Think about how legislation like DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) has a title that can be misconstrued. Labels can attract powerful connections. When they are misused confusion can result. Such was the case with the event titled "Blacks In Tech" held the first evening of SXSW Interactive Conference. It was not only all fluff and offered zero substance, but worse the response showed an utter lack of respect for individuals attending SXSW who would be dismissed as unimportant by the so-called Social Media VIPs. At a conference which is often chided for its lack of diversity, I was surprised to find myself under assault at an event that was hyped as a "safe space" for people like me.
People spend a lot of money and put resources to attend SXSW with limited time in attending events. While there is nothing wrong with a multi-cultural focus had the organizer been more forthcoming about the details of Blacks In Tech it was unlikely to have had a majority African-American female audience in attendance. I went with reservations but observed the event before rendering a final judgment. I waited patiently for nearly 15 minutes to speak during the Q&A session that followed. I addressed the moderator, Jeffrey Bowman, a Partner at Ogilvy & Mather's Consulting Practice directly about my concerns. Specifically, I asked how such an event that had been billed as part of a Blacks In Tech initiative featured a panelist who consistently named-dropped specific male record executives as people to emulate when they had actively promoted music that denigrated black women - to an audience that was a majority of black women.
I also questioned the inclusion of non-blacks on the panel who had not specifically addressed any initiatives that would be of direct benefit to blacks. I asked where was the respect for black people in their body of work or were they more interested in selling an approximation of blackness to white companies? I wanted to know if pushing sneakers was more important than offering tools of empowerment? Clearly when I urged people to be critical thinkers what I'd said hit home for I received a lot of verbal cues (amens and hand claps) during my question/comment. There had clearly been no standards set for participation by the organizer of this event which was insulting to the audience and a waste of time that could have been better spent elsewhere. If fame and money were the only standards of success listed where would that leave the soul of the community and those individuals without such a limited definition of success? While I doubted we'd agree on all points introduced I thanked the panel and audience for listening. Mr. Bowman recalled me to the microphone to respond. This was when one panelist in particular, James Andrews, Partner at Everywhere took issue with my continued participation and began yelling at me from the stage where the panel sat. This derailed the entire exchange.
Despite the unpleasantness I received a majority positive feedback from those in attendance and assurances from Mr. Bowman that all was well. Not that anyone else's opinion about what I'd said mattered to me for I had introduced serious topics into what had been an unstructured and lightweight conversation. I assumed everyone would go their separate ways and move on to the next events at the conference. I was mistaken. The next morning Andrews proceeded to write a blog post attacking me personally and resending it via Twitter every 2 hours for the next two days using his Key Influencer account. All the while he was hosting events for companies like PGi honoring Women In Tech (who were white women) he felt free to attack a black woman's character for voicing an opinion he didn't approve of. Mr. Andrews attempted to describe my question as a "Kanye" moment. He was right - but he pulled a Kanye not I. I was Taylor Swift attempting to enjoy my first SXSW and he was the boorish, self-centered narcissist who insisted everyone listen to him.
One might wonder what else I’d said that would garner such a response. Ask Ogilvy - for they also participated in the slander by resending his links and agreeing. The Blacks In Tech event had been recorded and simulcast on UStream. Since they've pulled the content no one has actually been able to listen to the the event in its entirety. It further proves the impact of my statement. Others have only heard the deliberate misrepresentation of my statement by disgruntled people with an agenda of obfuscation. I expect a Partner at a major advertising agency to know full well how to manipulate language to evoke certain emotions and imagery.
The expectations for hosting a successful event held during one of the biggest Interactive conferences in the United States would be high. It wasn't well-thought out or executed, however. This was more than a case of incompetence. It was an example of complete apathy. From the selection of an out-of-the-way venue where attendees were left stranded to the misrepresentation of its purpose the event was designed to encourage participation by blacks so it appeared to be successful to third parties. With the catch phrase of the evening being "keep it sexy" this event had nothing to do with black people or technology and offered little of substance. Instead, it was one long promotion of consumerism (black people like to look fly!) and unrelated segues that keep people misinformed and underutilizes their potential.
The bottom line is the intended suggestion for how such an event could have been useful in discussing current conditions within impacted segments of the black community was never considered. Neither Andrews nor Bowman understand OR respect the audience they are selling to others as being "experts" of. From high unemployment to lack of educational resources, the use of technology and availability of low-cost broadband access can lift groups out of poverty. Children in disenfranchised communities may have vital skill sets that will go undeveloped and unrecognized from lack of exposure and nurturing. Are we going to be pushed further into consumer-based slavery or will we be masters of our own destiny? There are numerous examples of successful corporate campaigns that were mutually beneficial and reciprocated in kind. This event offered no such discussion or evaluation.
It's ironic how technology that's supposed to empower others has been used to deny First Amendment rights. Stating that someone is mentally unstable and saying derogatory things about their appearance is not the behavior of a professional. How does someone who claims to be a Social Media expert allow themselves to become so unhinged so easily? Why is Ogilvy hiding the Q&A session? The appalling nature of the behavior of James Andrews and Ogilvy should be self-evident, especially since Andrews has previously shown poor online impulse control when he ridiculed the city of Memphis, TN on the way to giving a training in use of Social Media while under employ at Ketchum New York for client Federal Express via Twitter.
In a strange twist of fate their actions offer the perfect example of the problems that were highlighted.
More Links and Info
SXSW Listing of Blacks In Tech event http://www.sxsw.com/node/4571
The Andrews Blog Post http://jamesandrews.tv/kanyed-at-sxsw-2010 (he's removed a lot of the offensive comments)
Ustream link to pulled programming http://www.ustream.tv/channel/blacks-in-tech
Discussion of the trashing of Fed Ex by James Andrews http://www.davidhenderson.com/2009/01/21/key-online-influencer/
A 3rd Party's rendition of the poor behavior at SXSWi http://myerman.posterous.com/when-the-social-media-vips-start-believing-th
Faith Dow is Marketing, Media and Creative professional who uses new media across multiple social networks, writes and organizes content, promotes external communications as well as the strategic development of various communities (online and offline) utilizing marketing and technology.