What Happens in Austin…

March 14, 2014

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It’s hard to recap a place like Austin or an event like SXSW because you can’t really pin either of them down. They buck clichés, and they both exist within a realm that you can’t really define. But I’m going to try anyway.

If Mark Zuckerberg and Willie Nelson had a child together, you’d get Austin. It’s the cowboy next to me at the White Horse, a gritty honky bar off 6th Street. He’s wearing something pretty close to a ten gallon, listening to a bluegrass set and talking with a group of teenagers in Ramones t-shirts. He’s also wearing Google Glass. That’s Austin.

Then there’s the man who asked the banjo-plucking street performer if he accepted Bitcoin. Turns out, he did. That’s SXSW.

The juxtaposition of both is all at once familiar and completely unexpected.

Some say that the conference has jumped the shark. There may be some truth to that. Lines are long, public transportation is almost non-existent, and appearances from celebrities like Bieber tend to detract from SXSW’s indie heritage. But in a way, Austin remains the perfect place for the conference. With all the new ideas and theories being thrown out during the day, a city that’s been able to retain a deep cultural, local pulse, has become the perfect dry run for everything we spent our time in the classroom learning.

For example, about a 20-minute walk from the Austin Convention Center, there’s an extraordinary BBQ restaurant. And I don’t throw that term around lightly.

You’ve probably seen it in a recent TV ad for Chase Bank contrasted against a visit from Nobu Matsuhisa. But according to the staff at Franklin Barbecue, the commercial hasn’t noticeably changed the volume of their business. That’s because business is so brisk that every morning (except Monday, when they’re closed) a line begins to form at 8:00 a.m.—three hours before they open. The restaurant usually closes at around 1:30 p.m. because that’s when all the meat is gone. So regardless of what time you arrive, you’ll wait for more than two and a half hours.

During that time, an employee periodically comes out to offer people waiting in line a sample of the smoked sausage wrapped in half a piece of Wonder bread. In many cases, these are consumed with beers provided by new friends made standing in line. However, once you reach the counter where they cut the brisket, ribs or turkey in front you, you’re definitely hungry enough that it’s hard not to over-order.

Without doing any research, I think it’s safe to say Franklin doesn’t pay to advertise in any traditional media. And, even as wild as Texans are about BBQ, I doubt the majority of folks in line are repeat customers. The 15-or-so people around me were all first-timers and none were in town for SXSW.

So what exactly explains this demand? Near as I can tell it’s unpaid food reviews and word of mouth. But what’s driving that word of mouth is a heaping portion of social currency wrapped up in a remarkable story. Social currency, as I learned the next day in a presentation given by Jonah Berger, is loosely defined as people’s desire to share things that make them look good to others. It’s status by association. And it’s a big reason social media and online social networks have become so popular.

Think of it this way: Just like what we wear and drive, what we talk about affects how others see us. And just as we use money to buy goods and services, we use social currency (i.e., talk about things) to achieve positive impressions with our family, friends and colleagues. Telling people that you’ve eaten Franklin Barbecue, and waited hours in line to do it, makes a person look like he/she actually knows something about the best smoked meat in Texas. And while that would be misleading in my case, since Franklin is the only BBQ I’ve had in Texas, I will say it was a very tasty and memorable experience.

The entire conference was memorable. I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to force myself to choose the single most important takeaway from the five days I spent at SXSW. While that’s nearly impossible, I will say this:

With everything going on in the digital realm right now, it’s easy to get caught up in the next big thing—the trend that’s going to supposedly change everything. In fact, it’s so easy to lose ourselves in the current that we end up losing touch with what lasts. Connection—creating real experiences and emotion around products, spaces, and brands is ultimately why we’ve chosen to do what we do. Technology is great but only when it makes us more human and helps us enjoy life a little more. It’s something the best ideas and design shouldn’t lose sight of. Connection is a simple, powerful idea, and after a week in Austin, I’m happy to say that it’s still alive and well.