A divided country is reflected in SXSW's fractured mirror

Marketers and attendees mulled an often-spoken question: Where do we go from here?

The SXSW Conference has traditionally been a forward-looking event. Panelists and pontificators always claim to know what’s new, and what’s next. But this year, the events of the last six months—accusatory campaign rhetoric, a close election, the rise of vocal nationalists—had many speakers asking, "What now?" Talk of healing or coming together was rare. The conversation at SXSW, usually so focused on solutions, instead turned to processing and understanding this new reality.

It began even before the conference itself—bands scheduled to attend the Music Track were turned away by Customs and Border Patrol, which issued vague statements defending the deportations. The selection of session topics also primed the conversation. The ACLU and the Washington Post spoke about social media surveillance, GitHib and TechCrunch talked about digital activism and Facebook discussed countering online extremism. Even panels that had nothing to do with politics couldn’t help but reference the president.

"I think about the things that I trust now, and they seem to be diminishing. Certainly when it comes to government and the press," said Jeff Goodby, founder of San Francisco ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, in a conversation with Gawker founder Nick Denton about the current state of the media.

Denton had just presented a bleak assessment of the outcome of the culture wars—from millennials in uninspired jobs "writing ad copy" with no hope of achieving "immortality through their work," to the ultra-rich achieving actual immortality through genetic engineering and artificial intelligence and leaving the rest of humanity behind.

More immediately, Denton warned of the end result of the phenomenon Trump has begun in America, a path much of Europe is now on. "Right now, Trump support is old," he said. "But what about the next Trump, a more sophisticated Trump, who wraps himself in the Rainbow Flag and purports to be defending liberals against conservative migrants?"

Even the activations were dystopian. Hulu’s upcoming miniseries "The Handmaid’s Tale," based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book about a future America run by religious fanatics, enlisted a squadron of  women to dress in identical Handmaid outfits, walking the streets of Austin in single file.

Starz erected a giant, smoke-breathing white buffalo for "American Gods," the series based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel that pits the "old gods" of immigrants with the "new gods" of media and technology. The timeliness of the story isn’t lost on the creators. "We are now telling massive immigration stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants," said showrunner Bryan Fuller in a promo panel session about the show, and Gaiman himself weighed in on Twitter later, noting that the political climate caught up to the show, not the other way around.

Yet despite the pervasive hipster ennui, the SXSW crowd is at its core hopeful. (What else could drive someone to bet their entire family’s life savings on an unproven tech startup?) So while answers were in short supply, there was plenty of speculation about useful ways to move forward in a culture split down the middle.

Bishop Paul Tighe, the Vatican’s Adjunct Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is the first representative of the Holy See to attend SXSW. His responsibilities include managing the Pope’s Twitter account, which receives plenty of trolling and vitriol from online instigators that spot an easy target. But instructions from Pope Francis, Tighe told the BBC, emphasize authentic communication over proselytizing. Tighe’s SXSW panel: "Compassionate Disruption."

Thirteen thousand attendees RSVPed for a Planned Parenthood rally hosted by Yahoo’s Tumblr, though only a tenth of that number could physically fit into the space. And pop star Kesha spoke about her battles with bulimia and online harassment at a workshop with teen victims of cyberbullying, before going onstage to share her story with the SXSW audience at large.

"I don’t think we’ll stay in our present state of divisiveness. It’s too aggravating and counterproductive," Goodby told Campaign US. While it’s possible the culture wars get much worse, he thinks it’s more likely they get better. "We’ll exhaust the righteousness of attacking lies, and perhaps the deceptions won’t work as well anymore as they pile up."

And marketers would do well to remember that they need to sell to an entire country, not 50 percent plus one. "Although a number of companies are using political issues to rally their customers right now, that merely energizes fans you already have," Goodby added. "The bigger job is to cross the aisle with your appeal."

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