Monday, March 28, 2011

Five technology trends from SXSW 2011: Trend one.

For the oh-so-few regular readers of Art Lobster, this post will feel a little out of place. Normally I don't write business-focused commentary.  But since I went to the 2011 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference for work, I wanted to take a moment and make the case that there is real business value in attending conferences like this.  I learned a lot about the future of interactive, and more importantly, I came away from the conference wanting to do my job better.

One thing I found interesting at the SXSW Interactive Conference is this: Even though there were hundreds of presentations on hundreds of topics, a few themes emerged from the presentations.  So rather than write about each individual session I attended, over the next several posts, I'll summarize technology trends that I took away from the conference. Here's the first:

Trend one: Some like their interweb personalized. Others like it private.
A lot of the visionaries at SXSW seem intent on delivering the best online experience possible.  They ask questions about how to use the internet and other social mediums to empower the masses.  And many of these online brains fall into one of two camps: Privacy is king (which means you have to give up a more personalized online experience) or personalization is king (which means you've got to give up some of your privacy.)

On the side of privacy was keynote speaker Christopher Poole (who, by the way, looks like he's about 18), founder of Poole directly challenged Mark Zuckerberg's suggestion that anonimity is inauthentic, saying that revealing yourself online means you are less willing to explore your truest identity. While anonymity lets people express themselves in "raw, unfiltered ways."  Poole also suggested that anonymous communities can take on challenges from a new perspective.  He used a simple, online refrigerator magnet game as an example.  Even though the community has no knowledge of each other or of each other's goals, it still creates order out of randomness. 

I'll let you be the judge of whether or not raw, unfiltered expression is successful by taking a look at (warning, some images are adult-oriented but those are generally clearly marked) and at Poole's upcoming endeavor, which is currently in closed beta.

On the opposite end of the spectrum and fighting for a "personalized" web experience is one of the founders of Foursquare, Dennis Crowley.  (By the way, the quality of some sessions was suspect; but this session was one of the more entertaining and informative.  Crowley was brilliantly interviewed by founder and CEO, Pete Cashmore.) Crowley believes the web is more fun and more useful when companies use what they know about their customers to create highly-customized experiences.  He was immediately questioned about the "creepy" factor of letting people know exactly where you're at and that you're not at home.  Crowley's response: People who make such comments have never used Foursquare.  He was right.  I used to say things like that, but I tried to embrace social technology in a more meaningful way at SXSW so I set about figuring out what Foursquare is really all about.  The application put me in control of what I post and how I use it. Foursquare is fun and useful and I found it surprisingly un-creepy. And Crowley has big ideas for how the data Foursquare collects can be used to surprise his customers, not to just push ads.  For example, if you're in a new neighborhood, you might be notified about a local coffee shop that your friends have been raving about.  Crowley also has a business plan which focuses on helping small, local businesses create more meaningful relationships with customers.  I like that idea.

A number of other sessions dealt with the "personal vs. private" question including a panel titled, "How to Personalize without Being Creepy."  This session offered plenty of smart advice for balancing anonymity, privacy, and personalized web experiences.  Here are a few key ideas:
  • If you can't explain, or wouldn't want to explain what you're doing with customer data, you're probably in the creepy camp.
  • Don't assume you know what the data means.  One panelist used this example: Just because he visited vacation cruise sites doesn't mean he would ever take a cruise. In fact, he hates cruises. And yet, after he visited a couple of sites, he was served cruise ads everywhere he went on the web. 
  • Let consumers help guide data systems.  Show customers what you think you know about them and let them make changes and corrections. You can even give them the opportunity to tell you what really matters to them.
  • Tell people in simple, easy-to-understand terms, exactly how you collect data and how you use it.  Consumers are more comfortable when companies are transparent.
My take on all this discussion?  I think personalization will deliver a more rewarding online world.  Sure it comes with risks and challenges to our rights to privacy.  But with some care to ensure that abuses are quickly identified and punished, the web will be a more delightful place to visit.  Which is the perfect segue to the second SXSW trend which I'll post soon.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. So I guess you actually didn't go to SXSW just to play.