Science Communications Outside of the Box: What can we learn from SXSW?

On Tuesday, Oct. 22, sixteen faculty, staff and students from 11 different departments gathered to discuss how community engagement strategies used by an innovative music/arts festival might apply to science communications.

The IoE-sponsored event was called "Outside of the Box: What Can SXSW Teach Us About Science Communications?" and was centered around a Webinar delivered by the Poynter Institute which featured Hugh Forester, organizer of South by Southwest, an annual festival in Austin, Texas that brings together more than 30,000 digital creatives from across the United States for five days of panels, presentations, brainstorming, networking, deal-making, socializing, creating, innovating, and fun. The festival is known for its success in engaging its community of registrants on-site, as well as the broader online community.

Following are detailed notes that I (Suzi Taylor) took during the Webinar as well as some of the science communications brainstorming ideas that followed.

Forester said that the core values of SXSW Interactive are Creativity, Innovation and Inspiration, and one of the festival's goals is to help people make career-enhancing connections. SXSW Interactive engages with its community through planned events, social media, meet-ups and customer service representatives.

Forester discussed some of the pros and cons of the instant feedback provided by social media. On the one hand, ANY type of publicity raises the profile of an event or organization, but negative feedback requires resources and attention. Forester suggested that, when a mistake is made, you must own the mistakes and own them publically. Forester referenced a 2009 fiasco in which an interview with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg went badly and the SXSW community was aflutter with criticism. The next day, the SXSW organizers apologized for the bad keynote. Read WIRED magazine's account of the interview

One of the strategies for community engagement that SXSW is "Panel picker," a crowdsourcing concept inspired by Threadless. Threadless is a t-shirt company that announces a monthly design theme (e.g., pumpkins for October) and then collects submissions of artwork on that theme. The community votes for their favorite designs, and the top designs are made into t-shirts.

Likewise, SXSW asks its community to suggest speakers for its panels and then vote on the ones they'd most like. This allows the community to weigh in on the conversation.

SXSW also relies heavily on its staff to interact personally with the community. All customer service representatives are asked to respond personally to emails, particularly those who have given negative feedback.

Forester's advice on how to get started with community engagement:

Forester suggested "hook to your community." Start an advisory board, email with your community, and engage with your community as much as possible.

He suggested "meet-ups" (a loosely organized meeting of like-minded people….e.g., announcing, "If you're interested in [X], meet at [place] on [date/time]" and see who shows up.

Forester discussed some important future trends/issues, including:

  • Start-ups. Start-ups are really hot right now, including the myth of the garage start-up. This is not just in America; Tel Aviv is the 2nd hottest market for start-ups right now. Berlin and Sao Paolo are also hot.
  • Mobile is the future of publishing.
  • Apps and digital tools for publishing; innovative uses of Twitter
  • data journalism (a la Nate Silver, the statistician who used data to correctly predict all 50 states in the 2008 presidential election)
  • wearables -- "smart" accessories such as Google Glass, a smart watch that accesses your data, clothing with a microchip to broadcast medical data to a doctor, or a diaper with a microchip in it.
  • augmented reality
  • privacy and security

Discussion/brainstorming by Montana attendees [These notes are random! If you were present, feel free to add and clarify]

How can we apply some of these strategies to engage with our Montana communities around the topic of ecosystem science?

The "meet-up" idea was intriguing; perhaps we could announce a simple meet-up of people interested in science communications.

We discussed e-mail, which Forester said (and many of us agree) is still the most important way to engage with your community. Many people in the room said Twitter is not used that much in Montana, but Facebook is, including by the student body and the Native American community.

We talked about crowdsourcing…We could ask our community which scientists would you like to hear from? What topics would you like to know more about? What questions would you like answered? This led to the suggested of participating in Café Scientifique (or something similar) and having the community suggest topics.

We also discussed the importance of getting feedback: asking our audiences what worked and what didn't after a presentation, event, etc.

Could we initiate something along the lines of Bozeman Soup? This is a new effort in which four non-profits pitch an idea, and the community that has gathered (and paid $5 to participate) vote on the best one. The money collected is then given to that non-profit. See

Perhaps this could work with ecosystems topics? Maybe high school students could pitch ecosystem related projects, and the "winner" could get university resources to support his/her project-?

We discussed how the Institute on Ecosystems could/should interact with Extension. Ranchers have a very important perspective on ecosystems, and we should work harder to build that connection. We should work to get scientists and producers (as well as others from different disciplines) together.

As an example, the last episode of Montana Ag Live on Montana PBS featured Vince Smith, Greg Pederson and Perry Miller speaking on climate change. This episode will re-air on Oct. 27

This program is a venue for bringing people together to discuss a relevant topic. This doesn't happen often enough, but when it does, people seem to really benefit from the opportunity to co-mingle.

A topic that might be of interest is how climate change is impacting the Native American community, including the use of many naturally found foods, such as edible berries long the Galligator Trail.

Another idea was that the university could host a forum on start-ups.

We discussed the importance of the larger community being directly connected to what our researchers are working on and questioned whether many university researchers are using social media such as Twitter to share their research directly with the public.

Montana EPSCOR/Institute on Ecosystems are online at and

Thanks to everybody who attended and shared such great ideas! If you have more ideas about science communications and those of us who are interested can interact with one another, please email me at


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