I assume it has something to do with aging, which I might not have enough experience with yet, but people just love talking about how awesome the past was and how terrible the future looks. It’s bullshit. Be here now, and you might see that things aren’t as bad as you think. SXSW is awesome.
But maybe that’s because I’m a SXSW virgin and don’t know any better.
As I said last week, when setting up my schedule for the conference and festival, this is my first time experiencing the Austin, Texas gem known as South by Southwest. I’m still in the midst of this beast, one of the biggest technology, music and film extravaganzas in the country, but since there are far less tech-related events happening now that the focus has shifted to music, I think it's time to reflect a little on the event.
One of the most striking things I’ve noticed in the past week here is negativity about the event. In fact, we hadn’t even made it to 2011 yet when tech celebrity Robert Scoble publicly criticized the growing SXSW for its lack of small get-togethers. It’s actually a well-expressed argument coming from a very smart guy in the industry, but I find it a little too reductive. I mostly attended small and medium-sized parties, I waited in no lines, and I had some awesome conversations with some forward-thinking people.
How else would I have talked to the people behind awesome startups and applications like Chromatik? GroupMe? Ricochet Labs? Speedmenu? LaunchRock? MOG? Syncapse? Udemy? And all within the space of a few days!
Once at the actual SXSW Interactive conference, I overheard people complaining about the size and sponsorship of the thing everywhere I went. One lady sitting near me in the press room couldn’t resist audibly huffing about the invasion of corporate sponsorship at the event. True enough: Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, says corporate sponsorship increased dramatically this year with presences from Microsoft, Samsung and AT&T. Personally, I appreciated the occasional free drink and extra power outlets (pictured here, at a far less busy time).
The negativity seeped through the halls like lava, if you bothered to listen.
If you’re really going to complain about SXSW because the parties are too big and the lines too long, don’t blame the event. After all, there were hundreds of different activities to choose from. Probably triple that when you count the parties at night. If a Mashable or Digg party meant so much to you that you were willing to stand in a line that wrapped around the block, then that’s your own fault.
In the end, a lot of what attracted me about the event can’t really be described very easily. It’s not necessarily about making huge tangible changes to your business.
As a reporter obsessed by how social media is changing the world even beyond technology, I found that a lot of the power SXSW emanated was symbolic. In the tech world, there exists a never-ending conversation, an omnipresent online buzz swirling between the investors looking for the next big thing, the entrepreneurs building the products, and the press and blogs reporting on those goings-on. Ordinarily, you’ll only encounter bits and pieces of this buzz in small office spaces, leaking out in Twitter streams, or aggregating itself in clumps on Techmeme or Google News.
Tech conferences do a lot to extract the buzz out into the real world by drawing a bunch of tech stars out to one location, but none, save CES and a few others, can compare to SXSW. And even SXSW stands apart because it is about the up and coming. The quantity and quality of conversations that I had at SXSW really blows every other event away because you're literally swimming in innovation and excitement. It’s about performances by the most unheard-of bands and premieres for the most independent films. It’s about startups. It’s about the utter awesomeness of small groups creating unfathomably big, beautiful things.
Maybe it sounds a little irreligious to say so, but it kind of felt like Mecca. By ourselves, we are so small and so insignificant; but together, we are so much more.