2 key SXSW themes: Anonymity & meaningfulness

Sometimes they intersect. Both are vitally important to all of us.

By Anne Collier

Two distinct, game-changing themes that emerged from the complexity of South by Southwest (SXSW) this year are worth following wherever they turn up – in Washington and other places where policymakers gather, in business, and in people’s Internet use: anonymity and meaningfulness. Sometimes they intersect. Both are vitally important to all of us. The former is good and bad but always essential to free speech, self-discovery, and self-expression (see the 6th “one-pager,” by ConnectSafely.org, in the Berkman report here, about the unintended consequences of identity verification for youth). Anonymity is going to be a huge topic of national and international policymaking very soon, if it isn’t already, and we simply cannot throw the baby – the longstanding positives of anonymous expression – out with the bathwater.

Meaningfulness is huge too, and gathering momentum. What we find meaningful is completely individual, but what’s common to all of us is that meaningfulness increasingly spells good business, good education, good policy, and good lives. I was surprised by some of the almost clichéd rants and worries I heard in sessions about what social media use is doing to us and our lives. What? At SXSW?! But I think these are a sign that unthinking, unmeaningful use is compelling the ranters among us toward more mindful use. They’re a sign of something else, too:

Growing out of old views of social media

I sensed that SXSW and even our society are at a turning point: We’re starting to see that the core of what we’re really all talking about is humanity, not technology or media, and humanity is increasingly going to be the focus of SXSW (and the ecosystem it feeds on), the public discourse about technology, and eventually policymaking. I’m not just being optimistic, here. Just logical. We are going to grow out of seeing social media as something itself to talk about and grow into letting it run in the background. Technology for technology’s sake is going down and technology for humanity’s sake is on the rise, and there are signs that people are also getting that this is good business, good education, good policy.

The meaning is the message

In the closing keynote, Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, the buy-a-pair-give-a-pair company, said giving shoes to children who wouldn’t otherwise have them doesn’t just make his employees and him feel good. “When you allow people to be part of something important, you attract and retain the most amazing employees [and he later said partners] in the world,” and “your customers become your greatest marketers.” TOMS is expanding, he said. At the end of his talk, Mycoskie announced that it’s no longer a shoe company; it’s a 1:1 company about to announce the next product it’s going to sell, aka, the next need it’s going to meet. Other businesses that demo’d how meaning can motivate as much as if not more than money included DailyFeats.com, ThinkLove.com, SecretRegrets.com, and many others.

Then, on a flight out of Austin, I found myself sitting next to Audrey Palmen, a student at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, and asking her if she saw this notion of social good as capital to be more than just theory. It isn’t, she told me emphatically. Then she used her school as an example, “to graduate from the business school at St. Thomas, you have to take ‘Business 200’,” which is simply 40 hours of community service. Taking the class was particularly meaningful for her. Audrey developed “Cranestorm,” a play on “cranium,” “brainstorm,” and the Japanese custom of folding 1,000 origami cranes to bring good fortune. She created the project for the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota to “put a visual on how many people in Minnesota have been affected by brain injuries,” she told me. So far they’ve received more than 76,000 of the needed 100,000 cranes, which are becoming not only a work of art but a meaningful symbol that the organization can use in tangible ways.

Students‘ ‘Declaration of Education’

My SXSW ended with a talk by Philadelphia high school principal and education activist Chris Lehmann about making school meaningful for kids. With it, he launched the Great American Teach-In on May 10, brilliantly aimed at giving students a voice and engaging them in the national discussion about education reform. Because they are the silent majority in the discussion. Lehmann’s goal is 100,000 kids across the country writing their own Declarations of Education. I’d love to see students’ Declarations of Education (without their full names given) on YouTube, in classroom “Declaration” blogs or wikis, or in Facebook Declaration pages. Ask them “What should school be like in the Digital Age?” or “How would you reform education?” or just “What’s YOUR Declaration of Education?” This is citizenship (offline and digital) in action, practiced in real time. This is real civic engagement, and I hope schools seize this opportunity nationwide. In addition to a school or community or district meeting, couldn’t it be part of American Government class or social studies or media studies or the right-now part of American History? Not just on May 10, but next school year too?