Photographer Gregory Sells is dancing in between Texas A&M and NASA. The space agency and Texas university both have booths at the annual SXSW expo, but Gregory—rocking a vest studded with SXSW pins of the past—is too enraptured by the music of the North Texas symphony to notice where he is going. Thanks to a VR headset from the Denton CVB, Sells is enjoying a show at the Murchison even though he is 300 miles away in the jam-packed Austin Convention Center.
It is the first day of the business and tourism expo at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, and Denton is represented alongside the likes of Italy, Portugal, and every kind of startup under the sun. However, while most expo attendees settled for a brochure or free food sample, visitors to the Denton booth—like the dancing photographer and a couple surprise guests—got to stroll the square or catch a show at Dan’s all because of the VR artistry of some local developers “From the Future.”
Armed with a half-dozen virtual tour headsets, a team of city employees, CVB staffers and representatives from TWU and UNT traveled to the capitol to represent Denton arts, eats and music. I was invited to join the team as a representative of UNT’s Mayborn School of Journalism, and the opportunity fascinated me on multiple levels: Each new booth guest brought another opportunity to tell Denton’s story through technology, and each panel brought a new opportunity to learn about how others across the globe are using technology and media to tell stories and inspire others.
In the downtime between expo hours, the Denton team members and I had the opportunity to attend several of these panels. Here’s a snippet of what I saw:
“At its pinnacle, media lead us toward compassion.”
Rainn Wilson, the actor formerly known as Dwight Schrute, spoke these words in front of a packed house on a rainy Saturday in Austin. Wilson, discussing his company SoulPancake, entered the stage to thunderous applause from hundreds of Office fans, who waited for him to dive into quotes from his days as a Dunder Mifflin employee. He obliged (much to their collective joy) and then took the audience through the “progression of the internet” (see photo) before diverging into a presentation about SoulPancake and its place in today’s media landscape.
Throughout the presentation, Wilson cited scores of studies that all found the same conclusion: Online, people share positive and inspirational videos and content more than any other kind of content. That’s the central reason he created SoulPancake, a digital media company that produces videos such as the famous Kid President series. Wilson and his company compatriots believe “A good story, well told, can change the world”—a belief that put them in good company at the annual Austin culture confab.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker kicked off the festival’s interactive programming with a speech about the greatest force in American history—Love. “Love is the only thing that has ever worked,” Booker said to an auditorium 2,000-strong. “Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Hate cannot drown out hate, only love can do that.’” When pressed with questions about the incendiary internet rhetoric most of us encounter online, Booker, an active Twitter user, posited that the web and social media are “neutral forums.” In his view, these technologies are neither inherently good nor bad—It is the people using them that choose to use them for positive or nefarious means.
Shortly afterward, another Cory—National Geographic photojournalist Cory Richards—took the stage to talk about his journey up Mount Everest. Richards Snapchatted the entire ascent, and descended with a new perspective on social media.
Before his Snapchat-chronicled climb, it was likes and shares (not Everest) that paralyzed Richards. “Social media had me in a death spiral of comparison,” he told throngs of fans that may have even outnumbered Booker’s audience. The journalist-artist-adventurer urged these fans to embrace authenticity—not just beauty.
“How effective is it when you’re actually authentic?” he asked, speaking about social media. How much more do people connect when you stop putting just the beautiful stuff up? All we have to do is be honest.”
Whether they planned it or not (okay, they didn’t, but I can dream) the two Cory’s both praised social media as a neutral forum—it is, in a sense, what we make of it. Just as visitors to the Denton booth could choose between a drink at Dan’s or a UNT jazz show, social media users write their own adventure online. South by Southwest is always filled to the brim with dreamers, hopefuls, entrepreneurs and artists, but they all come to the capitol for the same reason as the celebs: To tell stories, and to have stories told to them.
While working the expo in the days following Richards’ lecture, I ran into a friend from UNT. As her and I chatted about the cool celebrities we saw—James McAvoy on South Congress!—and the lessons we learned from the panels we waited hours for, a bearded man ran up to our booth.
"Wow, I’ve always wanted to try one of these,” the man said, lifting a VR headset. “Can I try it on?”
My friend and I tried to contain our excitement as Wagner Moura, star of the hit Netflix show Narcos, strapped in for a virtual tour of the downtown square. He didn’t dance like Sells, nor did he move around much. But after a moment, Moura smiled, and we wondered:
Did Pablo Escobar watch a show by Midlake, or go to Dan’s?