Pilgrimage to Geek Spring Break
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)
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
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.
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.
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.