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
SXSW Interactive is, in a way, one big conflicted mishmash of openness and exclusivity. In this context technology, both hardware and software, is about enabling communication for worldwide social networks and individuals alike. Share your location with 50 million others, but keep your password to yourself.
There are the panels about privacy and anonymity, and there are ones about transparency and universality. There are parties hosted by companies eager for attention, where you can drop in, uninvited and rolling 10 deep — and those other parties that you’re probably not getting into, no matter what the affiliation dangling from your neck may say. There are the BBQ joints within walking distance for any curious and hungry attendee, and there are those taco spots on the outskirts of Austin, inaccessible to anyone without a car and a local friend willing to share these secret gems. As it turns out, there is pretty decent free Wi-Fi around the convention center that is open to all. But then there is that locked, much better Wi-Fi presumably available to whomever SXSW deems a VIP. At the end of the day, everybody is welcome to sit, stand, listen, eat and drink, talk or dance at least somewhere within the city limits. A small subset were able to do some or all of these things with a much more curated, if you will, pool of attendees. — Andrew Kueneman