As many people currently rush around deal making, networking, panel participating and tweeting at the big South By Southwest Conference (SXSW), it's important to pause just a moment to look not only at the large impact that the once little-conference-that-could has but also at how it plays into the large social and business scenes of conferences overall as we work together to grow this new marketplace where pop culture further converges with technology.
For those who might not be too familiar, SXSW is a veritable Disneyland of opportunity bringing together players and newbies with interests in the interactive (whose official portion ends this week), film and music worlds. What began primarily as a haven and exchange for the alternative music industry powerati (with the occasional invitation to hip hop biggies such as Ice Cube back in the day) has now seized the position as one of the U.S. conferences to attend by many entertainment and new media participants. Yet given that statistics show that Blacks and Latinos out-index in mobile expenditures and usage, that Latinos are the fastest growing segment on line (Pew Research Center) and that urban/hip hop music consistently has captured the majority positions from ringtones to digital singles charts, for example ; SXSW seems to be indicative of the see-sawing exhibited by many of today's power gatherings when it comes to enabling the conference playground to better mirror real-world usage versus the comfort zone of conference monarchs' own professional circle and rolodex resources.
I talked to several people regarding their views on diverse inclusion at SXSW particularly regarding the interactive portion; and the general consensus seemed to be that while there is some level of variety, there is certainly room for more. Jesse Kirshbaum who is not only an attendee at the conference but is also producing some evening events; seemed to sum up the general sentiment. Commenting that while the interactive portion is predominantly "white geeky males," SXSW seems to offer plenty of opportunity to mix all races, creeds and cultures; but that there should be more balance. His guess was 8 to 1 males to females and 10 to 1 white to Black. That having been noted, he, like many were quick to point out that there are so many panels and events that anyone who wants to make a statement is able and welcome.
While SXSW should be commended for its current work, this begs the question then of how to make the most of this opportunity of the aforementioned ratios by both conference organizers and enterprising innovators. My personal experience having noticed such a void and approached the prestigious international convention MIDEM several years ago with the creation of the first-ever inclusions on hip hop panels, keynote speakers and the hottest opening night event back in the early 2000's was a win-win. Well-received by the conference, the expansion not only increased deal interaction for the attendees but had to have increased MIDEM's own business by at least 80% in attendee badge purchase related to a previously untouched genre for them (which even gave way to full-on space inclusion and sales in their exhibit/stand area) simply because greater variety was brought to the table. Not because of prior lack of openess on this organization's part but because of lack of synergistic partnership were they not able to access this level of business in earlier years. While I hope this is the case with such conferences as CTIA and PDF, which are right at the intersection of tech and pop culture-politics, I am not so certain. The industry has yet to see panelist and keynote inclusion which is seamlessly integrated throughout a variety of topics. Diverse attendee outreach efforts seem almost non-existent at present.
And why is any of this important?
Because as we seek to create a new industry from almost thin air, we simply can't afford to miss any valuable voice or idea for it's well-documented that such collaboration from diverse perspective leads to greater innovation. Further, it's about obtaining value for those hefty priced attendee badges which should probably offer one the greatest variety of experience possible.
I believe there is no such thing as autonomy, particularly in digital media. It's about all of us interconnecting, seeking out and partnering to create a more dynamic future of exchange and achievement. It's about both attendees and conference coordinators perhaps being even more assertive in recognizing and seizing opportunities for expansion. And once this activity takes place even further, no doubt digital conference-going will become even hotter.