A Groundswell at SXSW: How The Audience Revolted and Asserted Control

For the second year, I experienced the SXSW Interactive Festival, an event attended by thousands who have love for media, the web, and gadgets. SXSW is a bubble of the tech elite assembling, in many ways it’s a glimpse into the future, exposed on a Petri dish today.

[A Groundswell Occurred at the SXSW Interactive Festival as the Audience Revolted And Took Charge]

Last year, Twitter gained traction at SXSW 2007, this year, it fully ramped up to be one of the most prominent and power shifting tools of the festival we witnessesd a Groundswell. What’s a Groundswell? It’s a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions. Dan Fost, writing for Fortune Magazine reports that this is Social media is putting an end to the passive role attendees traditionally play at business gatherings.

At least four Groundswells occurred at SXSW 2008:

1) Audience Revolt at Mark Zuckerburg Presentation
The first and foremost example was the interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg by Sarah Lacy, Although discussed by
hundreds of blogs and on twitter, I’ll summarize: Sarah Lacy was un-prepared to interview the young CEO, displaced the focus, and a uprising happened online and in person from the audience. They vocalized their discontent on Meebo (a chat room provided by the conference organizers), and expressed themselves using Twitter (a mobile social network and chat room), and even took charge by taking control of the questions, and then spilling it over to hundreds of blogs. Sadly, for Sarah’s reputation has been marred as an interviewer by the extensive coverage of blogs and even mainstream media. As a result, the audience took charge, revolted in discontent and hijacked the interview, later, Mark Zuckerberg held a make-up discussion off site. It’s very clear the audience took charge. You can watch the video, and read Wired’s SXSW: 2008, the Year the Audience Keynoted.

2) The Crowd overtakes a Panel
Perhaps far worse than interviewing skills was the direct challenge to the general assertion of some presenters. The speakers in the Social Marketing Strategies Metrics, Where Are They? panel, were victim to a revolution in their own session. Although I wasn’t present, I heard that the audience disagreed with the content, statements, and stance of this conservative panel and directly challenged them. One member of the audience requested to ask a question, but was denied by the panel. Defiantly, and with the crowd on his side, he asserted himself. Read the actual chat transcripts to learn more.

3) How an audience “team” improved a session
Not all the examples were negative, in Charlene Li’s presentation, apparently, one of the projectors were off center, disrupting the experience. A murmur started to bubble up in Meebo (conference provided open chat) requesting that “…somebody fix the screen”. According to Miles Sims, one member of the audience nearest the projector went over and fixed it, and a silent cheer from the crowd echod in the chat room. You can read the archives yourself.

From the Meebo Chatroom during Charlene’s Preso:

09:37 alx: can somebody fix the screen?
09:37 TheMuggler: I wish that sxsw staffer near the projector would line it up witht he screen
09:37 aebaxter: I know, I can’t see all the pictures of the revolutionaries
09:37 mstephan: I am next to it, I’ll see if I can fix it
09:38 james: nice
09:38 Miles: Good work!
09:38 mstephan: *bow*
09:38 TheMuggler: you are a revolutionary!

4) Twitter, a communication tool to track sessions, parties, and events
Perhaps in a pure social manner, Twitter became the glue of the dozens of friends that were spread out over the city at parties, to find out where friends are and people you want to meet, people were actively tweeting where they were. In many cases (myself included) it was a way to let people know where the happenings were, and to constantly keep a pulse on what the masses were up to. More than one person expressed to me that they were overwhelmed by the dozen or so tracks simultaneously, but were able to monitor through twitter, meebo, and from blogs.

SXSW is a conference made up of folks who thrive on interaction, you won’t see this type of behavior from every conference, and the conference organizers supported this behavior by providing the Meebo chat room. We should still look at how this could impact other conferences, is this just a one off, or a trend?

Wisdom of Crowds or Idiocy of the Mob?
Some are suggesting that this is an example of unruly mobs being rude and disruptive using anonymous tools. Despite the damages this could have, it’s certainly not going to go away. It will be interesting to see if conferences are going to encourage back channels (like SXSW promoted the Meebo chat rooms) or how they will embrace as they naturally bubble up due to twitter usage. It’s very clear that this groundswell can quickly do immense damage (search engine results impact client and job relations) yet it can also put the power into the hands of the customers, in this case, the audience.

Speakers, Panelists, and Moderators must monitor back channel
Recently, I wrote a post that has been passed around many conferences on how to successfully moderate a panel. I’m now adding a section suggesting that the moderator first poll his community using some of these tools, and to also monitor the back channel in real time, while not all conferences will embrace a back channel, it’s safe to assume that Twitter will be found at many tech and marketing conferences.

Moving from “Me” to “We”
SXSW was certainly a collection of creators, critics, and joiners (individuals that participate, then influence, according to the Forrester’s Technographics data) and in no way represents a larger sample of the marketplace. Conrad Hametner, shared with me that the esteemed speaker Henry Jenkins, who gave a presentation at the Festival and suggested that social media world is taking charge, the former generation the “I” generation is now being replaced by the highly networked generation of the “We” where collaboration, two-way discussions, and power of masses starts to take hold.

Jenkins is right, we’re starting to get glimpses of the future where the social tools gives to a culture shift from the “me” to the “we”.

I’ve cross posted this on the Forrester Marketing Blog

50 Replies to “A Groundswell at SXSW: How The Audience Revolted and Asserted Control”

  1. Is this any different than years past when the IRC back channel poured into the main content? (Le Web) or when people simply interrupted to shout their own objections to the stage (see Crazy Uncles)? Maybe speeded up and more quickly folded into mainstream discussions, but these things have been going on for a while.

  2. Great summary of the goings on. From someone who did attend the SMS Metrics panel session, I can say that they never talked about any metrics. The panel covered how metrics were needed, and suggested that there were different options but never said what they were. In my job at Wiley, I am charged (in my job description and objectives) with measuring how well my campaigns do. As a result, I’m desparate for metrics in the social media marketing space, and to sit through a session and not be given any made me hostile. I didn’t revolt, I just left the session for another one.

  3. @brian, of course these groundswells (revolts) have existed before – i guess otherwise we wouldn’t have a word for it. i understand that jeremiah’s point is this is becoming more than an occasional occurrence. it’s becoming mainstream – well, as mainstream as comparatively leading edge people can be (profy has a recent article about that)

    i wasn’t at SXSW but this does remind me of matt mullenweg’s keynote at northern voice, a blogging conference up here in vancouver a few weeks ago. he talked passionately about the power of what i would call “big picture open source.”

    one of his questions will stick in my mind for a long time: what if there was a wiki for every new law to be passed? the point being that wikis, social media and similar tools are ideal for true democracy and participation.

    so for conferences it looks like the presenters just can’t lay down the law anymore.

  4. Jeremiah:

    In 2005, the Global Voices summit used an effective technique to formally include back channel participation which consisted of people in the room and remote participation. (In those pre-twitter days, this was done via IRC) At each session, there was a formal request for a volunteer to serve as the “channel advocate.” At other conferences, it has also been preassigned.

    If there is also remote participation, the advocate also tweets some summary points from the session for the benefit of those not in the room if the session isn’t being live streamed.

    Depending on the design of the session, the moderator would loop in the back channel advocate and ask for feedback — for example, if there is a Q&A session at the end.

    After the flap with Mena Trott and Ben Metcalfe in December 2005 – there were some great reflections on how to incorporate backchannel – also a few form how to incorporate this into the classroom

    Nancy White has also written about facilitation techniques for making effective bridges between face-to-face and virtual.

  5. in the late fall of last year, november i think, i was involved in a panel discussion at an internal meeting within Nokia. the thing i found most interesting is that there was a laptop connected to a projector which the audience could see and a LCD in front of us. there was a phone number at the bottom of the screen and it said “please tell us your comments via SMS in real time.” while i was sitting in the front row waiting to be introduced i tested the service out by shooting a text message that went something like “be blunt, be honest, be more nokia – stefan, one of the panel speakers”

    it appeared within less than 5 seconds, i knew this would be fun

    the topic of the panel was how to best use current and upcoming mediums to get the marketing message out and the three panelists were myself, a reporter for reuters.com and some guy from a german newspaper, quite the right amount of contrast. the other two members kept on arguing about which one is more important, the internet, the tube or the paper, but when it was my time to speak i basically said “i consume via every medium i can. nothing beats a cup of coffee in the morning on my terrace and reading a newspaper or magazine, likewise i enjoy video podcasts or having the BBC in the background, but the majority of my information comes from the internet, as you would expect.”

    it was fun, a lot of the content is under NDA so i will not get into it, but the back channel being projected for the audience to see and for us to read was interesting. people were commenting on my age, people were saying “newspapers are fucked,” someone even called me cute which made me blush, which then made the audience laugh, but the point i want to emphasize was the format of the panel, those 2 screens, really changed everything.

    that one hour zoomed, wish we had more time.

    this took place in helsinki by the way.

  6. Wisdom of the crowds or idiocy of the mob? I was at the Social Media Metrics session and I’d say it was a bit of both. As a panel, you don’t hold a session on a social media-related topic, start the session by saying that companies have to get used to giving up control of the message and then try to completely control the message of the session (by not taking any input from the audience, not talking about metrics and trying to hold off questions until the very end of the session). On top of that, with the exception of Rohit Barghava, the panel members didn’t come across as experts in social media. Hence, the meebo back channel exploded. That being said, any chance that the back channel conversation would result in a more productive session was pretty much eliminated when it was hijacked by a handful of really immature people. At first it felt like the audience frustration was going to get channeled in a way that made the session more interactive and useful. There was a point though where you could feel the mood of the audience change from one of “let’s get this on the right track” to “let’s f**k with the substitute teacher.” At that point, it went completely off the rails.

    What was also interesting though was that Rohit Barghava had another session the next day titled “10 ways to piss off a blogger.” It had a lot of potential to be a bad session — extremely demanding audience (probably forty of the attendees were bloggers) and the space was bad (close to sixty people crowded around a small table with tons of background noise). Instead this turned out to be a really strong discussion — key word being discussion. Rohit left it to the participants to come up with a list of the ways to piss off a blogger and the resulting conversation was excellent. The two sessions together were like a mini case study on social media dos and don’ts.

  7. @brian – totally agree that it has been happening in some form for a while, but this was the first conference I’ve been to (and I go to quite a few) where the lines between speakers and audiences was visibly blurred. It’s the first time that I’ve been to a conference where the bulk of the attendance seemed to wholly set aside the notion that the role of an audience member was to sit quietly.

    This reminded me of the first time I heard my mom say “I’ve sent you an email”. Sure, I’d been doing it for years, but I knew something fundamental had changed when she was doing it.

    @Jeremiah – In both the panels I was a part of we used (blatantly swiped) your fantastic technique I saw you do at BWE last year of polling the audience right up front. It worked wonders to help us understand the role we were needing to play as panelists.

    Far from rude, boorish, or all around assholes, I think this pushback made for a better conference, certainly in years to come. It’d gotten too easy to just “show up” to be on a panel, and I think the last few years the content had suffered a bit for it, not just at SXSW but for many conferences.

  8. Yes, monitoring the backchannel is VERY important. At the New Media Knowledge Forum 07 event in London last May they had Jaiku set up as the backchannel – but the channel stream was projected onto the side wall of the hall so everyone could see what was being said… even if they were not participating!

    Rebecca Caroe

  9. Was it just me or did it seem to anyone else that the conference organizers were little blind-sided by the level of sophistication of the average attendee in regards to social media? I really feel like they brought a knife to a gun fight.

    I have to admit that I felt a little bit of pride that our “physical” world actions matched what we’d do online.

  10. What’s fascinating is the level of ADD, ummm…I mean multitasking that takes place during the sessions. Twitter, Meebo, blogging, texting, emailing, checking email, attempting to listen to panelists… Talk about defining a generation.

  11. >>monitor the back channel

    yeah, i think this is probably one of the biggest takeaways. altho even tho we’ve had the ability, most panels don’t typically have a computer or phone available to do this.

    i think in the future i will plan to make this more available for panels & sessions i participate in, and for conferences i run. it may take awhile to get used to, but i think it is kind of silly that we don’t actually use the tools we talk about when we’re up there on stage.

  12. There are some interesting non-technical antecedents to this form of collective action. Look at “the law of 2 feet” in Open Space (http://www.openspaceworld.org), for example. Silent protests through physical reactions (like the report of coughing at the Zuckerman keynote) can be passed simply via body language. The new tools give us new ways to transmit the cues and sense where others are, even if we do not coordinate our actions. It’s like a new set of antennae.

  13. The form of conferences definitely has to change — SXSW is a crucible that shows us some of the changes are coming — I definitely agree with Sam Eder that the conference organizers (and many speakers and panelists) were unprepared for the sophistication of the participants — and unprepared for their enthusiasm. We captured this video of folks and their impressions and show the range:


    I think Stowe Boyd (toward the end of the clip – around 1:52) is dead right — that if we all believe in what is happening with social media that we have to have a lot more conferences and on a smaller scale — to which I would add that we need to clearly separate conferences in which knowledgeable practitioners are coming together to share their experiences from educational forums in which novices are coming to learn. These are two very different kinds of conferences and organizers need to decide which one they are (or at least define separate tracks).

    SXSW has a tremendous opportunity to be a place for practitioners to come together AND for novices to learn — and maybe for conference organizers to discover how to do both well, including adopting radical models for participation in sessions.

  14. As a panelist after both the Zuckerman and Metrics blowup, I will say that myself and my fellow panelists spent a lot of time getting prepared.

    However, I have to give it to Beth Kanter and her panel. They were both interesting and fun.

    Since most people would rather be out in the hallways at SXSW, if they come to a session it means they really want meaty info. It is a panelists job to give it to them.

    This needs to go beyond 101.

  15. @jeremiah part of the audience push back at sxsw could stem from the the way the conference is programmed. Through panel picker, potential panelist submit a 50 word description of their panel and people can register and vote for the panels they would attend at the next sxsw. Audience participation is in the DNA of sxsw. This year 75% of the content was selected via panel picker. So you combine social media tools that empower participants to instantly and continuously share their thoughts about a panel with an audience that might be more invested in the content because they helped select it you get push back when expectations aren’t met.

  16. @sandra Also, don’t you think that the panelists that did the best marketing (not necessarily had the best content) are most likely to be picked?

  17. @jeremiah,

    It was great to meet you at the Austin Social Media event at Iron Cactus. Web 2.0 has had the effect of creating greater transparency between companies, organizations and their constituents (customers, employees, members, etc.). With this comes greater accountability. This seems to now be making it’s way into the offline world, starting with conferences like SXSW. People are paying to attend these events and want to hold the providers and panelists accountable. I think we’ll see a greater level of accountability with this. For those that embrace it, it’s an opportunity to course correct in mid-delivery. In a similar manner, online communities enable companies a channel to receive faster feedback from their constituents and the opportunity to course correct with customer service, products, services, and overall delivery.

  18. A groundswell Twitter sounds like some kind of ‘realtime Flashmob’.

    Sorry to add ‘Blah, Blah’ comments – I used to be what you guys might call a ‘mainstream media’ journalist. Like the Economist style guide, I have to simplify then exaggerate.

  19. I had the privilege of leading a panel at SXSWi in 2006 and we were very well received. Of course, there was no Twitter then and I wonder just what effect it may have had one way or the other. While, certainly, the back channel(s) must be monitored, I think a panel moderator who’s worth his salt and is paying attention to the audience can do much to alleviate unrest. Unless the crowd is hell-bent on anarchy and disruption, that is.

  20. LOL.. the “back channel” is another form of heckling that is even more insidious and cutting than someone standing up in the crowd and saying to the interviewer “you suck!”. But Sarah really was cr_p at it..

    Also, Mark “I want to help people connect more efficiently” Zuckerburg really doesn’t have alot to say… So, it just goes to show you, even a clutz can get lucky occasionally and hit it big.

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