It’s always a risk at conferences that keynotes by superstar entrepreneurs fall a little flat.
Attendees of Webstock a few years ago will remember one-time Silicon Valley superstar Kevin Rose’s presentation. Beyond telling the assembled crowd to simply “go out and raise a million dollars”, there was little that connected with the audience. Today at SXSW we saw a similar situation.
Creator of Twitter (you’ve heard of Twitter right?) Biz Stone and Huffington Post alum Brian Sirgutz presented today on the subject of content as a means for social change. As people define far higher quantities of content, and more of the consumption of that content occurs online, the connection between people increases in both importance and quantity.
Sirgutz told of being a volunteer in the days following 9/11, of meeting volunteer firefighters who had come from across the country in order to help find their colleagues – and how the ability to highlight and share those stories can help shape the world and how people look at it.
While studying at Oxford University, Stone debated and won in the Oxford Union Debate on the subject of whether entrepreneurs can effect change for the betterment of the world. This was a precursor to his future efforts and impacts. Stone wanted to share some anecdotes with the audience. He proceeded to do so and, while mildly entertaining, they didn’t appear to really galvanise the audience from where I was seated.
After leaving Google, Stone and colleague Evan Williams decided to create a podcasting company, Odeo. For a number of reasons, most notably the fact that Apple introduced podcasting into iTunes, Odeo never really worked. In light of that realisation, the 12 staff at Odeo teamed up to brainstorm ideas they could move into.
One of the ideas was a mixture of text messaging and social networking. The service they created is one we all know today as Twitter.
Stone also recounted a situation in the early days of Twitter when he had been doing work on his house. He received a tweet from co-founder Williams telling of his day drinking wine in Napa Valley. Stone recalled the joy he felt when he received the tweet and the realisation that Twitter was actually a useful tool. I’m not sure I’d quite class that information as joyous, even less so important, but there ya go.
At SXSW in 2007, Twitter came to the event. Stone was sitting in a keynote when he saw a large number of people stand up and go out. Stone only later realised that it was the spread of Twitter messages about a better session next door that caused the mass exodus. That event was the indication that Twitter could build widespread utility and, in Stone’s mind at least, mimicked the natural flocking instincts that allow birds to fly wing to wing en masse without collision.
Long before the Arab Spring uprising, there was a student uprising in Moldova disseminated, at least in part, by Twitter messages. The lesson Stone takes away from his Twitter experience the belief that no matter how advanced machines and technology get, change is a not a triumph of technology, but rather a triumph of humanity. His role (and the broader role of those at SxSW) is to create the tools that help that change to occur.
Stone asserted that:
"If you give the tools to people that allow them to do great things, they will exhibit that behaviour on a regular basis."
Stone then reflected on his experience over the course of his entrepreneurial career and in particular the need to fully commit to any startup one begins. He told of startups that are forever taking on consulting jobs in order to pay their way, rather than committing completely and raising money to focus on the business. As he said:
"To succeed spectacularly you need to be ready to fail spectacularly."
Finally, Stone touched on his thoughts around philanthropy, which he believes the future of marketing relies on. He suggested that Coca Cola, in its push into new emerging markets, should sponsor food trucks adorned with the Coca Cola logo and in doing so create far more brand identity and loyalty than any marketing campaign can.
Stone’s advice has a similar ring to the current issue du jour, Kony 12. That too gets people excited, or at least excited enough to retweet, like, share and otherwise socially distribute the meme (and yes, I’m a guilty party on that account too), but it also has the effect of ever-shortening people’s attention spans, and in doing so tends to lessen the impact of the movement.
Still – it was a late afternoon session and after all the attendees had already been partying till the early hours of the morning for a few days, their attention spans were understandably lagging.
There will no doubt be another feel-good keynote tomorrow to fire people up once again to a fury of social angst that sees them reaching for their iPhones to share their thoughts with the masses. In doing so they of course increase the use of Stone’s baby Twitter, and thereby increase the value he can derive from it.
A nice circular case of doing good (for someone) by doing well (for potentially no one). Oh well…..