The storyboard for Edward Snowden & the ACLU’s address at SXSW 2014

SXSW 2014 has ended, with 25,000-ish attendees heading home after almost a week of learning, BBQ, tacos, and probably a few too many late nights.

We have some pretty great metrics to share later this week, but I’ll give you a tease: at its peak on March 10th, there were almost 300,000 mentions of the event – meaning that, on average, each attendee tweeted about 12 times a day.


This was my third time at SXSW, my first being 5 years ago, and – as usual – some of my learning came from unexpected places.

So, without further ado,

Leslie’s Top “Ah Ha” moments at SXSW 2014

1)   Internet Privacy and Security Are Separate Issues

Edward Snowden was piped in from Russia with the ACLU moderating in the room to address the tech community as being, necessarily, tasked with the responsibility of protecting both users and themselves from (1)  unwarranted and unknown monitoring, and (2) cyber attack.  The former, of course, is what the NSA was doing to the American people, and the cryptographers in private companies like Google are – per the ACLU – really angry about it.   The second is what Snowden and the ACLU believe the NSA should have been doing: the United States has the most to lose from a cyber attack.  Rather than using its resources to protect our data systems, the government instead went on the offensive to attack private systems and, in doing so, secretly redefined the Fourth Amendment from “no search and seizure” to “we’ll seize it, we just won’t search it.”

In any case, the “ah ha” moment for me came when Snowden and the ACLU started talking about the difference between privacy and security.

Privacy and security are different concerns: the first is your right not to be unknowingly monitored behind the firewall by anyone (in this case, the United States government).  The second is your defense system against an intentional attack.  Per Edward Snowden, it’s up to technology companies to institute end-to-end encryption into their services for the mass market to prevent this sort of mass monitoring program: if companies do this, that sort of shotgun data collection program simply becomes too expensive to run.  As it stands, the everyman isn’t advanced enough to take precautions to protect ourselves from this sort of spying.  Snowden and the ACLU have tasked developers to think about these things in all new products.

Snowden also made a point about free internet products being advertising products that by default are going to compromise user privacy in order to monetize.  Think about the contextual ads that come up in your Gmail: yes, Google is parsing it to optimize advertising.  That being said, the lack of encryption that’s existed until Snowden exposed the NSA is one that has started to be addressed as the tech community moves toward a more serious stance on protecting their users’ personal information.

As someone who optimistically uses web browsers without much thought about it (well, until now), this session was eye-opening in reminding me that nothing comes for free – and what that means to the everyman. The ACLU is of the opinion that we consumers are going to have to start paying for systems we’re used to getting for free in order to enable the tech companies making those services to concentrate more on our privacy and security and less on optimizing our data for advertising.  Advertising is, quite simply, at odds with our privacy.

Worth noting: Snowden was talking to us via a Google hangout.  Yes, the irony was mentioned by the ACLU.

2)   Art and Science are More like Peanut Butter and Jelly than Oil and Water.

Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” fame gave a talk on art and science, with a concern that they seem to be moving farther apart in our mindset, but that in reality they go hand-in-hand.  Any good marketing program, for example, will have creative ideas that are continually tested and refined.  Once you change creative to gauge a different reaction, you’ve moved to an empirical scientific method.  Also from Adam’s talk:

3)   It’s Often Said that There’s No Bad Art, but This Isn’t True.

There is bad art: there is no bad reaction to art if the reaction is honest.  The only bad reaction to art is one that’s based on other people’s opinions.

4)  Content Marketing Philosophies Work in the Real World.

At this sort of event, experiential marketing is a really nice counterpoint to all things digital – and a very good illustration of a content & community marketing philosophy that gives people something useful and/or enjoyable without asking anything of them.  Some of the marketing campaigns I enjoyed:

  1. FX did napping pods for their new show, “The Strain,” in which you could take a 20-minute nap and, if you wanted to, watch a trailer of the show.  (I didn’t watch the trailer, but I did really appreciate that nap.  Thanks, FX!)
  2. Deloitte & Touche had a “Social Good” outside trailer that had a different offering every day: haircuts and massages seemed to be the most popular.
  3. Various companies had sponsored pedi-cabs to bike wearied backpackers around Austin (thanks, Price Waterhouse, for the ride to lunch).
  4. SXSW itself had artists in the larger talks hand-drawing summation storyboards throughout the talks.

5)  The Hybrid Model of Commerce + Content May Be the Future of Media Companies.

Media companies have traditionally monetized primarily on ad revenue.  With that model dying in print in particular, one way to innovate is to use your own ad space for yourself, rather than renting your customer relationship to another brand.  Ben Lerer of Thrillist is an advocate for media companies to take on commerce themselves, with the argument that (a) commerce revenue will far outpace ad or subscription revenue, and (b) owning the end-to-end customer experience and relationship will significantly increase your customer lifetime value.   (For more on that, check out this article.)

6)  Going Offline Helps You Go Online When You Need To.

Putting your phone on “Airplane Mode” when you’re not actively using it is a great way to preserve battery life until you hit a charging station in the exhibit hall.  I didn’t kill my phone once this time around.

If you were in Austin this past week, I hope you stopped by the Meltwater booth for a beer at 4.  If not, we hope to see you there next year!