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SXSW and Social Organization for the Creative Class

March 19, 2015          

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.

Welcome to episode 94 of The Digital Life. A show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Hey Jon.

This week Dirk is the giant tech pilgrimage otherwise known as South By Southwest which is where all the startups are making their debuts of their new apps and products where tech geeks are arriving in hoards and partying too hard and listening to enumerable panels. We call it the Big Tent Revival of the alter of technology in the United States.

It’s all happening and it’s great, but I know you had some experience going to South By when it was slightly smaller a fair. What’s your thoughts on how the event has grown into this monstrous, humongous place for tech?

What’s incredible how much it’s changed and … South By Southwest, there’s actually three different festivals sort of all going on together. There’s a music and film festival as well, but it’s sort of the interactive that is most specific to us. South By interactive was … The first time I spoke there, I think it was 2004 or maybe 2005. It was the conference for designers. They’re certainly weren’t like 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.

We mentioned South By this week because it is such an important event, but I also wanted to talk a little bit about the tech professional group and this creation of community that’s really happening in the tech field around these professional organizations.

To back up a little bit, 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.

I see this happening and I see South By Southwest get bigger every year. I see all of these things going on. My question is, first, where are we finding meaning in this? Is it just the worship of technology of our jobs or are we still puzzling through how these organizations can have a larger impact on our society? Dirk do you have thoughts on either of those directions?

Yeah. In terms of meaning, I’m not sure. The communities are definitely evolving and shifting. It has the conversations, the coalescence of community have moved to these more online and offline places that don’t resemble the organizations of the past.

If you go back, I don’t know, 15 years, when you’re talking about design from the standpoint of graphic design, it was AIGA. That was the start and the finish of it. I can remember hiring designers. If I want to hire a designer, the first thing I would do is AIGA had this online designer directory and I would go on and search that because I knew that the designers who I would be interested in who are more likely to be talented and take their profession very seriously would be part of that.

AIGA was a membership driven organization and the membership was hundreds of dollars. I don’t remember the exact number, but just to belong and get a newsletter or whatever else was money. That really shifted for that particular group to the South By community. I remember again when I was early in speaking at South By, I was like, “Wow, these are the people we want to hire.” The AIGA are more likely to not be into the sort of digital things that we need. Everyone here is not only into those things but is really at the cutting edge of them.

AIGA has become totally way too strong, but has become, for me, irrelevant from the standpoint of trying to find talent of representing of sort of the vanguard of design and what practicing professional designers are doing.

I think that’s a migration that reflects how a lot of communities have migrated away from big fee driven professional organizations to these more emergent groups and structures that are more nimble and more reflective of where technology in practice is at any given time.

Yeah. I think it’s … We’re definitely in a time of transition especially for those of us in the generation X demographic, familiar with the associations of, we call it our parent’s generation, but at least for me not completely adopted to sort of the self organizing organizations of the future.

What I mean by that is, for me, the personal computer was not something that was always in my house. I remember when it came in when I was 12 or 13. My life has been largely digital but I remember that starting, so I’m not a digital native per se. I think this switch from the groups that come together at the union hall, or at church every Sunday, or at a particular bar or pub for your rotary club meeting, I’m still kind of that world but also of the IxDA and the South By Southwest organization as well.

I feel this pull between the formal organization, the structures and the informal and social media and online enabled groups that were becoming so much a part of now. For me, it’s a little disconcerting frankly. Maybe, it’s just either my mindset or a generational understanding, but I can see the ascendancy of this new way of organizing. Frankly, I’m excited by it, but I don’t always know how to relate to it. Dirk, do you ever encounter that same kind of feeling?

No, I don’t. I don’t know. I tend to like change and innovation. I like the fact that things are changing so quickly. Frankly, they’ll only continue. Things will be more destabilized, not less. You mentioned earlier the Interaction Design Association. That’s an organization that over the next 10 years is either going to have to be really chameleon-esque in how it’s changing what it’s claiming to do and how it is servicing its members or it’s not going to exist anymore.

That’s one of the newest breed organizations that’s most current and relatively nimble largely online and virtual and has had a lot of success. Our emerging tech is just changing so freaking fast and the future of UX and specifically what’s that’s going to look like is so up in the air that going out 10 years or 20 years, wow … I mean, the landscape of what does this professional community look like, much less how is this professional community organized and creating communities and sub-communities within it. That’s really going to look a lot different.

Yeah. I think being in the middle of all this change, it’s not all that easy sometimes to see where it’s going, but I feel assured by the fact that there is this ongoing human need to organize along the lines of common interest and either push your field forward or do things that are good for your civic community or do things that are good for humanity generally speaking.

I can think of Code for America for instance. Civic minded hackers who come together in formal meetups. Is that the new Rotary Club? I suppose so. I like to think so anyway. This civic mindedness, this need to give back is materializing in new ways as our communication channels and professions become more virtual.

The Rotary Club is a good example, because that is such a dinosaur. Having like a physical building and infrastructure that is owned by the group and needs to be paid for by members or was paid for in the past by members is so archaic and then it gets into the same annual membership stuff that I mentioned before. Wow, talk about a vestige from a different time and place.

What will the Rotary Club of the future look like? I don’t know. It’s going to look a lot different from the Rotary Club. That’s for sure. Again, we are in this point of super fast transition, so right now clearly, if you are a designer or engineer or whatever sort of professional strip you wear, you’re not looking for a physical place to meet up and hang out with the group that is owned by the group.

That’s just kind of insane, but changes to physical infrastructure changes to the digital creation of spaces may end up creating some sort of a weird convergence between that type of a group and say a co-working space, but it will all depend on what future technology looks like and how …

Do you have spaces where the walls are giant screens? Do you have spaces where there need to be embedded devices to record and create proper IO with users? The more immersive that tech gets and the more expensive and exclusive it is and harder to get in a general way, the more likely that we could have models that are kind of like the Rotary Club, but for the very utilitarian purpose of making these spaces available to people who otherwise either/or couldn’t afford them on their own or collectively wouldn’t be able to get the access and use to them that they need when participating as participatory professional group.

Yeah. I think that’s … We can see the beginnings of that happening with corporate installations like the Cisco TelePresence where you can see this virtual video of someone across the world and in real time and life size across the table from you. I think the strong pull to come together with like-minded people and that social construction I think is what is really driving some of these new types of organizations. I think South By Southwest, just to bring it back to our event of the week, is really representative of the like-minded tech geeks coming together. At least being in the same physical space for one week a year anyway. I know it’s a tremendous time for the people who are there.

Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to That’s just one L in the Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter at @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me,

That’s it for episode 94 of The Digital Life For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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