Adman Bob Knorpp has been poking fun at the SXSW “panel picker” — a crowd-filtering technique in which democratic votes are supposed to help select the best panels for the Austin digital-media conference, but which instead has devolved into “please-vote-for-me” indignities. Sure, only 30% of the decision comes from voters like you, but how can anyone realistically judge 2,401 panel contenders?
SXSW is proof that social networks can’t duplicate democracy — because, unlike voters, not all nodes in a human network are created equal. (Voting networks don’t work well, either, which is why the U.S. founders set up a Congress with representative experts to filter decisions away from the sometimes-hysterical masses.) Edward Boches, creative chief of Mullen, has 12,763 followers on Twitter and thus gets noticed when he complains about Marriott. Blogger Chris Brogan has 150,485 followers. Both are likely to get voted in if they float a panel, however brilliant or stale the concept. If the SXSW goal is to build a meritocracy of ideas, and no one has the patience to judge 2,401 individual entries, then what remains is a popularity contest.
The gravity well of networks.
We call this network lock-in — a form of groupthink that emerges when networks reinforce their current structures, similar to the stardust coalescing in gravity wells to form a new sun and planets in orbit. Humans are drawn to ideas, and they chase other nodes who espouse their own ideals most fervently. This like-drawn-to-like dynamic explains the rise of extreme news (Fox, MSNBC), horror-movie porn, punk rock, shouting politicians, and uber-bloggers. Fragmenting media blows self-reinforcing communication bubbles, where you, if extremely conservative, can find videos and commentators explaining why Obama is a socialist; or, if liberal, find an equal number of talking heads explaining how Obama is saving the economy. We are lured by gravity; tidal forces pull us to nodes that take power from our joining masses; the extremes of commonality rule the day.
Unfortunately, for edgy forums such as SXSW, this means a concept on the fringe of public consciousness — stardust far afield — may be ignored in favor of the topics already talked the most about. In the interactive series categories this year, we see 136 proposed panels on “social networking,” 77 on “advertising,” yet only five on tablet computers and none at all about artificial intelligence (they are there, but you have to dig). Tablets are the edge of media; AI may change the world soon. Unfortunately, few at SXSW may talk about that future.