SXSW Interactive 2011 attendees are deeply affected by the Japan crisis. This strong feelings are emerging as struggle to do the right thing in an atmosphere of socialized commercialism.
SXSW Interactive is a tech conference that grows so much every year (nearly doubling in size) that for longtime speakers such as myself, it's never surprising to see it have a yearly identity crisis of some sort. With so many emergent avenues of life and tech in combination, the questions asked every year by attendees always seem to be some form of "who are we?" and "what do we really care about?"
Pessimists might call it navel gazing but with so many passionate people converging to share ideas and hope for success, the struggle for internal and external relevance makes sense.
This year the eve of SXSW Interactive was also when one of the world's most horrible tragedies occurred as a 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami in Japan with a scale of destruction and human cost greater than we know at this time. It is currently greater than our worst nightmares.
Many have expressed that it's difficult to think about the conference at hand - work and discovery in interactive tech - in light of events that continue to develop with little good news. For most, there is no way to think clearly about "business as usual."
Some do, of course. But here in grown-up tech partyland, it's just not possible to "have a good time" when Japan is bleeding.
Talk to anyone here, and it's easy to see that virtually everyone here at SXSW Interactive has been affected in some way. Website SXSW4Japan.org was created in the SXSW [Samsung] Blogger Lounge on Sunday: it began as a "SXSW Cares" node, hoping for $10K and has raised $37K in 24 hours.
At SXSW this year, there's a lot of discussion and debate about influence. Now it's time to stand up and be truly influential as we raise support for tsunami relief. (...) In the true nature of SXSW, we're putting our hearts, minds and wallets together to raise support for Japan.
Much more can be seen on Twitter, as seen in the #sxswcares hashtag: there you can see Samsung is using the hashtag to garner retweets for Red Cross donations.
This practice has not come without criticism.
In fact, tech companies that have attempted to capitalize on the tragedy have become the equivalent of tarred, feathered and hung out to dry. One example is Bing's attempt to garner retweets by offering to donate $1 to the Red Cross which may have had good intent but was quickly called out for its self-promotional nature. Upon criticism Bing stopped the campaign and donated all the maximum amount on offer. Microsoft has a significant presence at SXSW 2011.
Unfortunately not everyone got the memo, as seen in the photo below I shot on the SXSW 2011 Trade Show floor this afternoon:
Some are also openly asking for Facebook "likes" in exchange for Japan donations. The issue is that we attendees all seeing how commercialized this typically indie-flavored conference has become, and realizing that while some may have the best intentions, asking for social capital in exchange for donations does not seem appropriate.
I mean, if you tell me you;ll gibe me something "for free" in exchange for my likes, an RT, or a "follow," then it's not really free, is it?
Google, on the other hand, has a modest prompt on all monitors of each computer used for hands-on demos at the Trade Show Google booth - simply stating how to text Red Cross with a donation.
How to help is an issue of great concern to SXSW attendees so much that Help Save Japan at SXSW has also been loosely organized and given a prime spot in the Austin Convention Center to help collect Red Cross donations.
As I write this from the Hilton in Austin, an AP Interactive Technology Editor is also not out at parties and sitting on the opposite bed - he has been hard at work since Friday creating maps and interactive visual aids to help get information out about the disaster. Yet the best thing I've heard all weekend was shared with me over a beer.
Many of us looked at the lines for Apple's pop-up sales store with its long line of those eager to buy an iPad 2 just after the disaster, and felt a little sick.
Sharing a drink on Saturday with the editor of The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW), Apple die-hard Victor Agreda told me,
"I gave my iPad 2 money to #Japan relief. I don't need an iPad 2."