03/16/2013 01:23 pm ET Updated May 16, 2013

Thoughts About SXSW

In reflecting on being inducted into SXSW Interactive's Hall of Fame, danah boyd writes, "The truth is that at this stage, the contemporary SXSW is a bit alien to me."

I didn't start going to SXSW Interactive until 2009, at which point there were already ~15K attendees. (I'm like the guy who thinks I discovered U2 because I saw them in an arena before they started playing stadiums.) Nonetheless, now with over 30,000 attendees, the conference has changed enormously even in the past few years.

In 2009, I was AT&T's newly minted "Director, Social Innovation," a position I thought of and recommended creating based on my recognition that the company needed to engage with the tech community. Back then, far fewer corporations knew about SXSW and sent representatives. Among those of us who did attend, there was much basic ground to cover to such as how to get management and legal to understand the need for companies to engage.

Now, social media has exploded and marketers everywhere recognize the need to have a social presence. Companies that don't have active Facebook and Twitter accounts and multiple representatives at SXSW are now more the exception than the rule. While this is a great thing, I do worry that too many companies focus more on how to use social media to sell product than as a tool to embrace their communities in a true two-way fashion.

A few thoughts from SXSW:

  • One corporation that had the right approach was American Express. Instead of wasting money on an interactive virtual presenter providing conference info (I'm talking to you, 3M), American Express got its sponsorship right by showcasing the vibrant tech community in its hometown of New York City through a partnership with New York Tech Meetup.
  • A recurring theme was that our country's economic growth depends on new businesses, which are desperate for top talent. Education and immigration are two sides of the same coin, and the U.S. is failing in both. We need to do a far better job in educating our youth and especially in getting young people to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Brian Forde in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and Nicole Sanchez at the Level Playing Field Institute are doing great work to meet President Obama's goal of 1 million additional STEM graduates in the next decade. Similarly, we need to attract top talent from around the world and allow them to stay in the U.S. so they build businesses and create jobs in the U.S.
  • Similarly, we need to ensure that the tech community welcomes women. We can't let people like Elon Musk "I'm-able-to-be-with-(my five children)-and-still-be-on-email" set the standard for what is required to succeed in the tech industry.
  • An area that hasn't received as much attention that I find extremely exciting is the civic tech space. Nearly 200 billion is spent annually on local, state and Federal government IT projects every year, yet many government IT systems are far from innovative. The White House is addressing this with the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, where "top innovators" can spend 6-13 month "tours of duty" to help make the Federal government more efficient and effective. Code for America, which bills itself as a "Peace Corps for Geeks," offers fellowships for tech leaders to bring innovative tech projects to cities across America. Savvy corporations who want to appeal to communities like that at SXSW should explore developing innovative partnerships with the Presidential Fellows and Code for America.

As social media continues to go mainstream, I do hope that corporations see the opportunity to listen to, engage with, and support tech leaders, rather than seeing SXSW as a way of promoting their products to "influencers."