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SXSW 2012: Rain, Crowds and the Banality of the Popular

After spending much of this year on campaign-related travel to cold regions, I was really looking forward to heading to Austin for SXSW 2012 this week.

I’m working on a long-tail story about Texas culture and politics so I arrived at the SXSW: 2012 interactive festival a few days early. The prospect of spending a few days reconnecting with my tribe of tech nerds in a warm climate was exciting.

Then came the rain, in poured the people and out went all the intimacy and tribal reconnection I craved.

People typically conduct business at SXSW at taco stands and in the back of petty cabs. No one wears a tie and no one brings a rain coat.

Now, I’ve attended several previous SXSW Interactive conferences and thought I knew what to expect: big announcements, a hot app or two, jovial crowds, and meetings over whiskey at the Hilton bar. I wasn’t expecting the deluge of rain, people, and unimpressive tech.

This year, like each preceding year, had its share of legitimate talked-about trends: the forced hype and hyperbole of Highlight, an app no one used, Vic Gundotra’s silly speech, the notion of humans as hotspots and the wildfire Mashable-and-CNN-sitting-in-a-tree rumors.

But the most apparent narrative of SXSW 2012 had nothing to do with the trends of technology and everything to do with the conference itself.  The sense of innovative excitement that once crackled with inevitability this year felt routine and institutionalized. The predictable banality and large size of SXSW became the story. It was navel-gazing at its finest.

Too much rain, too many people, not enough real action, says our Dan Patterson.

Last year, the buzzphrase, “jump the shark” was all over the show. This year, it was more like: “Let’s  ditch the sessions and catch a film.”

What we’re talking about here is about what happens when something cool becomes over-exposed. Banality at scale reduced the value proposition every time. Take SXSW. Geeks and nerds show up at  for a lot of reasons: the ideas, the business and the human connection. As the jackass-to-human ratio grows, the reduction of the conference’s value proposition does, too.

And that’s okay. Over the past decade, tech culture has gone mainstream into pop culture. The size and influence of the SXSW Interactive conference has grown in concert with the popularity of tech culture. This year that change was painfully evident in Austin.

Longer lines, more marketeers, boozy pitches and higher prices for the same old “Future of Geotagged Social Snack Check-In” panels are kind of depressing. It’s like a band selling out. It always happens. Everyone’s favorite band grows up, sells out, turns its hits into ad jingles and moves on. It’s an unavoidable reality of pop culture consumption.

Now that SXSW is popular culture, the commoditization of what once felt like a powerful and unique experience is just how it is. We should’ve seen it coming.

The 2001 Frontline documentary The Merchants Of Cool notes that savvy marketers seek not what people think is cool — but, rather, who are cool people and what are they doing. That’s the problem here.

Big doesn’t correlate with bad, of course. And no one is begrudging SXSW its success. It’s flattery. The enormous size of SXSW has served as a wonderful validation of not just our medium, but also our culture in general.

The wet hordes of SXSW 2012 goers on opening day. Photo: Dan Patterson

On the final day of SXSW, the rain relented, warm sunshine burned away the fog and true geeks mingled finally mingled over music on its famous Sixth Street.

Bottom line. SXSW still makes sense to attend if you’re just curious, never been then or are a journalist looking for cultural curiosities. For startups looking for buzz, it’s probably too big a venue now to generate any. As for true geeks — geeks who’ve invented something in a virtual garage or a local coffee shop — stop short and do the math before booking a ticket.

Be honest. Is a weekend of semi-sober chattering at some hotel bar really more valuable than the time you’d spend perfecting your product? I’d say no.

Consider your options – and the culture – carefully. And bring a raincoat.

  • http://antpruitt.wordpress.com Ant Pruitt

    With SXSW, is it as grueling to attend as CES? I’ve never been to either one, but as a fan of technologist, i hear technologist agonize about how much energy is spent at CES. They all want to go there, but yet they always mention how “whooped” they get from covering it.

    Is SXSW now like that?

    -RAP, II

  • http://danpatterson.com Dan Patterson

    I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘grueling’ to describe, SXSW. It’s mostly a test of patience and social skills. And ability to consume water while feigning liquor. So yeah, maybe it’s akin to CES… ;)

  • Ruth

    Great article! Would like to see more of Mr. Patterson in the future.

  • Dino Londis

    Dan, how does SXSW fit into the Texas culture and politics? Is it like the circus rolling into and out of town, or is there a lot of innovation in the state?

  • http://danpatterson.com Dan Patterson

    @Dino Good question, though I’m not sure I have the answer. SXSW certainly does roll in to and leaves town with bluster. The locals I’ve spent time with seem to enjoy it, though with some distance. I think SXSW fits in well with Austin culture and I think it’s a wonderful oddity of Texas culture. Just my #twocents.

  • http://greghollingsworth.org Greg Hollingsworth

    Sounds like most conferences I’ve been two. The more repeat visits, the higher the level of redundancy. Maybe you’ve just outgrown SXSW.

    I recall my second trip to PubCon in Vegas feeling much the same. I’d really only want to be there for the Music/Film anyways.

  • Madison Andrews

    Great article! I felt the same way at the only event I was able to attend — Frog and Microsoft’s opening clambake. I’m new to the world of tech events, so I wasn’t sure how to characterize the experience in context. The open bar assuaged my disappointment somewhat.

  • http://newhaberdasher.com W. Doc Stodden

    Ahoy there, Danielsan.

    As a thunderstorm comes in and hoping my internet stays connected long enough for me to post this.

    Good post. I’ll reserve other comments for off line, but a small early revision has to do with a feeling that something has been taken away from you by people who don’t appreciate it and will probably break it.

    MAN That lightning hit so close that the thunder rattled my dishes! It’s hitting all around here. I’m going to log off.

    Good Luck.

    Doc

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