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The secret thread running through the SXSW Interactive conference is one that, once noticed, is seen propagating throughout everything from politics to comedy, social media strategies to street parties, all the way to the very laws of thermodynamics.

It's encapsulated in something keynote speaker Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, said on the first day of the March conference: "Up until a couple of years ago, every revolution had a leader."

He calls ours the Age of Networked Intelligence: one that started with the advent of the printing press and rolled on through to the internet, where we have "access to the intelligence of other heads." Then he talks about self-organization, the Tunisian revolution, and how weak ties conglomerate into strong ties. He ends with a long video of starlings, swarming like a living cloud. The flock is called a murmuration.

There's the thread: The swarm, self-organization, emergence. Many small parts that, coming together, create a higher level of organization. After I recognized it, I found it everywhere. "Comedy Bang Bang" podcast host Scott Aukerman introducing a show by encouraging the audience to laugh: If you laugh, the person next to you will laugh, and the person next to them, and so on. The grassroots political organization AmericansElect.org, which surveys online voter information to identify an ideal presidential candidate (look for 'em on the ballot this November). A talk on pop-up libraries in Chicago. "Coolfarming," the act of realizing ideas through "swarm creativity," where a "cool" idea excites people who recruit others who then recruit even more people until the idea gets "hot." Wikipedia — now 10 times the size of Brittanica — which mobilized to help block the Stop Online Piracy Act. It inhabits futurist Ray Kurzweil's discussion, when he comments on the power of "decentralized structures." Even within the laws of physics, he says, tiny, randomly moving particles come together to shape the immense complexity of the universe.

So, yes, right: The Swarm Theory colors all the moments of SXSW. Capitalizing on this new decentralized Age of Networked Intelligence are all the social startups that hit the wires this year, the progeny of social media and location-based applications. Highlight (more or less the belle of the ball), Sonar, and Banjo collate your social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) and roll in your location to tell you who's around with whom you might share common friends or interests. Meexo takes it a little further by surveying the scene for possible hookups. If where you are now isn't interesting, Forecast lets your people know where you will be. GooseChase allows you to build scavenger hunts for friends. Health and wellness apps Jiff, Pipette, VitalClip, and BodiMojo, in various ways, keep an eye on you and connect your health information to friends, doctors, and medical expertise.

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