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Berkman Briefing: Interacting at Interactive - Social Networks at SXSW

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An easy way to strike up conversation with attendees of South by Southwest Interactive was to go around and ask, “Do you have a blog?”  As I quickly learned, the more interesting question was, “How many blogs do you have?”

Attendee David Jacobs has at least five – a work-related blog, a handful of group blogs, a personal blog, and his favorite, the “mo-blog” – a web-log with photos he shoots and posts from a mobile device, like a camera phone.  By the standards of the Texas Internet conference, SXSW Interactive earlier this month, Jacobs was hardly an extreme case.  At times, every corner of the conference seemed to scream, "BLOG!" A single day offered back-to-back panels on Blogging for Business, Mo-blog Nation, Monetizing the Blogosphere, and Blogucation 101.  You could socialize with A-list bloggers, attend the “Bloggies Awards” for best web-log of the year, and contribute to a number of SXSW community blogs.

I was interested to see what effect, if any, the recent collapse of the Dean campaign would have on the blogging zealotry that the campaign’s early success ignited.  Dean’s demise seems to have soured the public – or at least mainstream media – on blogging and Internet communities, and several new theories have emerged to make sense of the Dean-blogging phenomenon.  One of the least flattering and most discussed is the “Echo Chamber” theory.

According to the “Echo Chamber” idea, the Dean campaign blogs generated momentum by allowing the already-converted to communicate (example).  However, the campaign’s dramatic online success became increasingly divorced from reality as the clamor of likeminded voices was so loud that Dean supporters stopped listening to those on the outside (see more).

Bloggers don’t love the theory (example), for obvious reasons: it marginalizes the importance of Internet communities and a mode of communication that has exploded.  But what better place to probe the “Echo Chamber” possibility and to examine the interaction between social networks online and off than in the heart of an Internet community itself: SXSW Interactive, where social networks were not only the focus of discussion but an evolving reality.

1.0 Accidental Organizers

Major trailblazers in online community-building appeared at the conference: Joe Trippi who once directed Howard Dean’s campaign; Eli Pariser and Zack Exley, directors of Moveon.org; prominent bloggers like Cory Doctorow and Joi Ito; Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist; and Jonathan Abrams, who created Friendster.  Their stories about how their unique online communities emerged show both the power of the technology and the strength of the public demand.  I was surprised to find that every story followed a similar trajectory.  Take Craig Newmark, for example (pictured right), and the birth of Craigslist.

Newmark began emailing a list of friends in the early 1990s about upcoming events in the Bay Area – spaghetti dinners, concerts, etc.  The list grew, and friends suggested that he add apartment listings to email, in response to San Francisco’s housing shortages.  Newmark built a website to handle growing demand.  Today, that list, which Newmark describes as “a real simple platform to address everyday kind of needs” like finding apartments, furniture, jobs, and dates, has become so popular that Craigslist now operates in 35 cities and has 4.6 million users a month.

The emergence of the Moveon.org community is even more dramatic.  Immediately following September 11, Eli Pariser, then a 20-year-old college student, felt the need to do something.  As he describes, “They had enough blood in the local blood bank, so…  I started this little website.”  The $35 site was a simple call for peace in the wake of the attack, and Pariser emailed friends to sign on.  Within the span of a few days, Pariser remembers, “There were 3,000 messages in my inbox.”  Since then, the list has facilitated thousand of “meet-ups” in hundreds of cities.

Mie Kennedy’s moblogger story is a smaller-scale version of this community building.  Several years ago, living in Tokyo, Kennedy began taking pictures and posting them to her website, not from a computer but from a handheld, mobile device.  As Kennedy describes, “I moblogged for quite a while without even knowing that people were looking at it.”  The first time she realized that her site had an audience was at a bloggers’ “meet-up.”  She remembers being shocked that “people knew who I was.”
 
Each of these projects demonstrates ways that previously unconnected people have become engaged in common activities through shared use of technology.  In the days before the Internet these communities would have been impossible.  As Zack Exley of Moveon.org explained, “[Imagine] Eli having the same reaction, sitting down on his desk, writing a letter to his friends, taking a whole day to write all these letters, licking a whole bunch of envelopes…  Obviously that wouldn’t work.”

The way the Internet has lowered barriers of entry has clearly allowed more people to participate in different types of organizations and movements.  But how has barrier-lowering affected the character of the community?  The conference halls at SXSW were the perfect place to figure out what online communities actually look like.

2.0 Emerging Communities

The conference gave us a community blog, a moblog, webpages with links to participants’ bios, selected contact information, and a mailing list.  Did this make us more connected?  Did technology make use more of a community?  David Hrisco, a graduate student at the University of Texas, found just the opposite to be true.  He raised his hand at the end of a panel discussion and observed, “I thought this was supposed an interactive conference.  But when I walk down the halls, all I see is a whole bunch of people typing on their laptops.”

Hrisco’s reaction seemed entirely reasonable to me.  What I found surprising was that Hrisco was the only person I heard voicing it over the four days of SXSW Interactive.  Most people found the wired-ness to be standard conference procedure.  Peter Rojas, a technology journalist, explained that he has come to expect going to a conference and “seeing everybody with laptops on WiFi.”  I spoke with Rojas after he participated in a panel about the future of wireless, where he admitted, “I checked my email five times while I was sitting on the panel.”

At what point does this communication draw people out of the tangible world—the conference itself—and into a virtual one?  According to Joi Ito, this question itself is flawed because it depends on an obsolete dichotomy.  As Ito explains, “Americans always think about cyberspace and real life as two different places, but in countries where you have mobility… you’re always texting and in touch, and the network attention fades in and out of your real life.”

Maybe Ito is right—maybe wireless technology will blur the distinction between online and offline so much that they become indistinguishable.  But this idea doesn’t reconcile with the lessons of the Dean campaign and the realization that an online phenomenon does not necessarily correlate to real-life political change.

3.0 Action and Interaction

The disjunction struck me most vividly as I sat in the audience for the moblogging panel.  Before the speakers began, all three pulled out their camera-phones and mobile devices to moblog each other and the event and audience (example).  I wasn’t sure if the moment heralded a new future of connectivity or communication so derivative that it lost meaning.

The sense at SXSW was optimism, even zealotry, from prime movers establishing new norms of communication and building new tools for community building.  The potential of the technology is vast.  Even after the Dean campaign’s demise, Joe Trippi called the Internet “the single most powerful tool placed in the hands of the average American.”  The combination of new tools, ambitious activists, and the right political moment created an infectious sense of progress and pioneering.  Craig Newmark, once a programmer and business owner, has even caught the political spirit: “Something’s going on in our country and in the world right now…  And maybe now we actually have a chance of restoring some genuine democracy in the country.”

Maybe this enthusiasm isn’t surprising—isn’t the sound always loudest in the heart of the chamber itself?  On the other hand, the arguments, the tools, and the passion for new technology were compelling, and I left Austin ready to return home, log on, and meet up.  The real test of the tools will be the months to come when the prime movers of technology must do more than simply email the already-converted: they must deliver a message powerful enough to inspire action and, most importantly, follow-through.

Learn More

Listen to an AudioBerkman documentary with sounds of the conference, "Bloggers, Friendsters, and Craigslisters: Social Networks at SXSW."

Learn more about SXSW Interactive.

Listen to AudioBerkman's audio-postcard, The Sounds of South by Southwest, that aired on NPR's noon program, Day-to-Day.

Follow the research of Berkman Fellow John Clippinger who is working on the technical dimensions of social networking questions. Clippinger is working to build more sophisticated platforms to support nuanced social networking systems.

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Berkman Briefings is a reading series sponsored by the Berkman Center that provides background information about major questions related to Internet policy, technology, and law. More