The crumpled note was passed to me like a kid on the playground. Unfolding the mysterious napkin revealed a name, phone number and the words: Concert tonight — call me! It was the perfect childlike way to dip my toes into SXSW. It’s a playground, but one with the expectation of excessive digital interaction. In the absence of tech, this exchange felt refreshing, fun and even a bit rogue. Throughout the weekend, Meerkat, Mophie, and robots provided plenty of fodder for conversation, but it was surprising to realize that whether digital or not, the experiences that mattered most were simply the ones that connected us to each other.
The smell of BBQ hung in the air as we sat with our friends from WIRED the Austin classic, Lamberts. There were 4 virtual reality headsets ready and waiting for us to explore, but most of us gravitated to the opposite side of the room. Of course we tried the demos, but as interesting as they were, they weren’t fulfilling in the same way our conversations were. The briskit and bloody marys get a little credit, but it was apparent that the collection of assembled characters was the preferred reason to linger.
In a conference session later on, Jeremy Welt, SVP of Marketing at Maker Studio, showed us the trailer for the upcoming film, Vlogumentary. YouTube fans are moved to tears as they reflect on the impact that Shay Carol and other video bloggers have had on their lives. Shay broadcasts his life on youtube, living transparently on the internet. When his fans see him out filming, they flock to him — building instant communities wherever he goes. The popularity of vloggers has already eclipsed traditional celebrities. Variety Magazine recently found the top 5 “most influential” celebrities for teenagers to all be Youtubers. “This isn’t the future of entertainment, it’s the present of entertainment,” said Jeremy. Vloggers are transforming an entire industry, creating dialogue and a place for human connection.
Human connection continued to be a theme for the week as we kicked off our panel, Humanizing Digital. Along with celebrity vlogger, Charles Trippy, Google and Man Made Music, we opened a discussion about how to create loved digital experiences. Throughout the panel, the audience enthusiastically waved pink and orange card in the air, casting their votes for which brands were already doing this successfully. It’s easy enough for brands like Spotify and PayPal to host concerts and parties to physically connect with SXSWers, but are they successful in creating human connections from behind the screen? The audience was abundantly clear about the experiences they loved vs. liked, “leaving” Snapchat, YikYak and the apple watch, “liking” Spotify, feeling divided on Uber, and “loving” Instagram. “Uber is truly humanizing digital,” said Randall Stone, “not because we don’t expend time fumbling with our credit cards, but because we can use the time we save to thank the driver, to make a human connection.” Loved experiences surprise us, delight us, grow with us and give us superpowers. But most importantly, they give us the ability to connect and bring us closer to the people we care about, or to the people we don’t yet know we care about.
That cocktail napkin with sharpie scrawl was not digital, yet it stuck with me. In the often ostentatious, taco and tequila fueled world of SX, where everything is live-streamed, uploaded, and reblogged, the napkin was personal. Just for me. It was surprising, delightful and indicative of human connection — the emotions that digital experiences seek to emulate. Amongst the likes, loves, beeps and tweets, it was a good reminder of why SXSW continues to thrive. Everything is digital, but digital isn’t everything. Whether digital, physical or even augmented, experiences that matter start with humans.