SXSW Minus The Mindless Meme


Every year at SXSW, a winning meme emerges that’s attached to the latest hot new “it” company. Years ago it was “tweet everything,” including what you ate, wore, and saw. Then there was the “check in everywhere” year, followed soon after by “find me,” with location-based ambient social networks all the rage.

It’s almost as if the College of SXSW Cardinals caucused before the event and picked a winner – and proceeded to ban discussion about anything else. Some of the companies behind these memes, like Twitter, are household names today, some have faded away, and some have futures that are yet to be written.

This year, the resounding meme was “There is no meme!” Who – or what— was behind that? Did we simply run out of memes, or could the trend-setters just not agree this time? Or, have the meme generators moved on from SXSW to some other event like TED, Disrupt or Davos?

This year, the resounding meme was “there is no meme!”

I have a different theory-slash-hope: we’ve graduated from focusing on mindless memes in which we act like lemmings, repeating what the last person said, to become more savvy consumers of technology trends. This year at SXSW, we saw exciting new companies provide entertainment and serendipity, help us make better decisions, and improve productivity or use of our resources. And while a few of these might succeed in becoming products or companies that endure, most will not be permanent fixtures of the technology landscape. This is as it should be; all is still right in the world even though this year’s South-By can’t be summed up in fewer than six words.

As a SXSW regular, I think this graduation, or newfound maturity, is awesome. It speaks to a tech world that has more patience and a greater understanding of the challenges of creating consumer phenomena. We all know that creating technology that endures requires so much more than building a hip app that’s famous for two seconds. It must tie into our need to communicate, exchange information or solve a common problem. It must be built with a product maestro’s attention to detail. Of course, a little luck and extra attention along the way never hurt, but a meme isn’t required – or even necessarily that helpful – for success. Especially since memes don’t demand a product with any of that magic and are only a kneejerk reaction to something cool, different or cleverly preceded by a hashtag.

Are the meme days behind us? I hope so. Perhaps now we’ll obsess a little less about frivolous trends that don’t last more than a week, and instead focus on inventing the future. On the other hand, this memeless year might be a fluke — a break in the action — and the conclave is convening now to elect a meme for 2014. If so, my money is on Google Glass. It’s different, futuristic, and coveted by tech-aficionados near and far, and no one knows what it actually does. A perfect candidate for meme-dom!