Memes to Watch Out For

The 2010 South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival is wrapping up in Austin. I was there over the weekend and gave a talk on “What does Corporate America Think of 2.0?” on Monday morning (tweetstream from the talk is here; here are summaries by @TheRab and @hertling ).

SXSWi is growing like a weed every year, and this newbie could see why. There’s a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm among participants, and a mass of new ideas and information being exchanged. It’s also a chance to catch up with old friends (including @sengseng and @ehellweg, who is a fantastic guide to Austin) and meet new ones (hi, @dearsarah, @danariely, and @muchosalsa !)

However, I noticed a couple disquieting memes in the air at the festival, and I want to highlight them. Not to disparage SXSWi as a whole, but rather in the spirit of constructive criticism. I’m an ardent technology enthusiast and optimist, and I want the energy on display at the festival to have its maximum possible impact. I saw two things that might keep that from happening — two ways the SXSWi technophiles’ discourse is not helping their cause, in my opinion.

The first of these is the zombie-like rebirth of the meme that “the old rules no longer apply” or “everything’s different now” as result of the 2.0 era’s technologies, practices, communities, and philosophies —    let’s call this the ‘2.0 bundle.’ I heard versions of this argument applied to the disciplines of marketing, advertising, PR, and brand building, and to the business world as a whole, the work of managers, and the idea of stable organizational structures.

It’s clear that the 2.0 bundle affects all of these, but does it completely remake any of them? If so, I haven’t seen it, and I’ve looked around a fair bit. As I wrote earlier, I just don’t believe that any of these ‘old’ ways were so fundamentally worthless or broken that any single techno-social advance, even one as powerful as the 2.0 bundle, could smash them.

The “everything’s different now” mantra of early 2010 brought back decade-old memories that I’d hoped were buried forever. These were memories of the first wave of Internet hysteria, which peaked just about exactly ten years ago, then crashed just as quick and hard as the NASDAQ did.

Remember the late ’90s? When B2B exchanges were going to reshape industries? When fixed prices, even for gas and groceries, were dinosaurs thanks to services like eBay, Priceline, and their kin? When portals, ‘vortals.’ and dis- and re-intermediation were all the rage? When Porter’s five forces no longer applied?

If you don’t remember these grossly mistaken ideas, you’re more likely to repeat some version of them. And if you do, there will be two consequences: you’ll almost certainly be proven wrong in the long run, and in the near term you’ll alienate your less fervent colleagues. Because you need these people to listen to you, buy from you, and work with you it seems a poor strategy to cause them to close their ears as an anti-hype defense. We’d do well to curb our enthusiasm before that point.

We’d also do well to watch the self-congratulation and air of superiority. The (accurate) sense we 2.0 enthusiasts have that we’re on to something big has an ugly twin: the sense that everybody else is a little slow. One mid-SXSWi tweet summarized this sentiment nicely: “…just the fact that you’re here at sxsw means you are WAY ahead of everyone else.”

If and when this is the case, ‘you’ have two main choices: you can try to bring everyone else up to speed by teaching, coaching, and educating them, or you can distance yourself from them by sneering, gloating, self-congratulating, and blaming. Only one of these paths is difficult.

Teaching requires patience, empathy, creativity, tenacity, and self-reflection (“Why aren’t my lessons getting through? What do I need to do differently?”). Gloating, congratulating the other members of the in-crowd, and blaming others require absolutely none of these skills. They’re all trivially easy and all provide some satisfaction; they’re thus highly seductive.

SXSWi can be a support group, echo chamber, and party for the cool kids, or it can be something much bigger: an event that actually improves the often-fraught interface between alpha technologists and the rest of society and business. If the memes of “everything’s different now” and “you all just don’t get it” gain traction at the festival, it’ll take the former tack. I think that would be a great shame.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that these were the dominant memes of the festival, or on the lips of most attendees. I’m simply saying that they were explicit or implicit in some of the panels and conversations I heard. And they made me a bit nervous. Hence this post.

What do you think? If you were at SXSWi, did you sense these memes as well? And what do you think of the state of the dialogue between 2.0 advocates and everyone else —    am I characterizing it fairly, or not? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.