Whenever I talk to someone about new behaviours I'm usually met with a knowing nod of the head and the gesture of swiping thumb. As a smartphone owner it's no surprise. I probably make that gesture 20 to 30 times a day.
I recently read a book called 'Curious Ritals' which looks at the new physical behaviours that have resulted from our regular interactions with digital technology and devices. Behaviours such as 'The Baboon's Face' - holding your hand over your mouth so that people can't hear your phone conversation, or 'The Periscope' - that 'holding the phone high' thing people do at gigs to make videos they'll never watch. It made me realise how many there are and how seamlessly they become common rituals. We become fluent without realising we'd gone through any kind of learning process.
What fascinates me is how these simple new rituals or behaviours can trigger revolutions. Let me explain. I've been going to SXSW for years and gotten somewhat weary of people talking up average apps as 'The New Twitter'. This usually happens because people need to justify their expense account to their boss when they get back.
But this year was different. All the talk in all the bars of Austin was not about the latest app. This year was all about hardware. I'll say that again. HARDWARE. How the hell did that happen? How did SXSW make such a giant turn in just 12 months?
There was a keynote from Julie Uhrman, founder and CEO of Ouya, the $99 games console that threatens to disrupt the console monopoly. Then there was the Keynote from Makerbot's Bre Prettis. Having created the affordable 3D printer they now have a 3D scanner to add to their ecosystem. Then there was Memoto. A life documenting device that hangs around your neck taking a photo every few minutes.
So what was the common factor and what is the behaviour driving this shift from apps to hardware? Simple. The common factor is Kickstarter and the new behaviour is pledging. Kickstarter is changing everything. At SXSW Film 25% of the movies shown were Kickstarter funded.
Earlier this year Kickstarter products were stealing the limelight from the Sonys and Samsungs at CES. The Pebble and Cuckoo watches, the VR goggles Oculous Rift and the smart skateboard ZBoard were just a few to be raved about. All Kickstarter projects. All possible as a result of a new behaviour that sees people investing in products they want to use.
These new behaviour revolutions have been happening since we first worked out how to use a browser, how to send an email, how to bid on Ebay, how to upload a video to Youtube, how to build a social graph, how to write in 140 characters, how to download an app, and so on. New services or products come along and if the reward is high enough we'll learn the new behaviour.
I used to work in radio and the big advantage we thought we had over TV was that you can listen to the radio whilst watching another screen, something you couldn't do whilst watching TV. And then the screens got smaller shifting from desks to laps to hands. The behaviour of second screening sneaked into our living rooms and TV got new wings.
So what are the new behaviours that might kickstart a revoloution soon? I wish I had the answer for you, but I don't. Instead here are a few simple questions you might want to ask yourself:
What are the new tools or services you and your friends are using? Look to friends who aren't working in the same line of work?
What new behaviour is responsible for the success of that service? Such as 'Pinning' on Pinterest?
What are you starting to notice people doing that maybe you're not? In fashion they say that when you notice something 3 times it's a trend?
What are the new phrases people are using? When a behaviour needs a name it's officially become 'a thing'
SXSW is not everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. It’s huge. They sell too many tickets. The choice of sessions can be overwhelming. And there are far too many giddy hipsters so desperate to find ‘the new Twitter’ that incredibly average ideas get unprecedented hype if they're in clicking distance of the latest trend.
So here’s the thing. SXSW is all about the planning. All of the above can be swerved if you spend a little time before you arrive orchestrating the experience you want rather than just letting SXSW happen to you. As for the hipster thing you just get very good at learning how to spot hype - which isn't a bad skill to have in your toolbox.
For most it's all about the parties but in six years I've still not been to one yet (having DJ'd and run my own parties in the UK and Ibiza I'm sure I'm missing little). For me it’s about the sessions. Before I go I spend what probably amounts to a full day researching the speakers then going through the schedule marking off the one I'm interested in. When you get there and start speaking to people the plan inevitably changes, but a good grip of the schedule in advance is essential. I usually split my sessions into 3 groups.
The first relating closely to what I do – helping people tell their stories and making digital culture. The second being about what I don’t do. Taking in talks about subjects I have little knowledge of is a great way of feeding the curiosity muscle.
And finally I’m looking for sessions in the area of ‘my thing’ – that being a particular subject I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. At the moment ‘my thing’ is looking at how people are using big data in interesting ways. I love data but want to make sure we use it alongside other approaches to understanding human behaviour. My belief is better insights will come from a combination of approaches rather than just relying on a bunch of numbers.
As ever I'm really looking forward to meeting new people so if you're in Austin and fancy a brew and a chat get hold of me on Twitter (@huey).
So here are a few of the sessions I’m really looking forward to seeing:
I'm fascinated by the creative processes of others so I'm happy to miss Al Gore speaking about future fears in favour of this excellent session that sees Chuck Lorre, the man behind 'Big Bang Theory' and 'Two and a Half Men' in conversation with author Neil Gaiman ("Stardust," "Coraline," and the acclaimed comic book series "The Sandman"). Two great tellers of very different stories chewing over their craft for an hour should be fun.
The Signal and The Noise
Political forecaster Nate Silver may well be an outlier when it comes to making strong predictions - he has this habit of getting it right every time. I'm yet to get around to reading his book but have read enough about him to know this will be fascinating. Should I have made that prediction? According to Nate most predictions fail because of our poor understanding of possibility and uncertainty. If we can improve our appreciation of uncertainty then our ability to predict gets better. It's what he calls 'the prediction paradox'. OK, I'll hold back on my prediction for this one then.
Frenemies: Fanning the Flames of Fandom
At Storythings we talk a lot about designing for new behaviours. Understanding those behaviours is at the heart of what we do. The continued conflict between media producers and fandoms comes from a failure to understand how an audience's behaviour changes over time. This is a growing problem that becomes more complex as new technologies develop.
Spreadable Media: Value, Meaning and Networked Culture
I'm a big fan of the work of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green who are at the forefront of thinking around spreadable media. I generally tend to avoid sessions in this area because I've been to so many that turn into 'How to use Social Media 1.0' once you are in there. Thankfully there's no mistaking with Henry whose work is focused more in understanding the 'why' rather than the 'how' things spread. All three speakers are incredibly brilliant at what they do and the book 'Spreadable Media' is as an important read today as 'Convergence Culture' was when written.
Hack You: The Body is the Next Interface
Hacking the human body is exciting and terrifying in equal measure. This session looks at the moral implications of robotics, smart medicines and new bodytech developments such as mobile-enabled biofeedback apps and “spray-on” micro sensors.
Julie Uhrman and Josh Topolsky Keynote
At the heart of SXSW is indie development and disruption so it's no surprise to see Julie Uhrman appearing as keynote speaker. Julie is founder and CEO of OUYA, the Kickstarter funded $99 free-to-play game console built on Android. While it's too early to talk about the impact of OUYA on the games industry her story has all the ingredients of a great Keynote.
Building the Touchy-Feely World of Tearaway
Media Molecule, the guys behind Little Big Planet have built a new game called Tearaway that requires users to make things with paper. Little Big Planet was one of the first console games to tap into the creativity of the players. With Tearaway they encourage a creativity-loop outside of the game world. Their approach to the relationship between the player's physical creativity skills and the console as an enabler is something I'd like to know much more about. Follow me on Lanyrd to see all of my SXSW sessions.
The funny thing about going to SXSW is that you always go expecting to come home with a big take-away; something that you can get everyone excited when you get back home. It might be a new service like Foursquare or Twitter, or a simple insight from one of the big keynotes. After a few years attending I’ve come to realize that the best take-aways usually come from either the experience as a whole, or from a moment that brings clarity to a number of SXSW experiences. I don’t think you can go to any one single session and come away with something as meaningful as you can get by going to many and intersecting the ideas.
As a former DJ I guess the analogy I’d make is SXSWi is like the Miami Winter Music Conference… only without the implants and waxed chests. Before you went to Miami you’d always think you knew what the big tunes were going to be. As a DJ that’s what your skill was right? You were paid to know what would make people throw their hands up in the air. The thing is Miami always threw up surprises. Making those kind of predictions in a cold record shop on a Saturday afternoon was always going to result in a few misplaced bets. Music can sound very different when it played at a poolside party in the afternoon sun when you are surrounded by scantily clad beautiful people. The smell of the suntan oil, the smiles on the faces, the cheers of the crowd all enhance the experience making some tunes sound like it was a gift from the gods rather than something knocked out in a studio in Rotherham. As Clay Shirky says ‘Technology only gets interesting when you add a social layer’. It’s not just the tune itself that makes it so good but they way people respond and more often than not you need to hear a tune in the right place to fully understand why everyone is raving about it.
So, back to Austin. It wasn’t just from Marissa Mayer’s talk about Google Maps or Seth Priebatsch’s brilliant Keynote on the Game Layer that I drew my first conclusion from SXSW 11. It was combination of the sessions, watching people using their phones for 5 days, trying new things with mine, and then seeing this…
At the end of the week the geeks rolled out of town the bands rolled in. Not only was there a notable gear shift in the style stakes on the streets of Austin, but the sidewalk décor also changed with the posters advertising new apps and services being replaced by posters of bands pushing their new download. What’s interesting about this isn’t just the fact that this band, like so many other this year, have used a QR code as a mechanic for pushing their music, it’s that they’ve used the world ‘Smartphone’ as a verb. Remember when 'Google' became a verb? The fact that a band was using it this way suggests a tipping point; non-geeks now get this stuff. I can hear the band saying it now 'Smartphone this shit'. The verb-ification of the word ‘Smartphone’ got me thinking. We've been using the word 'phone' as a verb since the phone was invented; but what it is the smartphone actually 'does' that the verb-ified phone doesn't.
When the telephone first arrived it was a device for communication. It went mobile, then got smart. With a smartphone you could can get content wherever you are, which is great for people like me who deal in ‘content’. What really makes a phone smart is the ability to ‘do things’ with it. So, rather than just consuming content – which you can do on ‘un-smart’ phones – you can use the senses built into the phone to do interesting things. The sense of direction can allow you to ‘check in’ or navigate maps. The phone’s eye can see and translate QR codes or pretty much anything using Google Goggles. The role of haptic design in the device can enhance the user experience in a multitude of brilliant ways making touch a playground of oppotunity. All these senses have helped break down the wall that separates the real world from the digital world with the mobile as the mouse that interfaces them. The smartphone helps you navigate between the two quite seamlessly.
Of course, this isn’t new, we’ve kinda known about this for ages. There was a session last year called ‘What if my phone had 5 senses’. What has changed from last year is the volume of people using services such as Foursquare, Instagram, Facebook Places and QR codes and trying out lots of new ones like Instaprint, PapaSangre, FlyPost all of which have some realworld element and make the most of their senses to create amazing functionality. The way I used my phone changed dramatically this year. If I were to break down my phone usage I would say that it is no longer just a tool to communicate and consume, but it has become an important physical switch that can open up the door between two worlds, wherever I may be. I have checked in, scanned, bumped, navigated and pinged other services using the phones senses, all made possible by physical objects such a piece of paper taped to a lamppost, a satellite in the sky or a nice restaurant. My phone now ‘communicates’, ‘provides’ and ‘does’ in equal measures. That’s my big take-away from SXSWi 2011 which won't change the world but will make me think a little more about how the device and the realworld work together when in the hands of the audience.