Jim Long - Digital Media and Culture

South by Southwest – Looking Forward, Looking Back and Why I’m Going

Pilgrimage to Geek Spring Break

My Survival Kit for SXSW '08

SXSW Still Life by Becky McCray

As social media, web strategy, and tech company luminaries prepare to descend upon Austin, TX for the annual geekapalooza that is South by Southwest Interactive, it’s after some deliberation that I’ve decided to join the pilgrimage. The “why” of going isn’t some existential, intellectual – is SXSW dead – struggle for me.  Rather, it’s a practical one.  It costs a lot of money, plus time away from family and work – so pragmatically, there has to be definable value for me to go. Nonetheless, I do feel a primal, instinctive tug inside to make this migration along with the rest of the techno-herd.

My inaugural attendance was in ’08, and it was a fascinating, non-stop, overwhelming attention fest. I recall just getting settled into one event only to by tugged to the next by a group of friends. It was an exhilarating, if not exhausting – all consuming dynamic. I expect this year to be no different, magnified by the success and growth of the event itself – growth and success that are beginning to put stressors on the value of SXSW. Could SXSW ultimately collapse under the weight of its own success? Some notable detractors are suggesting it could.

The selection approach for the talks is all about popularity, and there is no obvious thematic control, and no MC, so the sessions are very uneven. Some can be great, but the majority are a rewarming of shopworn topics. The most popular talks are too crowded to admit all those that want in, so you’re lucky if you get into one in five of those.

– Stowe Boyd

Still, while I understand those criticisms, my thirst for personal and professional growth compels me to go. My means and time to attend events like this throughout the year are pretty limited and I admit a bit of envy toward folks I know who seem to be serial conference attendees. I don’t get paid to attend or speak at conferences and it’s not part of my job to be at these things. But I hunger for challenge, knowledge and the “contagion of optimism” that come from surrounding yourself with smart, driven people. I think many of these group events can expose us to new ideas and technologies, make us smarter, and invigorate our inner entrepreneurs.

Why Go to SXSW?

The crystalizing, defining moment of that experience for me is still very fresh in my mind. It’s SXSW ’08.  I’m in a minivan with the social media folks of Dell, along with Shel Israel, on our way to Salt Lick as we drive past Jeff Jarvis on our way out of town. Here were the Davids and Goliaths of “Dell Hell” and it’s fruit – this nascent, un-corraled social CRM. It was a little surreal at the time, but it kind of put a fine point on what was – and still is – happening to how institutions and us regular folk talk with one another.

Since then, web communication technology has become increasingly fast and mobile, and has transformed power structures around the world. Turn on the news if you’re not exactly sure what I’m talking about. The people who developed these technologies will be remembered and written about the same way history pays tribute to people like David Sarnoff, Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell, and Philo T. Farnsworth.

These modern-day communications pioneers will be walking the streets of Austin in a couple of weeks, along with the financial and promotional infrastructure that supports them. That’s where I want to be, that’s who I want to meet, that’s what I want to be a part of. The contact high alone will be worth the time, energy and money to get there. As Jeff Jarvis once said of attending South by Southwest Interactive, one goes there to “touch the zeitgeist”. (provided there are no municipal laws against such touching)


C.C., me and Rocky

C.C., me and Rocky – photo by Adele McAlear

Along the way, I’ve come to know some of the finest rogues, ne’r-do-wells, and upstarts to grace these here interwebs. The list is too long and you know who you are. I love you all and can’t wait to see you in Austin! Like me, you’ve been pushing rocks up mountains, whether at your work, or just shouting from the mountain top – trying to bring the horses of old thinking to the water of new media. You have taught me much and have always inspired me.

Connecting with friends old and new is the priceless part of SXSW. In fact, it’s really the best.  We all “see” each other every day on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs – but connecting in person and sharing real face to face conversation is energizing and joyous.  Getting past this screen is important.  I was reminded of this by refreshingly forthright PR/Commuications pro Jeremy Pepper.  In response to my Facebook query  “What is your main conference focus this year?”, his response:

there’s supposed to be this new thing about talking to people IN REAL LIFE to create real relationships. I think it’s vaporware, though. we get so caught up in tech, that we forget the realworld relationships that are made in public.

Jeremy Pepper – via Facebook

Making the Most of SXSW

Scoble grabbed Jim
another fine SXSW ’08 photo by Becky McCray
While I don’t have a specific, strategic plan of who to meet, and where to be during my four days there, I did outline some broad reasons of why I’m determined to be there this year.

  • to meet people who have pioneered entirely new ways of creating and sharing information
  • to be challenged by people smarter than me and to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of seeing things
  • to be part of something bigger than me
  • to be with the objects in motion, not the objects at rest

I’ll be relying on the serendipity of the experience to guide me to these goals.  In fact, in many respects, SXSW is very much like your Twitter stream.  It moves by very quickly and you have to pay attention, and have your wits about you to find those interstitial moments that are pure gold.

As a practical matter, conference goers should have a good logistics/survival plan in place.  I found this great one via the serendipity of Twitter, courtesy of Dave Delaney.

Special Thanks

I want to send big shout outs to the folks at Chinwag, Airbnb and Zipcar.  Fran at Chinwag helped me score a discounted interactive pass.  Airbnb is a phenomenal site for finding short term housing rentals all over the world.  Their system is built on reputation and trust, and their payment system helps ensure that everybody in the process wins.  They helped me find a great place to stay when all of the hotels were booked solid.  Finally Zipcar has been tremendously helpful in getting my account set up.

Chris Brogan Mobile

Chris Brogan Mobile

I’ve got my Zipcard and was able (surprisingly at this late stage) to book a cool little car named “Brogan” Apparently Zipcar names their cars. Who knew?  I told my friend Chris Brogan, it was my homage to his SXSW spirit.  Finally, a HUGE shout out to WordPress core developer Andrew Nacin, who upgraded my server to php5 last night so, I could run a SWEET install of WordPress 3.1, and get this post out. :)

That’s my plan for SXSW ’11. What do you hope to achieve there? Who would you most like to meet? Are you a session or hallway person? Just there to party?? (not that there’s anything wrong with that) Bankrolling the trip yourself or on the company dime? Will this be your last SXSW? Do I need to buy ironic hipster clothes for this conference? These are all things I want to know! Please leave comments below.

  • http://www.enterdialogue.com Tyson Goodridge

    Jim- I can’t wait to go back and see you- can we set up a a time for coffee- or something stronger? I’m there from 9th-16th…

    I’m bankrolling the trip on the company (mine!) dime..
    I’m there to network with you and other hip people and angle for an invite to Camp David…

    • newmediajim

      I’ll work on that Camp David invite. 😉 Can’t wait to see ya!

  • http://www.cc-chapman.com/ C.C. Chapman

    Cant wait to see you in Austin. I still have fond memories of you, Julien and I grabbing breakfast last time.

    • newmediajim

      Me too! And I love that pic of you me and CC. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of good breakfast, lunch and dinner this time too bro! :)

  • http://www.davemadethat.com Dave Delaney

    Jim, you’ve collected a lot of great thoughts on attending SXSW. You’re making me regret not being able to go even more this year. :(

    To me SXSW is like summer camp, and like a child, I am sulking about not going. However, I know I’ll be back next year.

    Putting together the 20 Tips (thanks for sharing it) helped me to remember all of the best things about the conference. Flipping through our photos from previous years on Flickr brought back a lot of great memories.

    I know you’ll have fun this year. I know it will be bigger and more chaotic than ever before. The secret is in the small groups, like what you mentioned in your post. My highlights have always included the small breakfast, lunch and dinners with my old and new friends.

    I’ll miss that most.

    Have a blast!

    • newmediajim

      Dave, I understand just how you feel. This is the first time I’ve been since 2008. I found that it’s not that bad sitting them out. Even though ’08 was my first one, I’ve always felt a part of, and an affinity with ones I haven’t attended. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and blog posts have kept me well up to date.

      • http://www.davemadethat.com Dave Delaney

        Indeed. I hope our paths cross again one of these days.

        Have fun!

  • http://otherthanthat.com cathybrooks

    A splendid overview … now are you going to reply to my DM’s or what? (I love that I’m resorting to commenting on your blog post to guilt you to do so ).

    • newmediajim

      I just RSVP’d YES!! XOXOXOX can’t wait to see you!

  • http://twitter.com/carmenhill Carmen Hill

    I feel sure that “touching the zeitgeist” is not only legal but encouraged in Austin! Looking forward to doing just that!

    • newmediajim

      Looking forward to seeing you down there Carmen! :)

  • docudramaqueen

    After reading this well thought out and articulate description of SXSW, my plan is to attend next year!

    • newmediajim

      There is still time to make plans for this year producer lady!! You
      should do Interactive AND film.

  • http://twitter.com/alanweinkrantz Alan Weinkrantz

    1. I am there to connect with friends I know and meet new people I follow and want to meet them in person.

    2. I am going to be working with Jeff Pulver for the #140Conf Events where we’ll have a booth. It will be for our community members and to reach out to raise awareness of our unique events.

    3. I am more of a hallway person, but plan on attending some of the seminars.

    4. Hardly my last SXSW. It’s always the first because we just reinvent and re-energize ourselves there.

    5. Some of this I pay for. Some is sponsored. Regardless of how things are paid for it’s a great way to invest in yourself.

    6. Go casual. Wear a compelling T-shirt or comfy shirt daily. Drink water. Wear comfy shoes.

    7. Leave things open to discovery and chance.

    • newmediajim

      Alan, I especially liked #5 and #7 :)

      • http://twitter.com/alanweinkrantz Alan Weinkrantz

        OH- and I forgot:

        1. Connecting with friends coming from Israel.
        2. Looking to meet others from around the world- outside of the US who are doing amazing things we can learn from.
        3. Being part of the #140Conf event that is part of SXSW.
        4. Working the trade show that overlaps the music part.

  • Anonymous

    First, thank you so much for using my photos! I take that as a huge compliment.

    Second, I have similar great memories from 2008, including going to lunch with you and a small group. I’m feeling far more overwhelmed this year, so I’m considering carefully how to make the most of the craziness. I think I need to build in more relaxed time!

    • newmediajim

      Becky!! Well they are great photos and great memories. How could I
      not? :) It is looking a little crazy this year. In fact,
      breakfast/lunch/dinner/party invitations are beginning to outstrip my
      ability to attend sessions.

  • http://thesocialjoint.com/ Lucretia M Pruitt

    Oh good! I’ll finally get to see you there! :)

    • newmediajim

      Yay!! can’t wait! I get in on the 12th

  • http://twitter.com/TallyCast TallyCast

    Having been a member of many virtual workgroups over the years (I’m an old guy), I know that getting the team together for a f2f party makes the online/teleconference part work a whole lot better. Smart organizations know this and plan/budget for it.

    So I’m looking forward to meeting a couple of virtual friends in person for the first time and making a few new ones. I also found what promises to be a sweet home-away via AirBnB.com. Now my only decision is whether I should bring my own folding bike in a suitcase or use the one my hosts have offered.

    • newmediajim

      Thanks for stopping by Dave! I say use the one the hosts have offered! I’m actually getting a Zipcar and managed to land housing just a few blocks from the action!

      Hope our paths cross down there.

  • http://twitter.com/Lee_newmedia Lee Westell

    Loved this post! And while I can’t make it to SXSW this year, I totally get what you say about wanting to be part of something “that’s bigger than me”. I feel that often
    at social media events – big ones and small ones. Such a wonderful community of people! Have fun and tweet often to keep us updated back in DC.

    • newmediajim

      Wish you could make it Lee! Glad you stopped by here :)

  • http://pop-pr.blogspot.com Jeremy Pepper

    Thanks for the shout-out. And loved the dialogue we had going about indentured servitude disguised as journalism yesterday.

    Ironically, I’ve never been to SXSWi and I am stubbornly fighting about ever going (I wrote it up here: http://pop-pr.blogspot.com/2010/03/i-dont-do-sxswi.html) but the value of face-to-face is huge. It’s why I’m a constant at BlogHer.

    Have a good time, and eat some red meat for me (no pork, just beef)!

    • newmediajim

      i liked your post. I linked to it topside. for me? beef yes, booze no. a party or two for sure, but what type of connection can you make shouting over thumping house music? I’ve never been to BlogHer, but I’ve heard great things.

      • http://pop-pr.blogspot.com Jeremy Pepper

        You have to come out for BlogHer. Amazing content and panels, hardcore attendees and this year should top 3000 attendees in San Diego.

        As for Samsung, I fear I offended Esteban so I didn’t go back to say “dude, you’re paying them to sponsor the party and everyone is tweeting @ … with a dead account with no information. Issue.” I made a recommendation to a company that if they wanted people to blog for them there, to give a $1000 stipend for the work, and lay out a schedule. It covers some of the costs, at least.

        Que sera sera. I’m just getting old, I think.

    • newmediajim

      I’m sure the Samsung folk will find some eager young sap to pay their way to get there and work for free and do a perfectly adequate job.

      oh and by the way Jeremy, look how BMW is prepared to compensate their blogger-in-chief. http://www.wheels.ca/article/asset/794171

      Hell, I’d sign up for that!

  • http://www.adelemcalear.com adelemcalear

    I can’t wait to see all the people I rarely get to see in person, though I talk to frequently online – like you and Becky and CC and Lucretia (who I’ll also meet for the first time this year.)

    I’m on a panel, so I have to be there! And, because of my special research on digital legacy, I’ve attracted some sponsors who are helping to offset the cost of the event for me. In exchange, I must attend sessions pertinent to that research. So, I can’t just let the wind take me as I did in 2008.

    I noticed in 2010 that the vibe of the event had changed considerably from 2008 when we first attended. I was quite surprise at how drastically it had changed. Still, I can’t think of a better way to geek ‘n’ schmooze :)

    (And, just a finer point – I took that shot of you, CC and Rocky at the 16 Bit party. The original, non-colour-corrected version is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcalearmarketing/2332526824/in/set-72157604111662000/ Thanks for including it, I’m glad it’s one of your favourites.)

    • newmediajim

      crap! i’m sorry Adele! i’m going to go caption that now. I downloaded it AGES ago and as you can see I did a little photoshop to bring up the levels a bit :)

      Sorry for not giving due credit. Fixing that now! See you in Austin.

      • http://www.adelemcalear.com adelemcalear

        LOL – no worries Jim. Considering your profession, I know that you are a stickler for photo credits. :)

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  • http://twitter.com/retheauditors Francine McKenna

    Great to meet you in person last Sunday, Jim! Where’s that photo of us that Adele took? Until we’re together again in DC…


  • John Hanlon

    What are your thoughts on TWiT and other companies pulling out? Hasn’t it turned into a lot of partying? I’ve never been there but that’s what I’ve heard. 

  • Kevin

    Great article. Would love to hear more about your relationship approach with meeting the people you want to meet. This is my first year and I’m going to try and meet some more people in the field along with promoting the Stop Awkward Dating campaign. Would love to get some advice on how to best focus some of these goals

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