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SXSW opening weekend: rain, social, comedy

There wasn’t much sun around for the opening weekend of the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas — actually there was none — but that fact, like many of those attendees new to the overwhelming schedule that makes up the annual event, soon found itself lost, among the dozens of other facts — about social media, about the future of video blogging, about online journalism — that were offered up by this year’s panels in the festival’s first days.

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An embodiment of all that SXSW has come to represent, comedian and digital editor for The Onion, Baratunde Thurston, was one of the highlights of the weekend. He gave an interactive keynote presentation on How To Read The World, showing the increasing role comedy is playing in media, both social and traditional, across the globe. Using examples from all around the world, he showed how comics from Iran to China are using the genre to say and do things that traditional media, or traditional media practitioners, aren’t.

Thurston, using his trademark brand of wit and off-the-cuff charm that has made him one of the most popular comedians of our time, spoke of his own background and draw to activism and politics, citing a pictoral introduction book called This is Apartheid as an early influencer on his melding of the political and the humorous in his early life growing up in Washington DC.

“I am a very social dude; I love people,” he began his presentation, before going on to outline the way he taught himself to read, both literally, and the world we live in. “While the media is busy talking about the state of the media”, Thurston said, “it falls on the comedians of the world to cover things in a way that other people won’t, and to play the role of communicating truth indirectly.”

Thurston, with his love of hashtags and new book How To Be Black under his belt, expressed his view earnestly. “We’re living in a time where everyone can have a voice. This creates a lot of noise, but it also creates many opportunities for trust,” he said. Comedians, he maintains, are seizing that gap, and are creating “some true revolutionary magic.”

But it’s not just up to them to keep the world on its toes. Thurston believes we can all do it, using social media and the tools at our disposal. “There is room and there is a need for badgering; for artful and cultivated wit,” he said. “We’re about more than just the ‘checking in'”, he said. “We’re about the upgrading of our own freedom and humanity.” From there, well, it appears the proverbial ball is in our court.

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