SXSW’s Tower of Babel

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Occasionally SXSW attendees like Jeremiah Owyang would look up from their mobile devices to have a conversation. This is proof.

SXSW's Tower of Babel
originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider 

"If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." – Genesis 11:6-7

Picture this, as Sophia says on "The Golden Girls." It's Austin, 2011. You're at the most buzzed-about interactive media event in the world. You want to meet up with a couple of friends at one of the better parties among at least a dozen viable options happening right now. What do you do?

This should be the easiest thing ever. Here are tens of thousands of early adopters or wannabe early adopters spending most of their time well within a one mile radius of a walkable city's convention center. Most people will discover they're connected to each other within three degrees, and often fewer. Even for someone who's new to interactive media and coming to South by Southwest (SXSW) for the first time, just by standing on a busy street corner he or she will likely run into at least 10 people they know within the hour. Everyone has a smartphone, many have more than one, and mobile social technologies have made it easier to communicate with each other than ever before. That's the theory, at least.

Then along comes SXSW, today's incarnation of the Tower of Babel. Here's how people are really communicating and trying to get together.

Foursquare is extremely popular here. If you're near a venue that's buzzing, you'll see how many people are there. You can also scan your friends' recent check-ins and see if any kind of consensus formed or they're all over the map. That's a start.

Then there's Gowalla, which got a boost from its Mashable partnership. You can get notifications if friends are near you, but it doesn't have the scale to find friends. Some people are using it to rack up virtual stamps, win tickets to the Gowalla party, and keep track of what they've done.  There are many other check-in apps out there, but also because of scale, people aren't currently using SCVNGR, Whrrl, Loopt, or Facebook Places en masse to find friends.

Many attendees here are broadcasting their check-ins on Twitter, and sometimes Facebook. That provides a stream of disorganized content for people here, and a stream of worthless content for just about everyone else.

You can find your friends via personal messages via Facebook or Twitter. How are you going to see the messages, though? Do you turn on mobile alerts? Do you get messages delivered via email? Do you check your apps here and there? And then will they in turn see the message soon enough for it to matter?

Getting back to basics, email helps, but it generally adds to the clutter, and it's too unstructured, especially when coordinating with more than one person. Text messages (SMS) are useful for coordinating with one person, and it's often the first choice when friends want to touch base quickly. I've probably sent and received a couple hundred texts over the long weekend without relying on it heavily. On occasion, the whole phone thing works, but you can't talk during a session or a loud party. One of the only calls I made to someone here was a pocket dial.

Group texting is taking off, with the clear winners being GroupMe and Beluga. My first experience with GroupMe wasn't a good one, as I signed on via SMS and soon found my phone flooded with a rambling stream from a group of 25 people. There's also an app that can make the whole thing more tolerable. Beluga's app happened to work better for me, and some here are betting on it since it was acquired by Facebook. Interestingly, I heard nothing about other supposedly hot chat apps like Kik. While I'm not a BlackBerry user, I'm sure BlackBerry Messenger proved useful too, and GroupMe in particular should be concerned if the rumors are true that BBM will soon come out for Android and iPhone. Then it will be Facebook vs. BlackBerry, and little else will matter.

If you want to know what a lot of the geekier folks were using (as if all this isn't geeky enough), look to Hashable, and in particular its mobile app. You enter the Twitter name or email of someone you met and exchange contact information via the app, or you can give a public shout-out to someone you hang out with. It works very well, and some people I met who didn't have business cards were dependent on it. What I'm wondering is how easily I'll be able to grab Hashable contacts' information and follow up with them once I'm back home. It may work very well, but it presents a new change in user behavior. [Update: It was easy to access many connections' info and email them after, but some may need to register before I can reach them.]

The Tower of Babel metaphor fits too well. While I don't subscribe to divine retribution, we can see firsthand that when so many people are striving to achieve so much in changing the fundamental nature of how we communicate, a period of chaos ensues. The difference is that when this all of shakes out, we'll be in a far better position to speak the same language, and instantly connect with people around the world  — some of whom may be walking right by us. It took a few thousand years, but mankind finally won. Nothing will be impossible for us.