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.
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.
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.