The only other time I’ve been to SXSW Interactive was in 2001. That was soon after the collapse of the first Internet boom. One panel was called “Internet Industry Trends 2001: Is Anyone Making Money?”
I wasn’t there to find out the answer to that question. I was there because I had become fascinated with blogs and the other new forms of what we now call social media. It was not yet clear that this stuff would yield much in the way of money. But it was already clear that it was quite powerful, at least for the crew of early-adopter bloggers I met at the conference. Many were there just to meet one another, to peer shyly at others’ badges in hopes of putting faces to personal blog names, since posting lots of photos of yourself online had not yet become something everyone does. Then they would drink beer and talk about this weird thing they were helping to invent, just for the love of it.
The other night in Austin, at a party that a start-up had spent a lot of money on, I ran into Anil Dash, who was also there in 2001. He said comparing the conference then and now was like comparing the original McDonald’s restaurant to what the McDonald’s Corporation has become — they’re entirely different beasts. There’s some truth to that. A night out at the conference now involves parties thrown by brands and sponsored by other brands, where marketers for entirely different brands will approach you so they can tell you about their social media management solutions. And it is easy to get cynical about the social stuff now that we know it’s a great way to get people to cough up valuable demographic data.
But for me the fascination is still there, and I get the feeling that there are still plenty of people in tech who are excited about the weird things they are inventing, just for the love of it. If I go back to Austin next year, I’m going to make it a point to spend more time with them. — David Gallagher
Photo by Jenna Wortham