, the experience also overstimulates me, so when I got back home last night I immediately vegged out in front of the TV, watching Eli Stone, Bones, and King of the Hill back-to-back.

This was the third year attending the festival, but it’s the first one that I didn’t feel particularly hurried. I took my time, and didn’t go to every panel. I didn’t worry about not meeting everyone, and I didn’t worry that much about not being as social as I wanted to be. I essentially accepted my introverted nature while allowing myself to be drawn into other people’s worlds. Last year I berated myself for not being more proactive, but this time around I didn’t let it bother me that much.

Since this was my third year, I was looking forward to see what conclusion I would draw about SXSW, since it takes three experiences for me to form an opinion I can stand behind. It’s related to the way I make observations: first time is just imprinting on what I find interesting; this is a continual process. The second time, I notice that I’ve felt this interest before, which makes me curious about the root cause. After that, I am in “collection” mode, looking for enough data points to support or discount my theories. It takes at least three data points for me to extrapolate a first set of assumptions; successive data points continue to refine or create new underlying models.

There is one definitive conclusion I can draw right off the cuff: SXSW keeps me in touch with sources positive creative energy, and it has so far renewed me every year. I didn’t even realize I was running low on this until I boarded the plane back to New Hampshire and realized that the further away I was getting from Austin, the grayer I felt. My fellow passengers on the plane had different lives, probably quite stable and interesting in their own right, but very local. By the time I landed in Manchester, I was fully aware that now any such creative energy would have to be created by myself. At SXSW, there is so much of the stuff concentrated in one place that it takes no effort to tap into it. There is so much talent, so much creative diversity, and so much sheer possibility that you take it for granted. It is hard to explain. I imagine that some parts of the country are just like this with their close creative communities. If you’ve ever worked with a great product team, been in a really outstanding art department, or worked in a tight-knit research group you might know what I’m talking about. Back home, in my cluttered office, I’m cut off from that energy again. To get it back, I have to build my own sources of it.

It takes a certain mix of people to build that energy, and making it self-sustaining for an entire year will take a certain level of commitment to building that structure. We’ve seen over the past few years dozens of Barcamp and Refresh grassroots organizations take seed, which is awesome. I’m curious how to create a broader experience beyond technology and new media, though. It is an interesting puzzle that I’ll be trying to crack with the other social-minded geeks in the area.

I also had an insight about personal branding and business cards, and it’s probably not what you think. As I met and chatted with people around SXSW, what would typically happen is this:

  • With past SXSW acquaintances: “Dude! Good to see you again! What’s up?” We exchange cards as memory tokens, a promise to our future self to keep in better contact throughout the year. We take note of what’s changed since the last time we met: a new job, maybe a new venture or a positive contribution to whatever community they belong to.

  • With readers of the blog: “Hi Dave! I’m a fan of your blog and I just wanted to say hi!” To which I would respond with a sheepish smile and say, “Really? It’s awesome to meet you! What do you do? Neat! Give me a card! Can you tell me, out of my own curiosity, what it is you like about the blog? I’m trying to figure out why people read it.” I’d happily exchange business cards with them, and make a note to see what they were up to. I liked these interactions the most.

  • With people who have heard of my work: “Oh, Dave Seah, it’s great to meet you. I’ve seen your work. Tried it for a while even, good stuff.” This would happen often through an introduction by someone I knew. Since I am not one to readily mention work I’ve done (I know, bad bad bad), often the person I was with would say something like, “Dave’s the guy who made The Printable CEO bubble thing”. From here, a conversation would start based on the level of enthusiasm displayed. Cards are of course exchanged.

  • With complete strangers: “Nice to meet you, Dave. So what is it that you do?” Polite and friendly conversation ensue, and cards are exchanged to remember the encounter by.

  • With OLPC fans: “Is that one of those $100 laptops? I’ve never seen one. Wow, it is so small and cute. How do you like it?” I was one of the few people carrying these around and trying to use them. Carrying around an OLPC XO laptop at a conference like this is just like bringing a puppy to the park. The nicest people came up to me and asked about it. People who recognize this laptop are the generally ones that are socially conscious, sympathetic to the cause, and are really nice. If the conversation ended up being about more than the laptop, we’d exchange cards.

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p>Business cards, at a conference/festival like SXSW, serve as access points to our websites more than anything, and that’s because we can find out a lot more about the people we just met. And why does this matter? It’s because we want to make a GOOD social/business contact; at SXSW, the chance that this will happen is many times higher than the typical networking event in your home town. The people at SXSW generally are passionate about what they do, or they want to be. These are people who I would like to have friendships with. Friendship matters.

My eureka moment was that I should be designing my website to make friendship that much easier to establish. As I look back at the evolution of this blog, one of the constants has been the way I tend to write as if I’m writing to my friends. And if you ARE reading this blog every day, we probably COULD be friends. Which leads me to the following blog and content design principle: I am not interested that interested in marketing my services on my website just for money. What I am doing is friend-focused marketing. Make it easy for people to see what I’ve done, what I’m interested in, and who else I’m talking to or working with on interesting project. Above all, practice good friendship by being generous with what I can give, being authentic, and showing instead of just saying. And to close the social networking loop, make it easy for my friends to introduce me to their friends.

There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye, so I will probably write more about the design concept as I start looking at my site. Should be quite interesting.