A quarter million people descended on Austin, TX, to partake in SXSW this weekend. Yesterday I arrived at the Austin Convention Center to pick up my badge and discovered a que that wound around the entire building and back again. Two hours standing in line provided ample time for observing the social behavior of new media folk.

Not surprisingly, most people held smartphones in their hands. Quite a few had ipads. Still there were plenty who struggled to balance a laptop while standing and use their keyboard simultaneously.

What I found interesting is how little engagement there was between individuals waiting in line initially. The two young women friends in front of me, stood side by side, chatting to one another about what they were seeing and reading on their iphones. They were talking, not directly to one another, but in relation to their handheld electronic devices.

“Wow. I can’t believe they expect us to wait in line here. This is not the first conference. You’d think they’d plan for this,” I overhead one of the young women say to the other.

“What makes you think they didn’t plan this long line?” I butted in to their conversation. “This IS the ultimate MeetUp.” Making social conversation face to face might be the point, young ladies, of this entire adventure.

A video editor from Chicago, web developers from weird Austin, an IT expert who also does stand-up comedy, some Brits on holiday, a Polish filmmaker, and a guy named Jason from Fresno get it. In fact, by the time we get inside the Exhibit Hall where badges are picked up and the bling bags distributed, the line moves sporadically. Group conversations are animated and folks forget to move forward one by one and do so in clumps.

As the conversation increased between people standing in line, the personal electronic devices shut down, disappeared, or became a distraction. The mediated reality began to pale in the presence of real social engagement; for some. And so the Red Sea of social media parted and the world became divided into extroverts and introverts.

Social media brought us together but for different purposes. Introverts gain access to social realms beyond their face-to-face comfort levels and the extroverts connect with media to gain access to more face-to-face engagement. These differences pop out at me while I watch the line move forward. And once I’m through the line, hanging out at the Happy Hour at Circus Mashimus I’m struck by the comfort of introverts in this setting whereby they use their electronic devices to shield them from levels of discomfort induced by such intense social engagement.

Our social culture, including this conference’s focus on interactive media, clearly privileges those who are extroverts. Yet, this is a dangerous cultural preference. The importance of solitude, independent thought, deep reflection and, yes, silence, are underestimated in everyday life. See Susan Cain’s video on the power of introverts.

SXSW is a space where introversion and extroversion coincide in creative new ways. Looking forward to more today in the wonderfully weird city of Austin.

 

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